Eye on Art – 2017

My “Eye On Art” column appears monthly in the Sag Harbor Express

“Visionaries” Who Created the Guggenheim

7-6-17

To celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, the founder’s eponymous museum is presenting “Visionaries,” a blockbuster survey of modern painting and sculpture drawn entirely from its own holdings, on view through September 6. Few other museums can boast such a comprehensive collection, especially one that depends almost entirely on the acumen and generosity of a handful of donors and patrons. In addition to Solomon himself, the show highlights five other individuals who, as the show’s subtitle has it, created a modern Guggenheim.

All six of the so-called visionaries came by that designation honestly. They were avidly collecting modern art when it was far from the blue-chip commodity it is today. Solomon, the fourth of Meyer Guggenheim’s eleven children, began buying pictures in the 1890s. He turned from Old Masters to contemporary art in 1929, under the guidance of Baroness Hilla von Rebay, an artist from an aristocratic German family who became the museum’s first director and whose own collection was left to the Guggenheim. It was she who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design the controversial museum building on Fifth Avenue.

Vasily Kandinsky, Black Lines, 1913. Oil on canvas, 50 7/8 x 51 5/8 in. Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection.

A champion of non-objectivity, Rebay steered Solomon toward Kandinsky. The exhibition is introduced by one of the masterpieces he bought early on, Kandinsky’s Black Lines, 1913, followed by a magnificent gallery devoted to the artist, with Solomon’s acquisitions supplemented by those of his niece, Peggy, and the dealer Karl Nierendorf—two more of the visionaries whose collections have been incorporated into the Guggenheim.

Both Nierendorf and Justin K. Thannhauser were German art dealers who immigrated to the United States and became major benefactors of the museum. Together their contributions added significantly to the original holdings, broadening their scope to include Impressionism, Post-impressionism, and German Expressionism. After Nierendorf died in 1947 the Guggenheim purchased his entire estate, which included not only Europeans like Klee, Kirchner and Albers but also the Americans Baziotes, Gottlieb and Fine. In 1963 Thannhauser bequeathed major paintings from his collection—with signature works by Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso—to the museum, which built a special wing to house them.

Constantin Brancusi, Little French Girl, ca. 1914-18. Oak on pine base, 49 x 9 3/8 x 9 ¼ in. Estate of Katherine S. Dreier.

Katherine S. Dreier, a Brooklynite from a wealthy German émigré family, was bitten by the modernist bug while studying art in Europe in the 1910s. Advised by Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, she founded the Société Anonyme in 1920 to promote modern art and amassed a substantial personal collection, some of which was donated to the museum by her estate. One of the highlights is Constantin Brancusi’s Little French Girl, made of oak, ca. 1914-18. The original Guggenheim collection included just a few sculptures, but in the 1950s, under the directorship of James Johnson Sweeney, an outstanding group of Brancusi wood and stone carvings was acquired. They are beautifully installed in a gallery of their own, with photo documentation of several of the pieces in the artist’s studio.

Many more riches were added in 1976, when Peggy Guggenheim’s collection became part of the foundation. It took some very diplomatic persuasion to convince Peggy to give her treasures to her uncle Solomon’s museum, since they didn’t get along. Still housed in her Venetian palazzo, the collection focuses on Surrealism and abstract art, from Arp to Vedova, with a healthy representation of the American avant-garde. Several of her key works have made the trip to New York for this special occasion, including Alchemy, 1947, one of the 11 paintings by Jackson Pollock that she kept for herself. A virtual unknown when Peggy became his patron in 1943, Pollock had his first solo show in her gallery, got his first mural commission from her, saw his first museum acquisition, and had her financial support while she launched his career.

Recently revitalized by a meticulous cleaning, which is documented in a separate exhibition in the museum’s education center, Alchemy is installed at the very top of the spiral ramp, literally capping the show. As much as any other work on view, it epitomizes the visionary spirit of the collectors who took risks on the novel, unproven, unpopular art that challenged established tastes. Their foresight did indeed create the Guggenheim as a monument to modernism.

 

“Making Space” for Women at MoMA                                                                

6-8-17

Spanning roughly 25 years, from the end of World War II to the rise of second-wave feminism, “Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction,” at the Museum of Modern Art through August 13, is both fascinating and annoying. Drawn entirely from MoMA’s holdings, the exhibition showcases a wide variety of first-rate works in different styles and media, some of them recent acquisitions and several on view for the first time. That’s the fascinating aspect. The fact that MoMA owns so many outstanding works by female artists deserves notice. The annoying thing is that, instead of being integrated into the permanent collection installation, these fine examples of abstract art are segregated by sex. It’s a conundrum.

Grace Hartigan (1922–2008), Shinnecock Canal, 1957. Oil on canvas, 90 1/2 x 76 in. Gift of James Thrall Soby.

At the show’s entrance, Grace Hartigan’s big, bold 1957 canvas, Shinnecock Canal—painted while Hartigan was staying at Alfonso Ossorio’s Georgica estate, The Creeks—can hold its own beside any postwar action painting. MoMA acquired it soon after it was painted, as is the case with Joan Mitchell’s Ladybug, also from 1957, Helen Frankenthaler’s Trojan Gates, 1955, and Hedda Sterne’s New York, VIII, 1954. Here is evidence that the museum was not neglecting female Abstract Expressionists during the movement’s heyday. And they’re not minor examples, but signature works that show the artists’ virtuosity. So why not just mix them up with AbEx paintings by men?

This, of course, has been a longstanding complaint of those who count the number of women represented in MoMA’s collection galleries. They have a point, though some female artists are regular fixtures of the themed installations, from Russian Constructivism to Dada, Surrealism, AbEx, Pop art and beyond. Sculptures by Louise Bourgeois, Louise Nevelson and Marisol are never absent, and canvases by Lee Krasner, Agnes Martin, Bridget Riley and Yayoi Kusama are always up. But when you see the wealth of material that’s isolated here, it does make you wonder why so much of it has languished in storage. Lack of room seems like a lame excuse.

Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt) (1912–1994), Eight Squares, 1961. Painted iron, 66 15/16 × 25 3/16 × 15 ¾ in. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros through the Latin American and Caribbean Fund in honor of Gustavo Rodriguez-Cisneros

Not everything in “Making Space” is painting or sculpture, which actually is one of the show’s strengths. Recently the museum has begun to combine works from several departments—a different kind of integration that allows viewers to trace trends across media. Geometric abstraction, for example, is represented by Martin’s canvas, The Tree, Gego’s painted iron sculpture, Eight Squares, drawings by Anne Truitt, photographs by Gertrudes Altschul, weavings by Anni Albers and printed fabrics by Vera Neumann. By breaking down hierarchical distinctions, especially between fine art and craftwork, the show gives a truer picture of the multiple approaches to abstraction in the mid 20th century. That all the artists happen to be women is somewhat beside the point, since their male colleagues were working along similar lines.

Indeed, some of these artists, if they were alive, would have objected to being separated from the men. Krasner, for one. She even had a problem with being classified as an American artist, much less a female one. She once told an interviewer that, while she was obviously a woman and was born in America, those were not criteria by which her art should be measured. To her, and to others who find those distinctions irrelevant to aesthetics, the only criterion that matters is the work’s quality. In other words, not who made it, or the artist’s nationality, race, or sex, but whether or not it’s any good. Even for those with specifically feminist agendas, quality is the ultimate benchmark, but one that’s highly subjective. Those pesky categorical judgments, favoring paintings over prints and drawings, bronze over fiber, etc., further complicate the assessment process—as do changing tastes. It’s not uncommon for yesterday’s masterpiece to become tomorrow’s eyesore. That’s why the museum’s imprimatur is so important. If MoMA thinks something is worth exhibiting, it must be good.

So on the one hand the museum should be applauded for bringing to light such a stellar array, including pieces by artists from Europe, Asia and the Americas—some of them famous and others unfamiliar even to dedicated MoMA visitors. On the other hand, why aren’t they up all the time? As a curator, I think a more enlightening show would be one with a 51:49 female-to-male ratio. That would make the art world look more like the real world.

 

Marsden Hartley’s Maine

5-11-17

“I wish to declare myself the painter from Maine,” wrote Marsden Hartley in an essay that accompanied his 1937 exhibition at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, An American Place. This affirmation of devotion to his native state—he was born in Lewiston in 1877—is the raison d’être for “Marsden Hartley’s Maine,” on view through June 18 at the Met Breuer, in the former Whitney Museum building on Madison Avenue.

Marsden Hartley, Mt. Katahdin (Maine), Autumn #2, 1939–40. Oil on canvas, ?30 1/4 × 40 1/4 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition spans the artist’s entire career, taking him full circle from his early figure drawings of local characters and neo-Impressionist Maine landscapes to his final series of paintings depicting Mt. Katahdin, which he claimed as his own, much as Cézanne did Mont Sainte-Victoire and Japanese artists did Mount Fuji. To emphasize the point, the installation includes a Cézanne lithograph and prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige from the Met’s collection that illustrate their treatment of those iconic subjects. In fact the Met owns two major Cézanne paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, but apparently they couldn’t spare either one to represent a more pertinent relationship to the Hartley oils.

Perhaps it’s just as well, since Hartley suffers in direct comparison to artists like Cézanne and Winslow Homer, whose influence he acknowledged. The show is peppered with related examples from the Met’s holdings. Next to a trio of Hartley’s studies of waves beating against Maine’s rocky shore, Homer’s 1895 masterpiece, Northeaster, steals the show. In contrast to Homer’s luminescent breakers, Hartley’s waves are as static and opaque as plaster. The same quality is evident in his clouds, which often seem as solid at the hills over which they loom. To be fair, Hartley wasn’t a veristic painter aiming for fidelity to nature. His impulse was far more subjective, more akin to the Expressionists whose work he emulated in Paris, Munich, and Berlin before the First World War forced him back to the US.

After a disappointing 1909 debut at Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery, Hartley painted a series of so-called dark landscapes inspired by Albert Pinkham Ryder. Here’s a comparison that doesn’t diminish either artist: Hartley’s The Dark Mountain, 1909; and Ryder’s Moonlight Marine, painted and re-painted over a 20-year period, 1870-90. Both men approached landscape as a point of departure for emotional and spiritual themes, moody reflections on inner states of being. In Hartley’s 1938 portrait of Ryder, an homage painted two decades after the grand old visionary’s death, his gaze seems to turn inward and outward at the same time. A similar haunted stare is on Hartley’s own face in Stieglitz’s 1916 photograph of the artist, taken soon after his return from Europe.

Marsden Hartley, Canuck Yankee Lumberjack at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, 1940-41. Oil on hardboard, ?40 1/8 × 30 in. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Stieglitz captured Hartley’s inner turmoil following the death of his Prussian lover, Lieutenant Karl von Freyburg. Several of his 1914-15 abstract paintings, which are outside the scope of this exhibition, memorialize the handsome young officer, who was killed early in World War I. Needless to say, they didn’t go over well in New York after the US entered the war, and in 1917 Hartley went to Ogunquit, Maine, in part to reconnect with his roots and re-think his artistic direction. For the rest of his life he would travel widely, restlessly searching for an anchorage, but would always be drawn back to his home state, where he finally settled in 1937. Devoting himself to interpreting the land and its people, he fell in line with the prevailing quest for national identity that pervaded much Depression-era art. The very fact that Stieglitz named his third and last gallery An American Place indicates how even such a staunch Modernist responded to that trend.

Until his death in 1943, Hartley looked at Maine through the lens of a solitary, closeted gay man, couching his homoerotic imagery as celebrations of Yankee strength and resiliency. Aptly described in the gallery wall text as “hypermasculine rural hunks,” his fishermen, lumberjacks, and athletes are as solid as Maine’s rocks and trees. Yet his studies of harvested logs bound for the timber mills suggest the vulnerability of nature and symbolically of man—or, more literally, the young men who will soon march off to yet another world war. Echoes of Hartley’s long-lost lover add poignancy to the works that celebrate the virile male body so overtly.

 

Fashioning Georgia O’Keeffe

4-13-17

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986). Black Pansy & Forget-Me-Nots (Pansy), 1926. Oil on canvas, 27 x 12 in. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mrs. Alfred S. Rossin. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (Photo: Christine Gant, Brooklyn Museum)

In 1927, the Brooklyn Museum gave Georgia O’Keeffe her first solo museum exhibition. Ninety years later, she is again the subject of a solo show there: “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” on view through July 23. This time, however, the focus is as much on O’Keeffe the person as on O’Keeffe the painter, using her clothing and personal effects as revealing clues to the woman behind the art.

In addition to her paintings, sculpture and works on paper, as well as copious photographic documentation, the show includes numerous examples of her garments and accessories from the collection of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, which owns the artist’s two New Mexico homes, in Abiquiu and on the Ghost Ranch, where her possessions have remained intact since her death in 1986.

Dubbed “the best known woman painter in America” by Life magazine in 1938, O’Keeffe was then, and remains, a figure of individual as well as aesthetic fascination. Indeed, her self-constructed image—immortalized in black and white photographs by luminaries like Ansel Adams, Carl Van Vechten, Edward Weston, Cecil Beaton, and most famously her husband, Alfred Stieglitz—is an essential part of the package. Her sensuality comes across in Stieglitz’s intimate nudes, but with her clothes on she’s austere and aloof, projecting an uncompromising character that’s also strongly reflected in her wardrobe.

Two of the show’s earliest works are portraits of O’Keeffe in her early twenties, and in both she’s wearing black and white. This pared-down palette was her lifelong preference, though there are some notable variations, especially in her later years. Early on she sewed many of her own clothes, fashioning a look that was simple yet elegant. A group of four eggshell silk dresses from the 1920s and ’30s illustrates her skillful needlework and fondness for understated detailing. These garments are paired with paintings of the period. She and Stieglitz were living in New York and vacationing upstate, a locale that yielded some colorful canvases, but several others echo the monochromatic severity of her dresses and the black cloak, borrowed from Stieglitz, that she often wore.

Todd Webb (1905–2000). Georgia O’Keeffe on Ghost Ranch Portal, New Mexico, circa 1960s. Gelatin silver print. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, N.M.; Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation. © Estate of Todd Webb, Portland, ME

After moving permanently to New Mexico in 1949, O’Keeffe favored store-bought work clothes for her rambles around the countryside in search of the scenery and found objects that became her primary subject matter. Her battered black Stetson, a pair of Levi’s, a denim apron, shirts, sneakers and a selection of bandanas are here, as is a beautiful squash blossom necklace she admired but seldom wore, preferring to hang it on the wall like a work of wearable sculpture. Her preferred accessories were a silver-studded black suede belt, visible in several photographs of her, and a brass brooch, custom made in the shape of her OK initials by Alexander Calder. She had custom-made clothing as well, by designers such as Knize, Emsley and Claire McCardell, with shoes by Ferragamo. The influence of Asian aesthetics is evident in several kimonos, also custom made for her from material she brought back from her travels.

O’Keeffe’s position as an independent woman who forged a distinctive persona, as well as the creator of a popular and highly prized body of work, was firmly established by 1977, when Perry Miller Adato made an award-winning film about her, and 1980, when Andy Warhol painted her portrait. Near the end of her long life—she lived to be 98—she was a truly iconic figure among American artists and an avatar for the burgeoning second wave of feminism. Already in her thirties by the time the 19th Amendment was ratified, she was old enough to remember the first wave.

The Brooklyn Museum’s tribute, organized by guest curator Wanda Corn, is part of a year-long celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. I wonder whether O’Keeffe would have approved of being grouped with feminists, or even considered a role model for them. She embodied the solitary genius—an indomitable spirit, fascinating in her remoteness—and played that role to the hilt, while acknowledging that it was Stieglitz who orchestrated her initial success. But once she was launched she capitalized on her early recognition, cultivated a carefully managed public image, and used the power of photography to put it across. Unlike any previous O’Keeffe exhibition, this one makes that persona come alive.

 

Inventing Downtown

3-16-17

Forty years ago, an exhibition titled “Tenth Street Days” revisited the cooperative galleries that flourished downtown during the 1950s and ‘60s, when so-called emerging artists were seeking alternatives to the uptown commercial gallery system. In 1977 that era was still fresh in the memories of those who had participated in the co-ops, Happenings and other phenomena that defined the scene. Since then lots of them have died, and the period has acquired an art-historical patina that is lovingly burnished in “Inventing Downtown,” on view through April 1 at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery on Washington Square, in the heart of the district in question. While the previous show was limited to co-op galleries and to paintings and sculpture, this one takes a wider view, including artist-run spaces that weren’t co-ops, as well as other media, such as installations, performances, photography and film.

Perle Fine, Heroic Awakening, 1957. Oil and collage on canvas, 44 x 60 in. Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection. Gift of Irving Sandler.

Like the earlier Abstract Expressionists with lofts and hangouts on and around Tenth Street, those who came up in their wake sought safety in numbers. Also like their forebears, many of them gravitated to the Hamptons as a summer retreat. Wandering through the jam-packed NYU galleries, I was struck by the number of locals I recognized, among them John Chamberlain, Jim Dine, Dan Flavin, Perle Fine, Lester Johnson, Bill King, Fay Lansner, James Rosenquist, Stan Van Der Beek and Jane Wilson. Others whose work I was hoping to see—Anneli Arms, Alice Baber, Elaine de Kooning, Berenice D’Vorzon, Matsumi Kanemitsu, Athos Zacharias and Wilfrid Zogbaum—are not included, unless I missed them amidst the wealth of fascinating material, both artistic and documentary, that’s on display.

At the show’s heart are the Tanager, Hansa and Brata galleries, three of the co-ops that sprang up in the neighborhood’s cheap commercial rentals. Dues-paying members shared the expenses and the labor of putting on shows of their own work and that of invited guests. It was a fractious task, but out of the turmoil stars emerged, including Mark di Suvero, Yayoi Kusama, Philip Pearlstein, Allan Kaprow, George Segal, Alex Katz and several of the folks named above. Another co-op, the Phoenix, was co-founded by Red Grooms, who later opened his own loft as the City Gallery. Kaprow’s first Happening was at the Reuben Gallery, which he co-founded and where Grooms, Oldenburg, and Dine also performed. Found-object art and assemblage flourished in this atmosphere. Props for Happenings and installations were often scavenged from the street.

Claes Oldenburg carrying Street Sign to the Reuben Gallery, 1960. Photograph by I.C. Rapoport.

A hallmark of the current show is the diversity of styles and media that proliferated in the artist-run spaces, whether co-op, rented or borrowed. Judson Gallery, in Judson Memorial Church, was an especially fruitful venue for performance and installation art, including Oldenburg’s “The Street” (which later migrated to Reuben) and Dine’s “The House.” Judson’s “Hall of Issues,” organized by Phyllis Yampolsky, was an ongoing open call for material that attracted artists and non-artists alike. Such free-flowing engagement encouraged direct participation in which poets, musicians and dancers interacted with visual artists in a lively atmosphere of give and take. Among the notable genre-benders were Yoko Ono, who combined visual, conceptual, and performance art, and Robert Rauschenberg, a co-founder of Experiments in Art and Technology.

The exhibition also highlights the Spiral Group, a short-lived collective of African-American artists that coincided with the Civil Rights Movement. The group, which mounted only a single exhibition, in 1965, included such luminaries as Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Hale Woodruff, who taught at NYU. Spiral’s brief history illuminates the larger debate about how art can respond to social and political issues without becoming propaganda.

Many Tenth Street alumni graduated to uptown galleries, and a couple of the co-ops actually moved uptown. The Green Gallery on West 57th Street evolved from Hansa—which had relocated to Central Park South before closing in 1959—and showed several of the downtown contingent, ranging from proto-Pop artists to abstract painters and minimalist sculptors. And moving up by no means meant selling out. Indeed, one of the goals of the downtown artist-run galleries and alternative spaces was simply to get the work seen and noticed, in the hope that it would be picked up by mainstream art dealers. Judging by the roster represented in “Inventing Downtown,” that was a strategy for success.

 

Pierre Chareau’s Legacy Explored                                             

2-16-17

Pierre Chareau’s gravestone in Most Holy Trinity Cemetery, East Hampton. 

In Most Holy Trinity Cemetery on Cedar Street in East Hampton, a modest granite stone marks the grave of Pierre Chareau. How this became the final resting place of one of France’s premier Art Deco and Moderne designers is part of the story told in “Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design,” an innovative and revealing exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan through March 26.

Best known for a building in Paris called the Maison de Verre—House of Glass, which predates by two decades Philip Johnson’s much more widely known and accessible Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut—Chareau came to the United States in 1940. Although he was raised Roman Catholic, his family was Jewish on his mother’s side and his wife, Louise Dorothée Dyte (1880-1967), known as Dollie, was Jewish. Fleeing Nazi persecution, they settled in New York, where Dollie taught French and Pierre tried unsuccessfully to re-establish his professional career, which had been primarily as a designer of furnishings and interiors. That line of work had already been curtailed by the Great Depression, when the market for sumptuous décor using exotic and costly materials had pretty much dried up.

The second-floor balcony of the house Chareau designed for Robert Motherwell in East Hampton, built 1946-47.

Fortunately, in 1945 he was befriended by the artist Robert Motherwell, who commissioned him to design a house and studio in Georgica, using war-surplus Quonset huts. In lieu of a fee, Chareau built a small house for himself and his wife on the Motherwell property, and it was there that he had his fatal stroke. Hence his burial far from Paris, the city where his reputation was made and where his only surviving residence, the Maison de Verre, built between 1928-32, is still intact in private ownership. (After changing hands a couple of times, the Motherwell house was demolished in 1985.)

In addition to documentary evidence like plans, sketches, and photographs, Chareau’s legacy includes the handsome high-end furniture he designed for wealthy patrons in pre-World War II Europe, and works from the collection of modern art that he and Dollie assembled when they were members of the Parisian intelligentsia. The exhibition features a partial reassembly of that collection—including works by Picasso, Léger, and Mondrian—most of which was sold to support the couple during their expatriate years.

Pierre Chareau, telephone table and “La Religieuse” table lamp, ca. 1924.

There are also examples of the furniture, among them a clever nesting telephone table; the “La Religieuse” lamp, named for its pointed glass shade that resembles a French nun’s headdress; and a “canapé a confident” sofa, originally designed for a 1923 film set and later prominently featured in the Maison de Verre’s interior décor. Many of these items were scattered during the war, when the possessions of Chareau’s Jewish clients were sold or confiscated.

Individual pieces of furniture can appear sterile when isolated and displayed out of their original settings, so the exhibition designers have used ingenious techniques to bring the material to life. Back-projected silhouettes show people sitting in chairs, working at desks and moving about in rooms, suggesting how real folks would interact with the furniture. But even more intriguing is the use of virtual reality to place some of the pieces in their former surroundings. In the central gallery, four stations offer head sets through which to view the furniture in situ, including the interior and garden of the Maison de Verre. In an adjoining room, a digital walk-through of the house affords viewers admission to a building that is hidden away from public access. This high-tech experience seems to me an especially fitting way to interpret a structure that itself is a marvel of modern engineering and gadgetry.

Pierre Chareau, Maison de Verre, Paris, 1927.

Lovingly restored by the current owner, Robert Rubin, an American businessman, the house was commissioned by Dr. Jean Dalsace, a gynecologist, who had his office on the ground floor. Shoehorned under an existing 19th century building, its front and back façades are made entirely of glass bricks that maximize the available natural light while maintaining the occupants’ privacy. One wall is punctuated by heavy louvered windows that open easily using a geared mechanism. With its steel structure exposed both inside and out, its frank exploitation of industrial materials, and its custom-made furniture and fixtures, Maison de Verre is one of the most iconic buildings few people have ever seen in person. This exhibition is as close as most of us will come to actually being there.

 

Beckmann in New York

1-19-17

Max Beckmann (1884-1950), “Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket,” 1950. Oil on canvas, 55 1/8 x 36 inches. Saint Louis Art Museum.

On December 27, 1950, a man collapsed and died during a walk from his West Side apartment to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The man was Max Beckmann, one of Germany’s foremost 20th century artists, and his destination was the exhibition, “American Painting Today,” which included his “Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket.” That painting is the centerpiece of “Max Beckmann in New York,” a stunning show of paintings he made there, supplemented by other works from New York collections, on view at the Met through February 20.

The multiple ironies in this undertaking probably would have amused Beckmann, a champion cynic and master of gallows humor. For one, he was out of place in the show he never got to see. He was not American, nor was his brand of painting in the forefront of contemporary art at the time. Having survived persecution and exile during the Nazi regime, which labeled his art degenerate and confiscated it from German museums, he died of a heart attack in a city where he was perfectly safe and where his art was prized by important collectors. And this tribute, which opened 66 years after his death at age 66, includes a painting that was foolishly deaccessioned by the Met.

Beckmann moved to New York City in 1949 and spent only 15 months there, but many of his paintings had preceded him. The Museum of Modern Art already owned his major triptych, “The Voyage,” which puzzled me as a youngster and continues to fascinate. Dealers J.B. Neumann and Curt Valentin were placing his pictures in prestigious private collections. He was teaching at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and, inspired by a milieu he found as stimulating as prewar Berlin, painting up a storm. But he was not seduced by New York’s glitz and glamor. True to his nature, he also saw the darkness, both in those around him and in himself.

We are introduced to Beckmann by a group of seven self-portraits, including the blue-jacket one, inscribed “NY 50,” which proved to be one of his last works. Leaning on an armchair, puffing the ubiquitous cigarette, a brilliant orange shirt peeking out from underneath his cobalt coat, the artist appears introspective, as if mulling over ideas for a new painting, or perhaps deciding where his urban rambles would take him next. He was his own favorite subject, and this gallery shows us some of the many personae—one might say disguises—he assumed. His costumes range from conservative to theatrical, formal to casual, including a tiger-striped outfit for himself as a bugler in 1938, sounding a warning against Fascism’s rising tide.

Unlike some other German exponents of New Objectivity, Beckmann’s social and political critiques are metaphorical rather than literal, more general than topical, using familiar visual landmarks and personal symbolism to comment on the human condition. Recurring images include lighted candles, often with phallic overtones, that can mean both revealing light and burning pain; ladder-like shapes that may represent escape routes or confining bars; bound and mutilated figures, sometimes inverted, implying a world turned upside down by cruelty and oppression. His characters are not caricatures, like those of Grosz or Dix, but are often actors in tragicomic settings, wearing their costumes and makeup and playing roles in public or domestic dramas.

Max Beckmann, “The Town (City Night),” 1950. Oil on canvas,   64 ¾ x 75 inches. Saint Louis Art Museum.

This is complicated art, requiring some decoding in order to appreciate its deeper meanings. In “Bird’s Hell,” 1938, for example, a crowd of feathered monsters flashes the Nazi salute as one of them carves up a human victim. The blue demon that pops out of an egg is a symbol of the warped ideology hatched by Hitler’s megalomania. “The Town (City Night),” 1950, features a cast of grotesques attending a human sacrifice replete with sexual symbolism, while a monkey in a messenger’s cap holds the artist’s calling card. I’m here, he says, and I’m watching this travesty of a party—but strike up the band, and bring on the dancing girls! It’s a reminder that, even in New York, a city he loved, Beckmann sensed human folly behind the civilized façade.

On a personal level, Beckmann’s brief sojourn in the city had lasting significance for me. Apart from the magnificent legacy of his art, he left money to the Brooklyn Museum Art School to establish a scholarship in his name. I received one, and at the same time so did the handsome young man from England who became my husband. I think Beckmann would have been pleased to learn how that turned out.