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
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 sand.)

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.

This essay first appeared in CityArts [] 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"
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"

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 St., 212-987-4997.

Both above essays first appeared inCityArts on March 10, 2010.

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