Two George’s in New York
I had mentioned to friends and students that they should see the exhibitions of Giorgio Morandi at the Metropolitan Museum and George Tooker at the National Academy. I suggested that they be seen together. A good friend asked me what the two exhibits had in common. I reached for various answers, such as the common interest in form, their innocence, their openness to modernism, a certain pared down depiction of reality and the physical proximity of the exhibitions. Finally, I realized the significance to me of their name – “George.” My mind somehow links these two artists together. Perhaps some future insight will make this juxtaposition clearer.
“Nothing is more abstract than reality.”
“I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see….Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meaning we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree….I have never intended to give the objects in my still life arrangements any particular meanings.”
A tender and extreme innocence and quest inhabits the magical work of Giorgio Morandi that was on exhibit at the Met. The paintings are tough-minded and yet warmly intellectual, diffident and hermetic.
One is struck by the immense variation that exists within a seemingly narrow range of subject matter. When viewing this body of work, we are taken on a long voyage which involves a searching contemplation. There is a strong interest in space, form and architecture.
A duality exists as objects are depicted with great structural probing and yet there is also a certain awe, lack of strategy and no sense of rendering to Morandi’s work. The lines, which sometime waver and appear out of focus, speak to the overall innocence of the art.
The paintings, simple and complicated at one and the same time, never lose their mystery. Actually, they are as mysterious as they are simple and locate themselves on the opposite end of the spectrum from illustration. They exist for themselves.
Matvey Levenstein, in December’s Art in America, writes movingly of Morandi, quoting the artist – as a:”believer in Art for Art’s sake rather than in Art for the sake of religion, of social justice or national glory. Nothing is more alien to me than an art which sets out to serve other purposes than those implied in the work of Art in itself. I ….have never set out to illustrate anything at all programmatic in my work.”
Levenstein quotes Isaiah Berlin on the “Naïve” artist as being rare in modern times. For them “art is a natural form of expression; they see what they see directly and seek to articulate it for its own sake, not for any ulterior purpose, however sublime.” Shiller writes of the naïve poet that “the object possesses him entirely….He is concealed by his works like God by the world He has created. He is the work. For the work is himself.”
George Tooker’s recent retrospective at the National Academy shares a purity and innocence with Morandi. The work is highly human and yet very open to modernist ideas of space and psychology and composition. The paintings use art historical imagery and yet refresh and invigorate traditional figurative directions to depict a contemporary psychology. Detachment and distance is frameworked within an architectural setting. Our solitary presence is invoked, a lonely journey to find our truth, possibly on planet Earth, or as a metaphor within our urban malaise.
Tooker’s painting, The Subway, is a deep and striking work, upending, disturbing and relentless in the repetition of form and movement. We are trapped somehow in this underground world, fated to pursue and search out meaning within some faraway and irrational world order.
Similarly, The Government Bureau, shares Tooker’s repetitions of form, architecture, creating a foreboding and weirded- out presence. As with The Subway, the influence of early Italian art, perhaps Piero, is clear but the work is charged with a modern and existential presence. In certain of Tooker’s images, we are left to our own devices within a less and less rational and certainly detached world.
This dream-like element shifts a bit as the compositions and mood changes. Singular figures appear or are shown with still life. Or, sometimes they are depicted listening to themselves. We are brought onto Tooker’s stage and world and presented with a highly human, yet sometimes disturbing world. A formidable presence, within the figurative tradition, both traditional and modern, is strongly exhibited.
“I am after painting reality impressed on the mind so hard that it returns as a dream, but I am not after painting dreams as such, or fantasy.”
On December 31, I revisited the Tooker show with my grandson, Adrian, who is seven years old. It was the second exhibition I had taken Adrian to see. The first was of prints of Albrecht Durer at the Museum of Biblical Art. I knew that Adrian would respond to Tooker’s work….or at least I had a strong hunch. We stayed for two hours and were both fully absorbed. Adrian copied some of the work and did a wonderful drawing of Pot of Aloes. I mentioned to him that the man in the painting playing chess (A Game of Chess) seemed to look like Georg Tooker. Adrian spent a good deal of time looking at the painting and said that the man looked a bit “frantic.”
Something finally clicked in my head about Tooker and Morandi. It was a certain innocence and pared down reality that they shared in common. Two wonderful, thought-provoking shows!