Cezanne and Beyond.
Philadelphia Museum of Art | Pennsylvania
Though premised on the widely held notion that Cezanne's significance extended well beyond his immediate successors, "Cezanne and Beyond" (through May 31) was unprecedented in its bold recasting of this axiom. Done on a truly grand scale, with 60 paintings, watercolors and drawings by Cezanne and works by 18 other artists, this exhibition was an incredible curatorial feat, which is all the more remarkable given the current economic climate. Nor is the catalogue any less impressive with its 600 pages of essays by a roster of leading authorities on modernism, including John Elderfield, Robert Storr, Yve-Alain Bois, and the two organizers from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Joseph J. Rishel and Katherine Sachs. The investment paid off handsomely, as could be seen from the long queues of visitors willing to pay the steep entry price, as well as the museum's decision to extend the show beyond its original schedule.
For Rishel and Sachs, this endeavor marked a return to Cezanne more than a decade after their work on another great retrospective of this artist under the directorship of the late Anne d'Harnoncourt (the dedicatee of the present show). Whereas in 1995 they focused on Cezanne's artistic development shaped by his extensive dialogues with past masters, in 2009 they threw their net over his legacy all the way from his contemporaries to some of the most recent art world darlings, such as Luc Tuymans and Francis Alys.
As they state in the catalogue introduction, what this wide scope was intended to highlight is the "protean" nature of Cezanne's character and impact. And while some of their choices may have been more cogent, their argument did yield plenty of evidence that even an old concept such as "influence" can be exciting in the hands of imaginative thinkers. Heads-on encounters with Cezanne by artists such as Picasso and Mondrian created fine counterpoints to more conceptually intricate reflections, such as those by Ellsworth Kelly, who transformed the "bridge" motif from Cezanne's Pont de Maincy (1879) into a sublime abstraction in his Untitled (1987), or by Brice Marden, whose Skull with Thought (1993-95) obliged the beholder to seek deeper conceptual and formal connections with its source beyond its literal title.
The most persuasive aspect of this broadly brushed all-inclusive strategy was that each of these heirs and emulators found in Cezanne an artist they actively looked for, or needed for their purposes. Just as importantly, despite the variety of these homages, they also inevitably point to a desire for self-legitimization over and beyond this renowned father figure of modernism.
The irony of this reaffirmation of Cezanne as the catalyst for modern painting would have been lost only on those who choose to forget how he struggled with his insecurities all the way to his death in 1906. His profound sense of self-doubt could not be dispelled even by contemporaries such as Emile Bernard, who praised him as the only master who could open a path toward the future. By the time of Cezanne's posthumous retrospective at the Salon d'Automne in 1907, these claims were repeated as universal truth, compelling an artist like Matisse to use Cezanne's method as a primer on modernism for his students. Yet it was surely Picasso who cemented this reputation more than anyone else with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), in which all of Cezanne's painstakingly acquired lessons about the multiple ways of looking and painting the human figure were digested and spat out in a shockingly new form. Thus it was most unfortunate that Demoiselles could not be included in this unprecedented homage to le Pere, especially in light of the less convincing responses that did make it into the final cut.
Though the curators succeed in setting up numerous intriguing dialogues, the cumulative impact does not go much further than the original thesis about Cezanne's "protean" capacity. Likewise, while individual catalogue essays addressed the meaning of Cezanne for artists ranging from Picasso to Jeff Wall, what was missing was a more sustained theoretical investigation into the reasons for this heterogeneous famille.
One of the most conspicuous unexplored issues of the show was the manner in which Cezanne's qualities admired among earlier painters, such as his "unaffected truth" (Leger) and "inspired clumsiness"(Max Beckmann), become far less important for later, conceptually driven interpretations by artists like Jasper Johns and Jeff Wall. In other words, an exhibition of this scope could have surely benefited from a finer distinction between his first "readers" and those who grew progressively less interested in the meaning of the original text than in what it could do for the novelty of their "reading."
Take Cezanne's skull paintings, which have had a profound resonance for this mixed offspring. Though one cannot doubt Brice Marden's engagement with this body of work, it is difficult to read his statement that Cezanne was simply all about painting, without any concern with the "what" of painting, without seeing it as an expression of the critical exigencies of the early 1970s. In a similar vein, the curators' observation that Sherry Levine's series of pixellated photographs after these paintings points to the importance of originality as a historical construct of the avantgarde, merely reminds us of a strategy for self-validation that dominated her postmodern moment.
Unfortunately, this pattern of distancing became ever more visible as one moved toward the latest of these commentators. Francis Alys's self-consciously rough paintings were compared to those of Cezanne on account of his "unhurried, but constant dedication to the evenhanded, non-hieratic take on all art making." Yet anyone who has looked more carefully at Cezanne's arduous exploration of the various possible paths of painting cannot help but be suspicious of this alignment between two highly unequal forms of "clumsiness." Likewise, Luc Tuymans earned his inclusion with Untitled, Still Life (2002), a huge canvas whose glaring whiteness stands for the ultimate "unfinished" still life, and which supposedly demonstrated a comparable commitment "sur le motif." Yet again, one can hardly see in this homage more than a reflection upon the modernist utopia of cultural continuity, or worse still, merely a clever self-positioning.
Ironically, one of the most incisive comments about this fundamental shift from Cezanne's "culture of painting" came from an artist not included in the show, but discussed at some length in the catalogue essay by Robert Storr. This is the famously cerebral anti-painter Gerhard Richter, who notes at one point that he finds a good documentary photograph more valuable than the best of Cezanne's paintings. Richter clarifies that he himself began by aspiring to paint like the old masters, but once he accepted that he could not do that, he recognized that it was a good thing--for after Duchamp, painting well was perfectly beside the point. And this is precisely what "Cezanne and Beyond" unwittingly made so clear in its joining together of artists sharing that pre-Duchampian faith in painting as a goal, with those for whom painting became primarily an instrument for a critical argument "for" or "against" the canon.
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|Title Annotation:||art exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Pennsylvania|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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