Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Paintings I Like, pt. 72

Top: James Rosenquist, The Swimmer in the Econo-mist (Painting 2), 1997. Oil on canvas, 138" x 48.' Bottom: Robert Ryman, Surface Veil II, 1970. Oil and blue chalk on canvas, 12' x 12."

This is a real odd couple, I know. But as I've said all along, the Paintings I Like series has no aspirations toward cohesion or grand narrative - the only hard rule is that I have to have seen the pictures live (not just in reproduction).

I recently found myself in the upper 80's by Central Park with a few hours to kill and did something I haven't done for years - went in to the Guggenheim. As I was circling the unbelievably stupid Maurizio Cattelan retrospective I quickly remembered why I'd sworn the place off. Awful building, motorcycles, Armani, Norman Rockwell, and now, soap-on-a-rope.

I was trying to think of a convincing reason to ask for my $18 back, but then I wandered in to some of the side galleries. Oh yes, I recalled, there was a time when you could go see art at this place, and they still had some pretty wonderful examples off to the sides.

A small exhibition called "Pop Icons" prominently featured the gigantic 48' Rosenquist pictured above, painted well after the Pop era. The conversation about Pop tends to be ruled by Warhol and Lichtenstein, but in my estimation Rosenquist is looking bigger and taller with each passing year. Like W. and L., he dealt with issues of beauty in banality and the banality of commercialism and commercial notions of beauty and any other combinations you might want to come up with. He added the big scale of advertising, not surprisingly, because he cut his teeth painting big scale ads in Time Square.

But for all his bright colors and big size, he brought a slyness and subtlty that I just don't find in Brillo boxes and comic book panels. In the Rosenquist, there's all kinds of painting stuff to enjoy as I slowly ingest whatever messages there are to be ingested about the nature of commercial imagery. And this sugar-coating is hardly besides the point, indeed, that's the way that real popular imagery works - the punchline with the latter being that you're supposed to buy something you don't need. Contrast this to the full-frontal didacticism of many Warhols and virtually all Lichtensteins.

Another special exhibition which was dedicated to monochromes included the Ryman pictured above (along with another from the same series). I have to say that Robert Ryman is an artist I find endlessly dull and never imagined including in P.IL. - I mean, I haven't gotten to Rembrandt or Vermeer yet. But I call 'em as I see 'em, and this picture kind of knocked me out. It was among the first Rymans I've encountered that was actually a painting as opposed to some kind of comment/critique/meditation on the subject.

It has a soft, atmospheric space, like a painterly version of Malevich' White on White and an exquisitely subtle framing element that gives it just enough structure and wholeness - it feels expansive and expanding, but at the same time complete within its boundaries. I consider Rothko to be the master of that last bit, but this Ryman can easily compete. I may be hard-headed and opinionated, but I really love it when a painting can change my opinion about a particular artist.

I also had a chance to catch up with some Cezanne and Manet pictures from the Guggenheim's permanent collection that I haven't seen since I stopped going. All in all, well worth $18 even if I had to corkscrew around hanging gardens of foolishness in order to see it.