Out of Bounds
Major galleries present artwork, old and new, that veers off course
The Connoisseur, Norman Rockwell, cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, January 13, 1962, private collection. This is one of the many paintings by various artists on exhibit as part of “Rockwell and Realism in an Abstract World,” from June 17 to October 29, 2016 at the Norman Rockwell Museum.
Across the region this summer, galleries are exhibiting works by artists who pushed the limits of their time. At the Clark Art Institute, Italian and Flemish painters explore the naked body during the ultra-conservative period of the Spanish Inquisition.
At the Bennington Museum, modernist Milton Avery’s landscapes in brilliant color were painted in the heyday of abstract expressionism.
At the Norman Rockwell Museum, realist painters insist on recognizable worlds at the height of Jackson Pollack’s popularity and color-field geometry.
And MASS MoCA has gathered artists willing to take on the idea of wonder in a contemporary art world often unwilling to address emotion.
In “Splendor, Myth, and Vision—Nudes from the Prado” opening June 11, 2016 the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, with the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, gathers sensuous paintings that survived through more than 200 years of the Inquisition and have never been seen in America. (Picture left: Lot and His Daughters, Francesco Furini, the Clark.)
The show is rooted in a paradox, says Lara Yeager-Crasselt, interim curator of paintings and sculpture at the Clark. “Philip II is staunchly Catholic,” she says. “He defends the Inquisition across the empire, morally supporting the church. There are revolts in the Netherlands he quells quickly. But within the palace walls—not within Spain or Madrid—as a monarch and the most powerful in Europe, possibly in the world, he collected these images of pagan goddesses, Old Testament scenes, and even saints.”
Philip II was tapping into a new artistic world: The nude form was an artist’s greatest expression of creativity. At the time, artists in Italy and the Netherlands were leading a movement to elevate painting from a craft to an art, to show their work as intellectually based.
The change happened much later in Spain, where, under the weight of the Inquisition, artists were more limited in what they were allowed to learn and express.
“Collecting art was a display of power [for Philip], of his ability to commission work from top artists of the day, to collect in vast amounts. There was pleasure in it,” says Yeager-Crasselt. “As a further paradox [to the Inquisition’s repressive culture], he loved nudes and erotic paintings. He was learned; he had a humanist education, and he spent time outside Madrid.”
But Philip could not show these paintings in public. They would have caused too much controversy. Well into the 19th century, they appeared only in private spaces—salas reservadas, reserved rooms that only select people could see.
“They were under threat,” Yeager-Crasselt says. “They were seen as lascivious and immoral, and only because of people like court painters were they saved.”
Just over the border in Vermont, the Bennington Museum will celebrate modernist painter Milton Avery, who went against the current all his life and is now considered among the best artists of his day. (Picture right: Blue Trees, Milton Avery, Bennington Museum.)
“He has been claimed as the greatest colorist in American art,” says curator Jamie Franklin, who often finds Avery compared to Matisse, although he finds Avery’s work less hard-edged and more lyrical. His paintings now sell for millions, yet in his lifetime Avery was not rich or well-known. In fact, his wife, artist Sally Michel, supported them both.
In “Milton Avery’s Vermont,” opening July 2, Franklin explores the artwork Avery produced during six summers spent in Jamaica, Vermont. Through this show, Franklin reveals how critical these periods in Vermont were.
“It’s the span of time in which he became the Milton Avery we know,” Franklin observes.
Avery never followed trends, such as the growing movement toward abstraction in the art world. And while Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, known for their geometries and masses of color, were two of his closest friends, Avery went his own way.
He thought in color. And Vermont also pushed his compositions, says Robert Wolterstorff, Bennington Museum’s executive director. Avery looked across the valley at the far hillside and saw the steep climbing landscapes of the river valley like a scrim on a stage.
“The landscape lends itself to flattening,” Franklin says. “Vermont informed the direction his work went in color and space. He was headed there, and Vermont helped him explore.”
Looking at the same divide, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge will explore “Rockwell and Realism in an Abstract World,” as 20th-century artists turn to story and structure after a century of creating free-form compositions. The exhibit runs from June 17 to October 29. (Pictured left: Olympic Runner, Summer Games, 1979, Rockwell Museum.)
Realism and abstraction were at odds in the art world for a good part of Rockwell’s career, says curator Stephanie Plunkett. Rockwell knew the rift well—in the U.S., a less naturalistic, more abstract aesthetic consistently relegated his work to a lesser place.
“With Rockwell, nothing interrupts the figures,” Plunkett says. “They’re what you’re looking at.” As the art world moved into Cubism, abstraction, and expressionism, she says “traditional painting that replicated the real world was seen as superfluous, unnecessary. In the mid-20th century artists are trying to break free.”
Illustrators responded by trying to make their work less narrative and more personal, she says. Then, late in the 20th century, some artists returned to realism, but with a twist. Their images became less storytelling than social commentary, as in Andy Warhol’s celebrity portraits.
“There has always been an interest in representation,” Plunkett says. “The question is how it is used now? When you have every possible way to copy what’s in the real world, will you bring new meaning to it?”
Photo-realists like Robert Cottingham focus on sharp images like a neon sign on a dance club that reads “Oasis”(pictured right) against a vivid blue sky. “It’s not a narrative that depends on an interaction between people,” Plunkett says. The objects can have a narrative in the word, the sign, the place, the society that made and uses them. And imagination borders on fantasy in Thomas Woodruff’s quixotic and almost surreal scenes. In contemporary realist art, the range continues to grow.
“The beauty right now is that all forms of art are accepted,” Plunkett says. “Now it’s about quality.”
Denise Markonish, curator at MASS MoCA in North Adams, will launch “Explode Every Day: An Inquiry into the Phenomena of Wonder” on May 28, bringing 25 international artists who draw inspiration from the outer limits of knowledge—from optical illusion to illustrated manuscripts, electromagnetic energy, and lunar geography—asking visitors to experience something wholly new. Markonish, who created this show out of conversations with Ohio artist Sean Foley, thinks of wonder as a moment between knowing and not knowing something.
“Wonder is mindfulness,” she says. “Wonder is everyday, not just extraordinary. It’s talked about as a rare experience, but it doesn’t have to be. A rainbow isn’t rare, but it catches us off guard every time.” (Pictured left: Untitled, Megan and Murray McMillan, MASS MoCA.)
Many artists in the show take inspiration from scientific research—an artist residency at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, a walking timeline of the universe, the syntax of a whale song.
“Talk to scientists today, and they are in wonder with what they do all the time,” says Markonish. “Knowing how something works doesn’t have to take wonder away.”
That strong feeling underlies the show. She has seen shows about curiosity and wonderment as a spectacle, she says. She wanted this one to be nuanced. “I want it to hit us in the heart,” she said. “There’s a reluctance in the art world to talk about emotion. It’s like the long-term, art-world battle with beauty.”
Artists and critics seem to feel they cannot put into words or analyze something so personal, so felt, so individual, she says, and what they choose not to think about can influence their work.
“It’s hard to talk about emotion,” says Markonish, “but art is ultimately an emotional field.”
Experiencing a work of art up close can shake someone deeply—perhaps like Dario Robleto’s quest to record the human heartbeat over three centuries.
It started from a moment as a small boy when he called NASA’s 800 number and heard the Golden Record, the album sent into space in the 1970s on Voyager 1 and 2, meant to give a sense of life on this planet to any other life form that might find the craft. What he heard sounded like static, Markonish says. It was actually “Life Signs,” Ann Druyan’s compressed EEG and EKG, recorded soon after she became engaged to Carl Sagan while they were compiling the record. The moment would haunt Robleto and change his work, Markonish says. And so, art’s intimate wonderment continues.