Here’s the Thing
Still Lifes chosen by Robert Cottingham at the Katonah Museum

“HERE’S THE THING” IS A TESTAMENT TO THE INGENUITY OF HOMO FABER and the goodness of man-made things. The exhibition is the brainchild of painter Robert Cottingham. He planned and curated this exhibition of over 60 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings that range from the late 19th century to the present. It is an urbane and delightful apologia for his own creative initiative.

Del Grosso
James Del Grosso, Big Kiss, (2007)

A celebrated first generation photorealist, Mr. Cottingham needs little introduction, He has been eyeing American artifacts since the late 1960s. His paintings of American signage extended the tradition of American realism with a courtesy toward his subject that set him apart from the pop sensibility he drew upon.

Mr. Cottingham’s work centers on single objects: a section of neon movie marquee, a Remington typewriter, an old box camera or one with a folding magazine. His own oil, “Spartus Full Vue,” provides the exhibition’s keynote. The show is composed entirely of works by other artists who create in the same spirit of democratic attention to a single, homely item.

No emblems of wealth or status appear; there is nothing exotic or ornamental on view. The exhibition concentrates on quotidian things: packaged goods, household appliances, utensils, prepared food, furniture, clothing, oddments of hardware, building materials, and tools. It includes a refined range of conceptual approaches by a gratifying repertory of artists, including Claes Oldenburg, Lois Dodd, Avigdor Arikha, Robert Arneson, Victor Pesce, Claudio Bravo, Jim Dine, Wayne Thiebaud, Janet Fish, Tom Otterness, Patrick Caulfield, and more.

Still life once ranked low in the hierarchy of subjects considered worthy of an artist’s attention. By contrast, this exhibition suggests how extraordinary are the ordinary things we take for granted. And love of particularity does not require abundance; one of a thing is enough. Mr. Cottingham is a modern patrician with a Blakeian vision: “To see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower.” Even a jelly doughnut or a lowly brick.

One augery of innocence is James Del Grosso’s “Big Kiss” (2007), an heroic valentine to Hershey’s. Foil-wrapped and set on a reflective surface, the tapered candy kiss is resplendent in a cool, clarifying light that would make an American luminist proud. it is the simplest possible arrangement, delicately glazed, that concentrates the eye on form and light. A banner to guiltless pleasures, the logo “KISSES” flies in pale blue lettering on a rectangle of tissue atop the twist of foil.

Richard Diebenkorn’s “Scissors” (1959) is a lovely piece of painting. A few fluid, near-athletic movements of the brush do justice to both a common household item and the act of painting itself. David Park’s vigorous handling of a work sink is a companion in demotic tone and painterly intention. While both men counted the “how” of painting for more than the “what,” each motif carries an individuated charge that underscores the nature of the thing depicted. Whenever any thing is represented — no matter how abstractly — the process of painting and the subject become twins in symbiotic embrace.

No subject is too humble to be exalted by the hands of a rightful love.
Christopher Gallego’s “Bag of Plaster” (2000), scuffed and torn, is handled with gracious attention to detail, texture and tone. It is painted with the sympathy and persuasiveness of Velazquez’s depictions of Spanish peasantry. Stephen Brown’s “The Light Bulb” (2003) is a small coloristic gem. A flood light, glazed to luminous perfection, is handled as if it were a Renaissance portrait. Both painters testify to the enduring relevance of the longue durée of Western painting traditions.

Shimon Okshteyn’s monumental graphite drawing of a steam iron lends sculptural solemnity to a mundane appliance. It stands on its heel, a rubber cord coiled around its base like the decorative architrave of a plinth. The plate, rimmed with steam holes, is scratched and patterned with the abrasions of long use. A squat obelisk, Mr. Okshteyn’s iron takes on the poignance of Cleopatra’s Needle, scarred with the traces of time but still upright.

The gamesmanship of trompe l’oeil is generously on display, from Marilyn Levine’s playful ceramic mimicry of a wrinkled doctor’s bag to Alan Magee’s elegiac depiction of an obsolete electric drill. John Haberle’s “Twenty Dollar Bill” (1890) is typical of the artist’s wicked specialty: currency paintings. They looked so authentic that the Secret Service warned him to “stop painting greenbacks.” Happily, he kept going until his eyesight failed.

Haberle’s creased, frayed bill is cleverly paired with Saul Steinberg’s “French Air Mail Letter” (1980). Steinberg shared Haberle’s affection for manufactured mimes of officialdom. He invented a convincing but illegible calligraphy for fake documents: diplomas, passports, licenses and certificates of all kinds. Here, he plays postmaster with faux stamps, postmarks and addresses on a readymade envelope. Carefully composed, the work satisfies on two levels—as a aesthetic object and a sly joke.

It is a great pleasure to find Walter Murch on view. Characteristic of his mature work in subject matter and technique, his “Transformer” (1965) is a modestly scaled, atmospheric variant of action painting that locates its rationale in material objects rather than the painter’s own inchoate psyche. He exhibited alongside Jackson Pollock at Betty Parsons Gallery but employed the gestures of action painting in service to objects at hand, often fragments of some mechanism.

Even non-fans of Christo’s wrapping stunts can enjoy “Wrapped Modern Art Book” (c. 1980), a coffee table text shrouded in clear plastic. A tactic that is vacant and grandiose when carried out with symphonic ambition, becomes an effective tease in the minor key.

In sum, this is a wonderful show, intelligently assembled and presented.
Hats off to the Katonah Museum for facilitating Mr. Cottingham’s curatorial wit.


“Here the Thing” at the Katonah Museum of Art (Route 22 at Jay Street, Katonah NY, 914-232-9555).

This essay appeared first in The New York Sun on April 17, 2008 under the title Simple Beauty.

Copyright 2008, Maureen Mullarkey

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