Something Old, Something New
Old Master drawings and oil sketches at W.M. Brady; Collages, assemblages and good stuff by Mac Premo and Robert Warner at Pavel Zoubok

MUSEUM-QUALITY SHOWS OF MASTER DRAWINGS that come to life slowly before modern eyes are all too rare. It is not often that we can enjoy a figure drawing by Baccio Bandinelli in the company of one by his pupil and biographer, Georgio Vasari. But this is only one of the pleasures of this stately presentation of Old Master drawings and oil sketches at W.M. Brady & Co. The exhibition extends from the 16th through the 19th centuries, with satisfying emphasis on the Italian and French schools.

Georgio Vasari (not in show)

Bandinelli’s fame was widespread in his lifetime for draughtsmanship and command of anatomy. The tightly cross-hatched pen and ink study, “A Dancing Man” (c. 1530-40), almost Germanic in its taut graphism, illustrates his facility with nudes in complicated and transitory poses. A difficult personality, Bandinelli was absolved of his faults by Vasari on grounds of expertise: “ His disegno was of such excellence that it superseded all his natural defects.”

Drawing, or disegno, referred not only to mastery of line but also of proportion. It included that supra-rational correspondence between hand and recording eye that establishes the right relation between one part of the body and another and its position on the page as well. No separation between drawing and design existed for the Renaissance artist, certainly not the Florentines.

Vasari is represented by an eloquent drawing of a Bacchanalia. His linear definition is less elaborate than his tutor’s, making use of drawing’s innate powers of suggestion. His “Bacchanal” (c. 1555) embraces the motif’s canonical elements: Drunken Bacchus falling about with satyrs, Selenus, and male and female bacchantes. A riot of ivy, figs, grape leaves, goatskins and wine goblets are statutory.

A particularly charming ink drawing by Giulio Romano, “Putti Harvesting Grapes” (c. 1535-40) repeats the motif, familiar to artists from ancient sarcophagi in Rome. While the subject points back in time, the linear clarity of the forms foretells the Neoclassical period when “chaste outline” was considered the finest expression of art. The clarity of John Flaxman’s line is embodied in “A Scene from Medieval History” (c. 1793). Flaxman’s drawing combines Neoclassical linear austerity with a fascination for things Gothic that the artist shared with William Blake.

An exquisite study of two heads by Il Guercino (1591-1666) is refined by halftones achieved with delicate stumping of the sanguine lines. In François Boucher’s drawing of a woman crouching, the feminine sweetness of the head is offset by the planar rigor of her gown.

A leading printmaker, Georg Philipp Rugendas, the Elder (1666-1742) was the foremost Bavarian painter of battle scenes in his time. His pen study of a standing man seen from behind illustrates drawing’s vital connection to conceptual precision. Drawn from a bronze statuette by Willem van Tetrode (d. 1580), it is a powerful depiction of the laws of leverage that muscles obey in overcoming gravity and inertia.

Although described as an écorché (a depiction of the body with its skin removed.), the figure does not appear flayed as in medical illustration. Agitated motion, its stresses fixed in the moment, emphasizes the body’s structural complexity and mechanical play. Rugendas’s skill in subordinating firmly delineated details to larger masses is a major reason for his standing among other artists.

Dominating the 18th century portion of the show is Anton Raphael Mengs’s large-scale bozzetto “The Glory of Saint Eusebius,” a model in oil for the ceiling fresco in Rome’s Church of S. Eusebio begun in 1757. The martyred saint is borne aloft by a battery of ascending angels and helpful putti. Meng’s mastery of the conventions of Roman baroque ceiling painting is as stunning as his palette. Key colors, the iridescent pinks and greens of shot silk — angelwear — hold the center of a light-filled composition punctuated throughout with spare color notes.

Henry Fuseli’s pencil portrait of Harriet Mellon, a celebrated actress before making a monied marriage, is a delightful tour de force. Mellon was famous for her beauty but you might not know that from the 1815 drawing. Her profile is stylized almost to the point of a caricature of classical profiles on Attic vases. Fuseli incised the sheet with a tart quote, in Greek, from Euripides on clever women. She must have been a piece of work.

Simon-Joseph-Alexandre Denis (1755-1813) is represented by a lively oil sketch of the arched interior of the stables of Maecenas at Tivoli. Despite extensive production of finished paintings, Denis earns his place on the art historical time line with such gems as this. It is a vivacious expression of French plein-air painting in its infancy. The artist brought great painterly freedom to the the study of often unglamorous landscape motifs and their individual parts. The 19th-century portion of the exhibition is capped by an atmospheric plein-air panorama by Théodore Rousseau painted in the Ile-de-France circa 1830-35.

Many persuasive offerings are by artists better known to specialists and aficionados of the field than to casual viewers. The hand of Simone Cantarini, trained in the workshop of Guido Reni, is one of the loveliest here. Carl Vanloo’s red chalk “Portrait of Cristina Somis” (c. 1740-45), the artist’s wife and a celebrated singer, repeats the formality of antique coins and cameos. Charles Parrocel (1688-1752), famous in his lifetime for his draughtsmanship, is represented by a sanguine drawing that exemplifies the two subjects he was associated with: military scenes and turqueries. “A Turkish Fusilier” looks decidedly modern in its energetic handling and casual attitude toward finish.

In sum, this is a substantial exhibition, impressive in range and quality.


THE ELEMENT OF PLAY IN ARTMAKING IS OFTEN UNDERVALUED. Older than culture, play is filled with significant ritual and meaningful gestures — components associated with art. Watching squirrels race or puppies in mock battle is a good introduction to the primordial quality of play. And the double exhibition currently on view at Pavel Zoubok is a rambunctious lesson in the art of it.

Cause. Effect. Trial Error, (2005) Mac Premo

A suite of collages and assemblages by Robert Werner is felicitously paired with Mac Premo’s “My Systems are in Your Hands.” Both are offbeat heirs of Joseph Cornell; both are sophisticated and fastidious craftsmen, a factor that separates them from what could be called contemporary folk art. Together, they represent the zanier end of the collage spectrum.

Mr. Premo is a collagist, animator, illustrator, painter, carpenter and commercial director whose stated goal is “to make good stuffs and eat well.” I do not know what he has for dinner but he is a grand stuffmaker.

Homo ludens — man the player — is boisterously alive in Mr. Premo’s posture as a doyen of Systems Theory. Despite the work’s organizing conceit, his meticulously crafted “systems” are fabricated for sheer pleasure. The artist is having a good time and you should too.

Skip the video installation, a predictable accessory to the conceptual pose, and head for the carpentry. These constructions are less a journey into the realm of systems than an elegant frolic through parquetry, precision inlay, appliqué, found objects and a universe of witty patterning techniques for surface embellishment.

Each inventive shape suggests an object that never was but should have been. The pieces are plausible enough to seduce you into conjuring a real world analogy for them. Part of a hurdy-gurdy or casing for a ship’s compass? A wind-up music box? Maybe a concertina frame?

Some pull stunts, justifying themselves as systems. One lets you look through a periscope. Another conceals a pencil sharpener within a cabinet that holds pencils and pads for leaving notes.

"Cousin One" (2007) by Robert Warner

Robert Warner, a former optician, has a love affair with lenses. His series of collages and constructions, “Return to Angelica,” combines optical lenses with drawer pulls, prisms, vintage book covers, chandelier crystals and ephemera to evoke Angelica, the rural upstate town where he grew up.

As a master printer of Bowne & Co., Stationers, in South Street Seaport, Mr. Warner draws on an enviable archive of 19th century typographical source material to place under lenses. His whimsy and boxed structures are reminiscent of Varujan Boghosian. While he sidesteps the surreal, he invests nostalgia with a fragile charm that makes us ache for those old Sunday comics and ephemeral relics we discard without a thought.

This is each artist’s first exhibition at Pavel Zoubok Gallery and a winning
debut for both.


“Mac Premo: my systems are in your hands” and “Return to Angelica: Robert Warner” at Pavel Zoubok Gallery (533 West 23 Street, 212-675-7490)

These reviews appeared first in the New York Sun on January 30th and January 17th, 2008, respectively.

Copyright 2008, Maureen Mullarkey

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