Friday, November 23, 2012

George Bellows at the Met.

Roberta Smith
The Bellows conjured in the Met show comes across as a talented and ambitious yet complacent artist, earnest and hard-working but often remote, an artist who frequently failed to work from that crucial point where criticality and desperation forge ambition and skill into something indelibly personal and expandable. He once said, “A work of art can be any imaginable thing, and this is the beginning of modern painting.” And yet his own art rarely questions the accepted conventions of his time.

But whether this exhibition does Bellows’s achievement justice is a good question, and easier to answer than usual: the catalogue raisonné of Bellows’s paintings is available online. (It was assembled by Glenn C. Peck, who contributes an essay to the catalog.)

Perusing the nearly 700 paintings reproduced on the site reveals that the show ignores all but four of the hundreds of increasingly visionary plein air oil panels of rocky coasts, landscapes and ramshackle farms that Bellows painted from 1911 on, first in Maine and then in Woodstock, N.Y. (A wall text in the final gallery dismissively refers to the small Woodstock landscapes as “bucolic,” an underestimation.) There are also numerous larger works that might have improved the show, among them the National Academy Museum’s great Maine canvas, “Three Rollers” (1911).
Smith prizes the rough and earnest over the stylistically ambiguous. Bellows started as an illustrator; most illustrations are narrative and they're made as craft before art; the hierarchy is not only esthetic but moral.  But it only makes sense to see American art and illustration as related, as both relate to literature and specifically film as art and commerce. This applies no more or less to N.C. Wyeth and Winslow Homer than Lyonel Feininger. The clear antecedent for Kids (below) in its strength and limitations is Daumier, a great illustrator but a minor painter, and though she likes the painting she refers to Helen Levitt.  Three Rollers is a good painting but not a surprising one. More interesting to me is that one of the late landscapes reminds me of Hodgkin, visionary only by way by way of professional. The other rougher landscapes may seem more sincere but they're less interesting. They may stand for something but they don't stand out; there's less to learn.

Kids, 1906,  32"x42"

My House, Woodstock, 1924, 18" x 22

Other late works, take that "visionary" quality in another direction: a hybrid academic/illustrational surrealism now very familiar.

Fisherman's Family,  1923, 38.5" x 48 3/4"

Picnic, 1924, 30" x 40"

Neo Rauch,  Die Fuge,  2007,  300 x 420cm - 118" x 165" (approx)
Whatever Bellows was after, he pursued it restlessly, not just in his final canvases but through most of his busy and multifaceted, if truncated, career, and only rarely did he catch up with it. This is the ultimate message of “George Bellows,” an unnecessarily disappointing retrospective that has come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the National Gallery in Washington. Organized by Charles Brock, an associate curator there, it contains some 70 oils and 30 works on paper. Still, there is a good chance you will emerge from it starving for truly alive art. I sure did.
It's an interesting show, worth seeing a few times.

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