Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Dazzling Array of Modern Master Pieces: Milwaukee Exhibit By Way of Buffalo Earns an "A" as Modern Art 101 -- Art Exhibition Review

Art Exhibit Review

Van Gogh to Pollock: Modern Rebels
Masterworks from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery 
Milwaukee Art Museum
Thru September 20, 2015

Over the years I've visited many renowned modern art museums, including the MOMA in New York, Tate Modern in London, Pompidou Centre in Paris, Reina Sofia in Madrid and the Guggenheim in New York, Venice and Bilbao.

This is in addition to prestigious comprehensive collections with vast modern art holdings, such as at the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Galleries in Washington, DC and London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and many others.

But by virtue of having only been in Buffalo, New York, for less than 2 hours some 22 years ago, I've never been to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and can't say I've ever known that it is regarded as having one of the best modern art collections anywhere.

But it must be pretty astonishing, especially if it can organize a traveling exhibition with prime works from nearly 70 modern art superstars--Van Gogh to Pollack: Modern Rebels--and not deplete its own holdings to the extent that it must demurely shut its doors to hometown patrons.

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973). La Toilette, 1906
Given that the Milwaukee Art Museum, where this excellent exhibit is on display, has itself temporarily shuttered its fine permanent collection while its older buildings undergo extensive renovation, the possibility came to mind that the Albright-Knox also has currently closed its doors.

But an exhibit guard asserted--and a check of the Albright-Knox website seems to confirm--that the Buffalo museum remains fully open to the public, who presumably aren't feeling too cheated despite how many great paintings have relocated to Milwaukee until September 20.

I like the MAM's multi-genre permanent holdings, but on an afternoon in Milwaukee preceding a Rolling Stones concert on the eve of Summerfest, the Modern Rebels exhibit was particularly perfect in size and scope within the spectacular Quadracci Pavilion designed by Santiago Calatrava.

Much to its credit, the Milwaukee museum has presented several terrific special exhibits over the past several years, including a truly outstanding Kandinsky retrospective last year and an eye-opening Impressionism show in late 2011.

While showcasing (much of?) the best of what can typically be seen in Buffalo is well-worth anyone's 90 minutes in Milwaukee--the museum is a short lakefront stroll from the Summerfest grounds, if you're heading there this week--the contents are almost exclusively curated by the Albright-Knox, save for a Kandinsky work the MAM owns.

Robert Delaunay (French, 1885–1941) Soleil, Tour, Aéroplane, 1913
And unlike the Kandinsky exhibition, which did a phenomenal job of educating me about the evolution and career arc of the Russian abstractionist, Van Gogh to Pollack: Modern Rebels has a relative sparsity of explanatory text, whether on the gallery walls or accompanying each painting.

Especially given the quality of the artworks themselves, and the swath of artists represented--including some lesser-known painters whose works were among my favorites--the paucity of illuminating contextual explanation doesn't constitute a major detraction, but would certainly be welcome.

Presumably, I could have been better clued in had I opted for an audio guide, but limited time combined with general aversion to regimented pacing precluded my purchasing one.

There are a couple cursory paragraphs introducing the exhibit, serving to note that per the Modern Rebels title, the exhibition:
"...features work by the great disruptors of the twentieth century--artists who questioned artistic and societal norms, threw caution to the wind, and created startling and frequently shocking new forms of art."
Throughout the numerous galleries, there are three panels with brief text on The School of Paris, Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting, but otherwise--except for patrons with headsets--the paintings pretty much speak for themselves.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890)
La Maison de la Crau (The Old Mill), 1888
So other than the suggestion that the artists were "rebels" who broke new artistic ground, any thematic threads between artists and artworks were subject to one's own interpretation or pre-existing knowledge. (There is a brief video of Jackson Pollock's paint dripping technique, and I valued noting how New York replaced Paris as the center of Western Art mid-century, in part due to European artists emigrating because of Nazi persecution.)

Likewise lacking was any acute definition of "Modern Art," and while "Van Gogh to Pollack" in the exhibition's title gives an idea of the time frame, there are actually a good number of works well beyond Pollock's, including one dating to 1980.

Plus, while it was great to see terrific paintings by Van Gogh, Pissarro, Gauguin, Rousseau and Toulouse-Lautrec, I really don't know if these artists are truly considered part of the modern art milieu--I think of them as Post-Impressionists--or merely included as part of the impressive holdings of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Thus, whereas some art exhibitions shine as exemplary works of artistry in themselves, due to imaginative curation/design and thoroughly insightful text--sometimes even superseding the "wow factor" of the works contained within--this is an exhibit that sparkles simply because it gathers dozens of impressive paintings (plus a few sculptures) from sensational artists.

Max Beckmann (German, 1884–1950)
Hotel Lobby, 1950
With typically just one piece from each artist, excepting the MAM's extra Kandinsky and a pair of paintings each by Ferdnand Léger and Grace Hartigan, the show works as an excellent introductory survey--Modern Art 101, if you will--of several of the prime practitioners of (mostly) 20th Century Art.

For the most part, these were not paintings I had seen before, even in reproductions, but are largely first-rate illustrations of each artist's style, further heightening the exhibit's allure.

While the biggest of the "modern art superstars" are well-represented with exceptional examples--including Van Gogh, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, Gauguin, Picasso, Chagall, Kandinsky, Modigliani, Braque, Gris, Léger, Matisse, Dali, Miró, O'Keeffe, Ernst, de Chirico, Kahlo, Davis, de Kooning, Gorky, Rothko, Bacon, Motherwell, Diebenkorn, Lichtenstein, Pollock, Warhol, Giacometti and more--I just as much appreciated the paintings by artists with a bit less fame and/or caché.

As showcased in this post, some of my favorite pieces from Van Gogh to Pollock: Modern Rebels are Robert Delaunay's Soleil, Tour, Aéroplane, Max Beckmann's Hotel Lobby, Arthur Dove's Fields of Grain as Seen from Train, Chaim Soutine's Carcass of Beef, Oskar Kokoschka's London, Large Thames View I, Hans Hoffmann's Exuberance, Sam Francis' Untitled and Helen Frankenthaler's Tutti-Fruitti.

And that's leaving out a good number of other great ones--and noteworthy artists, such as Horace Pippin, Yves Tanguy, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Agnes Martin and Jim Dine--which should provide a rather robust idea as to the depth of this exhibition.

A bit unusual for a special or traveling exhibit, but quite appreciated, photography without a flash is entirely allowed.

So I'll include several more of the artworks below, while strongly suggesting you make the trek to Milwaukee--unless you happen to live there--for this first-rate exhibit, and/or one day shuffle off to Buffalo.


Arthur Garfield Dove (American, 1880–1946) Fields of Grain as Seen from Train, 1931
Joán Miró (Spanish, 1893–1983) Carnaval d'Arlequin, 1924-1925
Chaïm Soutine (Russian; French, 1893–1943) Carcass of Beef, ca. 1925
Oskar Kokoschka (Austrian; German, 1886–1980) London, Large Thames View I, 1926
Hans Hofmann (American, 1880–1966) Exuberance, 1955
Sam Francis (American, 1923–1994) Untitled, 1956
Jackson Pollock (American, 1912–1956) Convergence, 1952
Frida Kahlo (Mexican, 1907–1954) Self-Portrait with Monkey, 1938
Amedeo Modigliani (Italian, 1884–1920) La Jeune bonne, ca. 1918
Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954) La Musique, 1939
Salvador Dalí (Spanish; Catalan, 1904–1989) The Transparent Simulacrum of the Feigned Image, 1938
Helen Frankenthaler (American, 1928–2011) Tutti-Fruitti, 1966
Grace Hartigan (American, 1922–2008) When the Raven Was White, 1969
Alberto Giacometti (Swiss, 1901–1966) Man Walking (Version I), 1960
Robert Irwin (American, 1928) Untitled, 1962-1963

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