Monthly Archives: March 2017

The arts monster

It’s hard to look with fresh eyes at the most loutish artist of the 19th century, whose lush, hypersaturated paintings of Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands reflect not just gross personal conduct but imperial inequities, too. More than three decades of scholarship, especially by feminist art historians and specialists in Oceanic art, have done essential work to crack the myths that Gauguin spun about himself and that stuck to his art for most of the last century.

So the principal feat of “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist,” a resounding, rollickingly diverse exhibition that opened in June and runs for another month at the Art Institute of Chicago, is that it gives us an unfamiliar Gauguin, rethought and reassessed on better terms than genius versus monster. It does so by taking a much broader view of his art, and putting his Polynesian years in partial shadow. Much more than the 2010-11 retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and Tate Modern in London, this show understands Gauguin’s sojourns in French Polynesia as just a few stops — and maybe not the most important stops — of a decades-long quest for unknown places, unknown styles, unknown images.

It looks not just past Polynesia but past painting, too. Most of the highlights of this show’s nearly 250 works are ceramics, carved wood objects and other crafts, often arrayed in round glass cases that permit awed circumambulation. This Gauguin is a frenzied multimedia experimenter whose deepest need was not a mythic purity in the South Seas but an artistic language no one had yet spoken. (The show has been curated by Gloria Groom, the Art Institute’s chairwoman of European painting and sculpture, and travels to the Grand Palais in Paris in October.)

He never trained as an artist. Gauguin was born in 1848, spent his early years in Peru and enlisted in the French merchant marine while still a teenager. From age 17 to 23 he was on the seas, and he probably picked up from fellow sailors the practice of whittling flotsam into small wood figurines. We see him here in a drawing by Camille Pissarro, chiseling a piece of laurel into a 9½-inch sculpture of a woman promenading. In the same case is the statuette itself; the ruches of her dress are rendered via deep, uneven gashes, an early taste of his assumed savagery.

 The statuette was in the 1881 exhibition of the Impressionists, a group that Gauguin wheedled his way into as a collector. At first he was only an amateur artist, holding onto a day job as a stockbroker’s assistant. Yet by 1885 his commitment to art was so total that he had abandoned his family in Denmark and returned to Paris alone. His painting, initially under the influence of Pissarro and other Impressionists, grew bolder and more flamboyant, but he found even greater freedom in objects. He carved a pear-wood sarcophagus, incised with Degas-vintage ballerinas and laughing faces borrowed from Japanese netsuke. He also learned the rudiments of ceramics and started crafting vases, bowls and other containers. Sometimes these were functional, more often they were just decorative, but almost always they were grotesque. Ceramics also started to appear in the paintings, as you can see in this show’s cogent pairings: a still life of oranges in a stoneware bowl, painted in 1888, hangs in front of the bowl itself, its handle gripped by a bathing girl.

Mon Dieu, these ceramics — or “monstrosities,” as he aptly called them. The vases and jugs are wobbly, asymmetric, gloriously uncouth. They hammer the distinction between sculpture and craft into powder. They also easily conflate European, Japanese, Southeast Asian and Mesoamerican motifs, which Gauguin would have studied/stolen from new photographic reproductions as well as colonial expositions. One stoneware vase is shaped like an askew tree stump, with a pair of women’s heads growing from its top. An astounding vase from 1887-88 depicts the Greek myth of Leda and the swan; Gauguin renders the scene around the vessel with a proto-Cubist multiplicity of perspectives, and crafts the vase’s handle out of the cob’s beak and neck. Of course, Leda’s encounter with the swan should properly be called a rape; sexual violence is everywhere in Gauguin’s art, and the ceramics as much as the paintings are imbued with sexual overtones. Several are signed “PGo,” a phonetic initialism that recalls sailors’ slang for a penis.

Ms. Groom, the curator, has done her best work in the first half of the show, which she has staged mostly in a single large gallery that allows for cunning juxtapositions. Gauguin’s ceramics and woodcarvings appear alongside related French, pre-Columbian and Oceanic objects; others sit by later works by the artist that translate the applied arts into paint. “Te Rerioa” (“The Dream”), one of the finest of Gauguin’s later Tahitian pictures, appears through a cutout wall behind a polychrome cabinet that employed similar colored passages a decade earlier. Bathers and Breton women appear grafted onto jugs and braziers, only to recur in similarly outlined form on paper or canvas. Again and again, the bold contours and patches of solid pigment that characterize Gauguin’s mature painting — a style sometimes called cloisonnism, after the jewelry and metalwork technique — appear first in stoneware and oak, and had no need of Polynesian daydreams.

This show therefore pushes the clock back on Gauguin, and maintains that it was in France, rather than the South Seas, where he made his most important breakthroughs. The radically bright fields of color and disappearance of depth that characterize Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings are already visible in his 1888 masterwork “Vision of the Sermon,” whose po-faced, white-capped Bretonnes watch Jacob wrestle with the angel on a field of solid, blazing red. “The Yellow Christ,” painted the next year, stages the Crucifixion on a hillside far more golden than any Breton landscape — a brilliant yellow that he would reuse in his equally illusory Tahitian painting “Parahi Te Marae” (“The Sacred Mountain”).

Thus, when he got to Papeete, in 1891, Gauguin had already spent years distancing himself from direct depiction of waking life. The fantasy world he constructed in his Polynesian paintings — where the French colonial regime was absent, and where young, dark-skinned women seem to do nothing but laze around in the nude — was only the next step in an abandonment of both faithful representation and Impressionist sense-memories.

The Art Institute’s show neither condemns nor excuses Gauguin’s behavior in the South Pacific, and mural-size blowups of French colonial photography make no bones about the regime that undergirded it all. It has only a few of Gauguin’s most important Tahitian pictures, including “Te Rerioa,” the Art Institute’s “Mahana No Atua” (“Day of the God”) and “Manao Tupapau” (“Spirit of the Dead Watching”), a violet-saturated odalisque depicting a 13-year-old girl euphemistically called Gauguin’s “mistress.” There are also some terrible later hot-colored nudes, little better than pinups. But in Gauguin’s Pacific phase, too, it’s the decorative arts, as well as woodblock prints sometimes carved on Polynesian wood, that reveal his unconstrained experiment and his readiness to seek stranger shores.

The influential graphic designer

Alan Peckolick, who overcame a failed art school career to emerge as a leading designer of some the world’s most distinctive logos, died on Aug. 3 in Danbury, Conn. He was 76.

The cause was brain damage sustained after a fall, his wife, Jessica Weber, said. He had Parkinson’s disease.

A protégé and partner of the influential graphic designer Herb Lubalin, whose acolytes also included the art director George Lois and the photographer Art Kane, Mr. Peckolick was a virtuoso man of letters.

His typography distinguished familiar logos, like GM’s (just the two initials underscored by a muscular solid bar), and the typefaces for company names, including Pfizer, Revlon and Mercedes-Benz, and institutions like New York University and the City College of New Yor

 A poster featuring blue block lettering and the word “free” in bright red announcing late-night museum openings in New York City, sponsored by Mobil, is in the permanent collection of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany.

“Basically, for me, if a word was a beautiful word, it wasn’t the sound of the word that intrigued me but the look of the word,” Mr. Peckolick (pronounced PECK-oh-lick) told The Huffington Post in 2015. “I saw each letterform as a piece of design. Cat is not ‘cat’ — it’s c-a-t. That’s what led to the beginning of the expressive topography.”

Seymour Chwast, a fellow designer and illustrator, said in an email that Mr. Peckolick “was totally dedicated to design, its history, its function and what it might offer in the future.”

Eventually fed up with being a rainmaker for the advertising agencies he worked for, diverting his creative his energies to courting clients, Mr. Peckolick took up painting. As an artist, he was captivated by weathered billboards and their faded evocations of a vanishing cityscape.

“Signage has been covered so often by photography that as a subject it is a commonplace,” Grace Glueck of The New York Times wrote in reviewing an exhibition of his work at a SoHo gallery in 2002, “but Mr. Peckolick, good at the colors and textures of erosion, nicely captures the sense of time past that gives these brief messages their nostalgic appeal.”

Alan Jay Peckolick was born on Oct. 3, 1940, in the Bronx to Charles Peckolick, a letter carrier (actual letters, not the kind his son would work with) and the former Belle Binenbaum.

“I never knew anything about design or graphics or any of those fancy words,” Mr. Peckolick recalled in 2015. “But I used to draw. I used to draw everything. When my mother used to send me out to get groceries, by the time I was back there were little drawings on the grocery bags.”

He graduated from Elmont Memorial High School on Long Island, just across the Queens border, after which, he said: “My mother put together a portfolio which was made of anything I drew on — handkerchiefs, scraps, whatever — and put it literally into a brown paper bag. She sent me out into the world to go to places like Cooper Union and the School of Visual Arts. Both schools, he said, “immediately saw there was no talent here, and they rejected me.”

Pratt Institute in Brooklyn accepted him, in the illustration department. But three months later, he was told to leave because his work was not improving. A schoolmate discovered him in a coffee shop, dejected

Mr. Peckolick graduated from Pratt in 1964 and opened his own office. In 1972 he joined Lubalin, Smith & Carnase (the firm later became Pushpin Lubalin Peckolick Associates). Through his mentor, Mr. Lubalin, Mr. Peckolick recalled, “I discovered other people like Saul Bass, Lou Dorfsman, George Lois — people who could think as well as design.”

A John Currin Painting

Despite Mr. Currin’s reputation for eroticism, his portrait of Ms. Lawrence is demure. She appears wearing a simple tan chemise and a Miu Miu patterned fur hat, holding a purple and green purse. “To be in a situation of producing a cover for this famous magazine, I’m a little scared,” Mr. Currin said in an interview. “I do worry about decorum.”

The other three covers will feature photographs of Ms. Lawrence, by Annie Leibovitz, Bruce Weber and the duo Inez and Vinoodh. This is the actress’s third appearance on Vogue’s cover. (She has also been on the cover of the British edition.)

The painting puts Mr. Currin’s many influences on full display. Ms. Lawrence is depicted in a Mannerist pose, unnatural but elegant. Perspective is minimized and a rococo palette competes with a hint of Dutch old master sobriety. The hat provides the element of the absurd that Mr. Currin is known for. And all of this is filtered through a pictorial style that evokes classic magazine illustrations from the 1930s and 1940s.

“One of the reasons I thought John would be good for the cover was that fashion was a huge influence on his work early on,” said Dodie Kazanjian, a contributing editor at Vogue who often writes about art.

Mr. Currin deviated from his normal method for the portrait of Ms. Lawrence. He doesn’t usually worry about likenesses, he said, unless he is painting his wife or children. But for the portrait of Ms. Lawrence, he had to be faithful to a very well known face. “It has to look like her,” he said.

While this is the first painted September cover, Vogue has a long history of commissioning artwork from contemporary artists.

Salvador Dalí contributed four covers showcasing his trademark style from the 1930s to the 1970s. Giorgio de Chirico created a slyly subversive coverfor the November 1935 issue that endowed a traditional fashion still life with a hint of Surrealist menace. Andy Warhol, a natural choice for a fashion magazine, created an image of Caroline of Monaco for the December 1983 issue of the French edition.

Mr. Currin said that the idea of “reciprocity” informed his decision to paint for Vogue. Early in his career he painted well known figures, including the actress Bea Arthur, and borrowed from fashion magazines to challenge himself. “It was a way to make conventional oil paintings that didn’t quite work in the right way,” he said. Painting a somewhat traditional portrait for a major fashion magazine was his way of approaching the same problem from the opposite direction.

The paintings will be interpreted in London

 The paintings will be interpreted by curators from museums in London, Amsterdam, Munich, Philadelphia and Tokyo, who will deliver a sequence of live 15-minute commentaries while standing with the works in the museums.

Ahead of the curatorial events, the museums will also use their own Facebook pages, starting on Thursday, to simulate the experience of viewing all five paintings in a gallery, allowing the audience to compare and examine them as if they were in a three-dimensional environment.

 Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” (1888), at the National Gallery in London.CreditNational Gallery, London

The virtual gallery will include narration by van Gogh’s great-grand-nephew, Willem van Gogh, who will share memories of the paintings, which were created in 1888-9 for a visit by the artist Paul Gauguin to van Gogh’s house in Arles, France.

The Facebook Live event is being led by the National Gallery in London, which in 2014 brought together its own version of “Sunflowers,” and that of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, for the first time in 65 years.

Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” (1888), at the Seiji Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Museum of Art, Tokyo.CreditSeiji Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Museum of Art, Tokyo

Jennifer Thompson, curator of the Facebook Live event at the Philadelphia Museum of Art — which houses the only version of “Sunflowers” in the United States — said she believed it was the first time that art museums in different countries had used social media to highlight works that are unlikely to be seen together in one physical space.

 “Sunflowers” (1889), from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.CreditVan Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

She said that the “Sunflower” paintings were among the public favorites at all the participating museums, and that the event was an opportunity to highlight van Gogh’s choice of color and texture and his love of nature.

Each curator will talk about a different aspect of the paintings, Ms. Thompson said. For example, she will focus on van Gogh’s repetition of subject, while her colleague from the Neue Pinakothek in Munich will talk about his use of color.

 “Sunflowers” (1888 or 1889), from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. CreditPhiladelphia Museum of Art

Ms. Thompson said she would distinguish the Philadelphia and Munich versions of the paintings — which both have turquoise backgrounds — from later versions in the other three museums, which have yellow backgrounds.

The Facebook Live event will begin with the London presentation, starting at 12:50 p.m. Eastern time, and conclude with that of the Tokyo curator (from the Seiji Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Museum of Art), starting at 2:10 p.m. Eastern time.