More From CityArts
Egyptian funary art at the Brooklyn Museum; Milton Avery’s
early industrial paintings at Knoedler;
accumulations of stuff at Allan Stone
By Maureen Mullarkey
TRAGIC SELFCONSCIOUSNESS IS BY NO MEANS A
MODERN INVENTION. Negotiating between the inescapable fact of
death and the yearning for immortality was a crucial cultural task among
ancient Egyptians. To Live Forever draws upon the Brooklyn Museum’s world-class
Egyptian collection to illustrate beliefs and rituals intended as talismans
against personal extinction.
Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum
As the exhibition illustrates, contemporary
Western conceptions of art did not exist among the early Egyptians. Certainly,
they invested huge resources in a flourishing material culture of enduring
beauty. Exquisite attention to craft and canons of proportion is evident
everywhere, from coffin decoration to gravestone inscriptions. Yet theirs was
primarily an applied art, created in anticipation of death and embedded in the
drive to confront and defeat it. Everything on view—from dolls, knives
and a game set to canopic jars and the mummy of a
valued dog—had a defiant mortuary purpose. Viewing these in a museum
context, estranged from their original function, we approach them as works of
art. But to fully grasp them, we have to see them as practical aids to living
on, comfortably and with personality intact.
A frisson accompanies mummies and mummy
cases that makes them perennially fascinating. The
painted sarcophagus on view held the preserved body of a royal prince of Thebes
nearly 3,000 years ago. Unlike a medieval Christian tomb, no somber skull or
memento mori appears on this outer coffin. Covered
with characteristic glyphs, spells and symbolic images, the surface has a
gaiety to it that bespeaks communal trust in the embalmer’s promises. As long
as the body remained intact, the soul could live eternally. Hence,
the vital importance of preserving the body from damage or decay. (For
grandees, mummification was a 70-day process. For lesser purses, it could be
done in 30. For the majority, a day or two sufficed. Or simply burial in desert
The wrapped mummy of a man named Demetrios is a striking phenomenon. Here, illusionistic
Greek portraiture is inserted onto a shroud in place of the three-dimensional
Egyptian funeral mask. An innovation of the later period of Roman occupation
(c. 95-100 C.E.), the realism of the portrait became another pledge of survival
for the dead.
Egyptian craftsmen excelled in the minor
arts. A delicately worked gold amulet, placed over the eye of the dead, is a
stunning example of Egyptian goldsmithing, renowned
in biblical times. The loveliness of limestone figurines, intended for use in
the netherworld, is undeniable. An alabaster cosmetic tube in the shape of fish
reminds us that the Egyptians were accomplished fishermen, and angling a
popular pastime. A wonderfully life-like faience hippopotamus assured the
deceased good hunting.
The visual grace of this anonymous art
seduces us into confusing the cultural tenor of pharaonic Egypt with its artifacts. The magic on view gives no clue to the despotism of
the agrarian civilization that produced them. It was one sustained by slave
labor—a universal institution of the times—in mines, in the army,
in workshops and on royal estates.
Slaves counted among the grave goods of
pre-dynastic kings. It is unclear when the practice of burying laborers along
with other possessions came to an end. The exhibition skirts the issue by
showcasing numerous shabtis, clay models made to
stand bail for slaves in the afterlife. Overall impression is of genteel,
symbolic servitude, more Upstairs-Downstairs than what the historian Diodorus observed of Egyptian quarries in the 1st century
B.C.: “Vast numbers… are bound in fetters and compelled to work day and night
without intermission and without the least hope of escape.”
To blunt the strangeness of the past,
curatorial comment slips into mischievous anachronism with repeated reference
to “the elite” and “the middle class.” There was no middle-class as we know it.
There was a cosmically ordained royalty, a satellite caste of priests, lesser
nobles and court functionaries, all served by a diversified peasantry and
forced labor. Yet out of this culture came arts of great splendor, the bulk of
it devoted to denying death the last word.
To Live Forever: Egyptian Treasures
from the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, 716-638-5000.
first appeared in CityArts [www.cityarts.info] on February 24, 2010
• • • •
IT IS A RARE EXHIBITION THAT CAN CALL ITSELF
A REVELATION, but this is certainly one of them. Milton
Avery’s long career is one of the crowns of 20th-century American art. No
gallery-goer is a stranger to the grace, calm and
clarity of his mature style, those luminous landscapes and large figure
compositions. Most of us think we know every kind of painting he created. So
most of us will be surprised and exhilarated by these little-known scenes of
the impact of industrialization on the urban setting. Painted from the
mid-1920s through the next decade, many have never been exhibited before.
Milton Avery, "Smokestacks"
Knoedler has assembled a suite of oils, watercolors and gouaches from the
Avery family’s collection. It is a startling window into an early, broody
aspect of the painter’s sensibility that showed itself briefly before giving
way to pastoral lyricism and sunnier coloration. While his themes and creative
temper changed, Avery’s core commitment ended where it began: in attentive
observation and love for the visual world. A red box car, the looming bulk of
the Dietz Coal Company plant, or the lights of a chop suey joint viewed from his studio window were as compelling to him as tangerine
moons, sea grass and dunes.
In 1970 Hilton Kramer anticipated that we
would “be a long time coming to terms with Avery’s achievement.” It has taken
40 years but now this exhibition yields sharper insight into the creative road
Avery traveled. The route had its beginning in the machine age aesthetic of the
years between the two world wars. Though several of these pieces were exhibited
in 1933 and 1935, they have remained, for the most part, out of sight since.
Neglect of these works is the result of
critical and scholarly disinterest in work that stands apart from what might be
called the Avery brand. It is a matter of product management trumping aesthetic
interest. Too long overlooked as anomalous, this deeply engaging work roots
Avery in his times. In light of his initial interests, the trajectory of his
development appears all the more remarkable.
Few figures appear in these deserted
cityscapes. Emphasis is on warehouses, smokestacks, railroads, gas tanks, East
River tugboats, the now-demolished Third Avenue “El” and the Queensborough bridge. Subdued
tonalities and a suggestion of abandonment lend a Social Realist cast to the
industrial sites. Still, the freedom of his drawing—a calculated whimsy
that hints at his later signature style—relieves the scenes of any
Depression-era cloud. The watercolors, in particular, approach the
characteristic buoyancy that made his later work so magical. In the fey quality
of its depiction, “The Blue Bridge,” a darkling gouache, is a particularly
lovely intimation of things to follow.
Gail Levin’s concise, informative monograph
on this body of work belongs in the library of every serious student of Avery.
Milton Avery: Industrial Revelations at Knoedler & Company, 19 E. 70th St., 212-794-0550.
• • • •
WE CAN TRACE
THE GENEOLOGY OF EVERYTHING WE CALL ASSEMBLAGE past Duchamp’s readymades, past Dada’s
anti-art and Schwitter’s trash paintings all the way
back to Cubist collage. You can push it even further back to folk art. Call it
aesthetic anarchy if you want to. But along comes an exhibition as engaging as
this and the labels drop away. Visual wit is rare. Better to welcome it where
we find it than grouse about the form it takes.
Krista Van Ness, "20 Eggs"
Accumulation showcases, well, accumulations of
nondescript things piled together until they take on visual weight by dint of
sheer volume. Everything is predominantly assembled, unmodulated by painting or other means. Their constituent parts run the gamut from natural
materials (egg shells, feathers) to manufactured items and oddments never meant
as art materials. The pleasure of this kind of work was summed up nicely by
David-Henry Kahnweiler in his 1929 monograph on the
collages of Juan Gris: “By its very subject matter,
it has made us ‘see’ and love so many simple, unassuming objects which hitherto
escaped our eyes.”
Arman and French sculptor César are the
best-known names here. What they produced in the 1960s became the impetus for
later production by American artists. César’s rectangle of compacted car parts is the starting point for John Chamberlain’s heapings-up. Virtually everything on show finds its
antecedent in Arman’s welded tower of revolvers or vitrines of aspirin or epoxy tubes.
This art of the overlooked takes on a more
lyrical dimension in the work of the Americans on view. While the Europeans
incline toward mass-produced items, the Americans gravitate toward evocative
natural objects. Immediate and tangible, Krista Van Ness’ 8-inch square vitrine of tiny, sloughed-off cicada shells provides a
close-up of a delicate life form that renews itself in a species of hemiptera resurrection. Barry Cohen’s old metal egg crate
construction, filled with eggshells, straw and wooden chicks, is thoroughly
modern in conception but suggestive of a Depression-era chicken coop.
Kathryn Spence is the single artist on view
who reshapes her found materials into something wholly different. With bits of
street trash, string and wire, she creates a meandering line of plausible
little birds that, at quick glance, could take wing in a moment. The piece
maintains the charm of folk art while it plays self-consciously with the divide
between nature and artifice.
The lone disenchantments in this lively
group show are several wire-wrapped junk sculptures by a deceased outsider
artist known as Philadelphia Wireman. Sometimes junk really is just that.
Accumulation at Allan Stone Gallery, 113 E. 90th
essays first appeared inCityArts
on March 10, 2010.