When it comes to collecting and exhibiting works of art and culture, not enough gets said about private associations. Beyond the public museum and the commercial gallery, these associations can reach beyond careerism and capitalism to involve that great savior of the arts: the consummate amateur. The Grolier Club, with its clubhouse on East Sixtieth Street, deserves special mention for its role in preserving and perpetuating the culture of books and works on paper. Founded in 1884 and named after the Renaissance collector Jean Grolier, the club is one of those great examples of American nineteenth-century cultural efflorescence. The latter half of the nineteenth century was the time, after all, when even a meeting of the art committee of a private club—in one famous case, the Union League—could lead to the formation of what became the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Grolier Club continues today as a small but important association of bibliophiles—a “fellowship of men and women devoted to books and the graphic arts,” according to its literature, where membership is by nomination. With a mission to “foster the study, collecting, and appreciation of books and works on paper, their art, history, production, and commerce,” the club maintains its own library and a robust series of exhibitions that are free and open to the public. Stepping into its diminutive clubhouse, now overshadowed by the encroachment of supertall midtown, one is reminded of how special this enduring association remains.
Influenced by Japanese woodcuts, the pre-Raphaelites, and the decadent and dark arts of French Symbolism, Beardsley defined the look of the 1890s with a signature style that was haunting and spare.
Now on view in the club’s second-floor gallery, “Aubrey Beardsley: 150 Years Young” is the latest example of the serious delights to be found here.1 The exhibition brings together some seventy examples of the English illustrator’s sensuous and strange work, including letters, drawings, posters, books, and periodicals. Beardsley experienced a brief but astonishing career in the final years of the nineteenth century before succumbing to tuberculosis in 1898 at the mere age of twenty-five. During his brief life, he illustrated for The Bodley Head publishing firm and J. M. Dent, among others, and most famously gave vision to the Salome of Oscar Wilde, his sometime rival as the leading dandy of the Aesthetic movement. Influenced by Japanese woodcuts, the pre-Raphaelites, and the decadent and dark arts of French Symbolism, Beardsley defined the look of the 1890s with a signature style that was haunting and spare. His use of the serpentine black line cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s.
Mark Samuels Lasner is the Grolier Club member who has brought together this collection, which is now part of the University of Delaware Library, and presented it here for display. The gathering is all the more remarkable when you learn that Lasner is legally blind—although, according to the club’s literature, he has “never ceased being witty, determined, and sometimes naughty.” Such qualities might equally apply to Beardsley himself. To describe him as sometimes naughty would be an understatement. In grammar school, when he was not caricaturing his teachers, he was illustrating his own version of the Aeneid. One early drawing here, Venus Appeareth to Aeneas, features a giant hausfrau towering over our elven hero.
Beardsley was the adolescent doodler who made it big. In his brief life he remained that schoolboy who just managed to avoid Saturday detention—even as he was implicated in the panic surrounding the arrest of Wilde for gross indecency in 1895. Curated by Lasner and his partner Margaret D. Stetz, a women’s studies professor at the University of Delaware, the exhibition tries a little too hard to align the naughty prankster with modern-day gender politics. I am not certain, for example, that Beardsley’s portrait of Max Beerbohm in fact resembles “a fetus . . . and a grotesquely large penis with a face.” Is that top-hatted figure from 1893, while certainly “grotesque,” indeed an “aggressively genre-bending figure, with its phallic shape and pregnant belly giving birth in two directions at once”? When it comes to The Toilet of Salome, and its “standing fetus wrapped in a hanky,” one can only squint. For all of his visual powers, Beardsley could be most interesting in what he leaves unseen—just as certain curatorial notions are sometimes better left unsaid.
The curator Barbara Haskell has worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art since 1975. She has become such an institution there that her latest show is supported by the “Barbara Haskell American Fellows Legacy Fund.” This is a legacy well worth funding, since Haskell’s record of exhibitions is one of the reasons we continue to appreciate the first generation of American modernists, including Marsden Hartley, Milton Avery, Elie Nadelman, Oscar Bluemner, and Stuart Davis, among others. Her shows of these artists have been so well received, and the Whitney’s collection of their work now seems so solid, that it is hard to believe the museum did not always focus on them. And yet, originating out of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Studio Club in 1930, the museum for its first half-century largely focused on American realism at the expense of American modernism and abstraction.
A sampling of sixty of these modernist works by forty-eight artists, now on view in “At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism,” might help explain the original discrepancy.2 Just compare this show to the exhibition of Whitney collection highlights on display one floor below. Against the confident realism of such painters as Thomas Hart Benton, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, Horace Pippin, Andrew Wyeth, and Edward Hopper, the modernists upstairs come off as an odd and uncertain lot. The 1913 Armory Show, which exposed many Americans for the first time to European modernism, helped encourage several of them to turn to abstraction and experimental form. But the early results of this shock to the system could be uneven, crass, and sometimes even embarrassing.
Haskell makes the case that Americans could borrow and rearrange European modernist style with a sense of exuberance and joy. In hindsight, we might also say they did not always know what they were doing with it. The halting amateurishness of early American modernism can be both its greatest detriment and its signature virtue. These artists had the freedom to make mistakes.
At first glance, Ahmi in Egypt (1931), a painting by Agnes Pelton as though lifted from the astral plane, might seem best left under wraps. Its garish symbolism is not that far off from Hartley’s Forms Abstracted of 1914, exhibited nearby. Both overdo it. Bluemner’s Space Motive, a New Jersey Valley (1913–14) similarly overindulges in color and light. (Late in life, Bluemner even called himself the “vermillionaire.”)
This exhibition brings together recent acquisitions as well as work from the collection that has long been relegated to storage. New acquisitions on view include woodcuts by Aaron Douglas, linocuts by Isami Doi, a landscape by Chiura Obata, an abstract oil by Henrietta Shore, a photographic still life by Taizo Kato, symbolist drawings and paintings by Adele Watson, and a haunting watercolor by Marguerite Zorach.
Institutions these days make much of correcting the “bias” of past practices. This current exhibition presents itself as a corrective for the marginalized and the overlooked. Nevertheless, the Whitney’s own record of collecting is more complex than such an interpretation might lead us to believe. The Congalais portrait head here of 1931, by the black artist Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, entered the collection a year after its creation. Richmond Barthé’s African Dancer of 1933 was purchased by the museum that very same year. When it came to modernist painting, Bluemner’s Old Canal Port of 1914 was a gift made by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1931. Compared to the collection highlights a floor below, some of the objects in “At the Dawn of a New Age” are simply second-rate. They are works reflective of their times but little more. To relegate them back to storage is not an example of bias. It is rather a necessary reflection of the judgment of art.
Two exhibitions recently on view explore the power of the stripe in very different ways. In the lobby gallery of 499 Park Avenue, Kim Uchiyama looks to the “heat and shadow” of landscape in its most abstracted forms.3 Curated by Jay Grimm, and with a catalogue essay by Lilly Wei, the exhibition presents seven new large paintings that were all inspired by the temple ruins of Sicily’s Magna Graecia. Taking in the light and forms of temples in Selinunte and Agrigento, among other sites, Uchiyama applies horizontal bands of color that can feel like illuminated stone, the Mediterranean Sea, and the bright sky above. In five of the works, on linen, Uchiyama lets the raw form of the textile show through between her bands of color. These airy compositions contrast with the two oils on canvas, where space seems more compressed. Compared to the light, and lift, of the linens, the darker canvases recall the shadows of Sicily.
For all of the depth we might see in the horizontal line, the vertical line has a very different effect. Like the iron bars of a jail, the vertical line interrupts, obstructs, and even confuses. In her optical experiments in saturated color and form, Gabriele Evertz has made the most of this confusion. Her paintings of complementary vertical arrangements can be dazzling, and dizzying, in the ways they disorient the viewer. Now at Minus Space, her latest exhibition, called “Path,” looks to a different way forward.4
Against the all-over abstraction of her compositions, Evertz here gives us a new focus. The uplifting results certainly seem like the path ahead.
The large acrylics on canvas in this series, which started during the pandemic, look away from the bright luminosities of prior work to more reserved color-rich arrangements. The results are tranquil, meditative, and calming rather than explosive. This is not to say that the colors are now inert. Even in Path (2022), the signature painting of the show, the reds, blues, and blacks dissolve into one another. And yet, as if a curtain has been pulled back on the right, a new light comes forward. Against the all-over abstraction of her compositions, Evertz here gives us a new focus. The uplifting results certainly seem like the path ahead.
That the painter John Bradford reveres the history of art there can be little doubt. His exhibition at Anna Zorina Gallery last month depicted great art and great artists at their moments of creation and recognition.5 His vignettes show these scenes through windows of oiled glass. Bradford builds up substantial accretions of paint that look like abstractions up close but come into focus the farther back you stand. He well understands the alchemy of oil in tuning us into these magical scenes, whether it be Braque in his Studio (2022), A Stubbs in a Gallery (2022), or Cézanne in the Louvre (2021). Especially interesting here were Bradford’s interpretations of the great works of art depicted therein. His small Renoirs were shimmering, while his Renoir Nude (2022) might just be better than the real thing. At the far end of the exhibition, In Praise of Selling Art (2021), a large, sun-dappled work depicting a room of paintings arranged salon-style, brought it all together in one tour de force. Beyond just the love of paint, this exhibition captured a love of painters, and paintings, and painting them, all together.
- “Aubrey Beardsley, 150 Years Young” opened at The Grolier Club, New York, on September 8 and remains on view through November 12, 2022.
- “At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism” opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, on May 7, 2022, and remains on view through February 26, 2023.
- “Kim Uchiyama: Heat and Shadow” opened at The Lobby Gallery of 499 Park Avenue, New York, on September 21, 2022, and remains on view through February 20, 2023.
- “Gabriele Evertz: Path” opened at Minus Space, Brooklyn, on September 10 and remains on view through November 19, 2022.
- “John Bradford: For the Love of Paint” was on view at Anna Zorina Gallery, New York, from September 6 through October 15, 2022.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 3, on page 44
Copyright © 2022 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com