art criticism

§ On Really Seeing Art

Note: this is a May, 2015 post from my old Blogspot site ChrisBeachamPaints that I’m reposting in response to an interesting article from

I awoke this morning with a hangover from the morose, depressing experience from last night that I described on Facebook [Aside: That post provoked the most compelling, soul searching discussion I’ve ever been a part of on Facebook. It is so relevant today.] I decided to do something about it. First, I listened to some Bob Marley. Pulled out some of my old art from when I first started painting. Sat on my little second floor downtown apartment deck with coffee and the latest issue of Art in America. Thought about what I might do art wise. (Definitely not that!) So I decided on a visit to the excellent and free NC Museum of Art a short drive from my place.

Most of us have a tendency, I think, to visit museums like they are all you can eat buffets. You know, there is all this food and you’ve got to have some of everything or you’ll feel cheated. At a museum we don’t want to miss something really good — especially if you think you won’t be able to return. So you’re worried that you’ll come home from your trip to London where you visited the Tate and somebody will ask if you saw Monet’s Water Lilies and you’ll have to say “No” and then they’ll spend 10 minutes telling you all about it.

But when you do that everything becomes a blur or maybe, like when Karen and I visited the new Whitney last week, you walk away overwhelmed and drained. (The new Whitney is amazing.) So this time I figured I’d spend more time with fewer pieces. I immediately went to the far northwest corner of the museum. I glanced around and saw Andrew Wyeth’s Winter. It is amazing and has the added advantage of being placed near a bench where I could sit, contemplate and write in my little Moleskine.

It was painted in 1946, tempera on board, right after his father’s death. What makes this piece so special? It could be the boy appearing to flee down Wyeth’s famous hill, his weight and the tragedy dragging him. Or the beautiful and imposing hill itself. The brushwork with the subtle changes in color and texture that creates both a sense of space and claustrophobia. The shadow too, that follows the boy down the hill adding to the force of his sadness. It is an immensely sad and perfect painting, a simple image that tells a story that could fill a book.

Nearby is a Jacob Lawrence called Forward from 1967. It is a great companion to the Wyeth. Here we see Harriet Tubman pushing the escaping slaves forward to freedom, playing the role of the hill in Winter.

She is shoving the man forward, a revolver in hand. He’s enormous, strong, and terrified, hiding his facing with his immense hand. The colors are bold and the shapes blocky without the detail of the Wyeth. To me the man is the compelling figure, the lines of his ribs, the splayed hands themselves viscerally showing both his physical strength and his terror.

This vision of humanity, of fear, of tragedy, of strength, of heroism, of courage, of determination, of fearlessness both breaks my heart and gives me hope.

I felt maybe there was a piece to create a triptych with the Wyeth and the Lawrence so I walked around, glancing here and there.
And then I saw it, a John Singer Sergeant of the Flight from Egypt, circa 1877-1879. It is a sparse piece, dark, and impressionistic.
Here the forward motion is provided by lonely Joseph, staff in hand, his arm around Mary. We see Mary, her face shrouded, a shawl around her head. She holds Jesus, the child’s head merely a shape but lighter and with a halo.


The donkey, his head nearly dragging the ground, appears gaunt and deadly tired, stumbling down the path, his massive ears just more weight to carry.

Joseph is held up by his staff, Mary by Joseph, Jesus by Mary, and the donkey by force of will and necessity. Joseph’s face looks obscured but on closer examination quite detailed, his nose, his beard, and the holes of his eyes amazingly evocative. Again, like the Wyeth and the Lawrence, a sad, beautiful, and contemplative composition.

I spent an hour plus with the three pieces. By doing so they became more than canvas and paint and more than beautiful works of art. They told me three stories that reflect the best and worst of humanity. Stories that made me think. Images that made me sad and feel intensely alive.

§ The Whitney’s “Human Interest: Portraits from the Collection”

Thru February 2017

Before we start, let me say that I often find big exhibitions a bit unnerving and overwhelming. They’re like Chinese restaurant buffets – you leave stuffed, bloated and not remembering what you ate. I started a couple of years ago forcing myself to, in effect, avoid sweet & sour pork, beef with garlic sauce, and the General Tso’s Chicken and stick to a few, strategic dishes. No more browsing and instead more focus. My mantra now: choose a few pieces and sit with them for an extended period. I began with this method at the lovely (and free!) NC Museum of Art  with a Wyeth, a Sergeant, and a Jacob Lawrence that I described here. (Not bad choices!)


So without further adieu…..

The Whitney‘s Meatpacking District location is still new when it comes to museums. Its architecture is interesting, the outdoor spaces have fabulous views of the city and beyond, and the exhibit spaces are practical if also pretty forgettable, but that leaves the focus on the art. Its location next to the High Line along with the outdoor platform views makes it a great introduction for the visitor to New York City. And its inventory makes it a natural top-end art venue.

View north to High Line
Whitney-view - 1
View south to new World Trade Center

So Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection is basically a must-see simply because of the gems in the collection. Putting my amateur art critic hat on I’d say that the exhibition is very good but not always riveting. Basically I find the schticks they use in the various spaces hit-and-miss. Those spaces that are less thematic are mostly where I found myself spending my time including revisiting a number of pieces. I’m a huge Susan Payton and Alice Neel fan so I focused on the Payton and the two Neel’s. The Barkley Hendricks? Oh yeah. Henry Taylor’s Huey Newton? Ditto. The visually floating men in the board room of Howard Kanovitz New Yorkers1 look like more interesting versions of the characters from the Mad Men.

But there were other pieces that I really looked at. I’ll start with the Joan Semmel piece Touch from 1975. I didn’t know her work. The story of its apparent controversy is quite an eye opener from the perspective of 2016. It’s a erotic view from Semmel herself with her lover pre or post sex. It’s about touch, feeling flesh, and I’m guessing sounds, smells, and the cool feel of sweat drying on her skin. She was trying to create sensual erortic art for women that was explictly political and feminist.

The controversy was less about pushback for eroticism from a female standpoint than about other feminists who attacked Semmel for objectifying women. The story is interesting, but I was stunned by the piece before I knew all that. Basically I found the angle of the bodies gorgeous (and technically beyond my skills!) but it’s so sensual, so rich, that I imagined I could feel the sheets, and hear their breaths slowing. It envelops the viewer and I, at least, felt I real sense of voyeurism as if I was watching through an uncovered window. An amazing immersive experience that is not about objectivitizating but about the transformative joy of human sexual experience.

Joan Semmell Touch from 1975
Joan Semmell Touch from 1975

Next up, Charles Henry Alston and Arshile Gorky…….

Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky
Charles Henry Alston
Charles Henry Alston