Jasper Johns Regrets

Jasper Johns Regrets

Last week I had lunch with an old friend who follows Modern and Contemporary art with the resolve and expertise of a bloodhound, even though he doesn’t earn his living from tracking pictures. He asked if I’d seen the show of Jasper Johns’ very newest work now on view at MOMA, and I confessed that I hadn’t. But thanks to my friend’s urging a few days ago I visited it.  Visited it for the first time, that is.  The show is such a revelation about the way one artist’s mind works that I need to see it several times.

The show — as well as the big painting at the center of it — is called Jasper Johns Regrets. Maybe in the next installment of this blog I’ll have more to say about the title, but for the moment all I can think about is the revelation of what art historians have been fond of calling an artist’s “old-age” style.  (I once heard a talk about Raphael’s “old-age” style, even though he died suddenly on his 37th birthday. Academic fashions can make fools out of smart people who ought to know better.)  On May 15th Jasper Johns will be 84 years old and that’s why the style of this new work may justly be called “old-age.”  He’s still turning out masterpieces.

Even while Johns, Rauschenberg, and Warhol, all gay men, were giving the finger to the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, hyper-butch Abstract Expressionists in the late 1950s, it was easy to see that underneath the outrageousness there ran through Johns’ work a profound commitment to the physical act of painting and to the life that paint, when applied with skill, intention, and taste, can quicken on a canvas. In that way he was no different from, say, Pollock or de Kooning. Jasper Johns was then, and remains to this day, as much a painter’s painter as they — or as Manet and Monet, or as Watteau and Boucher, or as Rembrandt and Velázquez.

What these painters have in common is their artistic descent from the great Venetian painter Titian (c1489 – 1576), who made paint sexy. Their descent from Titian came not only through the traditions in which they were taught, but — more important — through their own careful study of his works. Our obsession with innovation, mistakenly thought to be synonymous with originality, blinds us to the plain fact that ever since the Renaissance, art-making has been primarily (I would argue) the business of artists responding to other artists. That isn’t “art for art’s sake.” But it is a professional tradition comparable in its way to a legal system that relies on precedent as the foundation for true innovation.

Jasper Johns Regrets is a prolonged lesson in how that centuries-old habit of thinking is alive in the work of one of the country’s most gifted artists. The immediate stimulus for Johns was a reproduction of a photograph of Lucian Freud in a sale catalogue. The picture was taken on order for Francis Bacon, and it led to Bacon’s famous 1969 triptych of Freud that sold last autumn for $142 million. I found it impossible to look at the recent Johns works without thinking about them, at least in part, as a series of comments on Bacon’s stimulus.

But in the MOMA gallery we are far from the grotesque hullabaloo stirred up around the sale of the Bacon. We enter a serene gray cocoon lined mostly with works on paper that are variations on the themes Johns found in the photograph. The intelligence of a very great artist hangs in the air we move through, gently inviting us to look with him, to see with him, to learn from him just as he learned from artists before him. At the time when Jasper Johns has taken his place among the ranks of canonical 20th-century masters, the works in Jasper Johns Regrets reveal a deep humility and reverential affection for the distinguished lineage of which he is a worthy heir.

Leave a comment

by | March 29, 2014 · 4:42 pm

Eating Crow for Cardinals

For years I’ve usually managed to keep my professional enthusiasms reined in when it comes to making them public, but Monday was an exception. Which is why I’m eating crow for cardinals. Cardinal Number One is Francesco Barberini (1597-1679).

Cardinal Francesco Barberini

Cardinal Francesco Barberini

I suggested that Francesco Barberini might have commissioned Gregorio Allegri to write the soprano solos in his well-loved “Miserere” for the famous castrato Marcantonio Pasqualini. I further suggested that it may have been Francesco who attached Pasqualini to the Barberini household, and that Pasqualini may have sung operas in the theater constructed adjacent to the family’s spectacular palace.

Today I read an exceptionally interesting article by Karin Wolfe, who is the leading authority on Cardinal Antonio Barberini’s career. (K. Wolfe, “Protector and Protectorate: Cardinal Antonio Barberini’s Art Diplomacy for the French Crown at the Papal Court,” in Art and Society in Early Modern Rome, ed. Jill Burke and Michael Bury, Ashgate: Aldershot, 2008, pp. 133-132). Wolfe’s piece taught me that much of what I said on Monday needs to be corrected on Thursday. Antonio Barberini is Cardinal Number Two.

Cardinal Antonio Barberini

Cardinal Antonio Barberini

Cardinal Antonio Barberini was a free-spending, self-promoting, high-living connoisseur of everything that rich people in 17th-century Rome considered beautiful, rare, expensive, and prestigious. He also seems to have made enemies at every turn because of his extravagance and his diplomatically imprudent prejudice for all things French. Personally, I think I’d have preferred the company of his brother Cardinal Francesco Barberini.

But it’s clear that Antonio Barberini — not Francesco — was the likely mover and shaker behind the events that led up to Andrea Sacchi’s portrait of Pasqualini. Cardinal Antonio was Sacchi’s most fervent patron; Cardinal Antonio built the theater at the Palazzo Barberini; and Cardinal Antonio was the protector of the pontifical choir in the years when Pasqualini sang in it and Allegri wrote his Miserere.

Through further research I also learned that Gregorio Allegri was a member of that choir from 1629 until his death in 1652, which means that he and Marcantonio Pasqualini sang together more or less constantly. During his tenure Allegri wrote a number of pieces for the pontifical choir and directed it on occasion. Thus his association with Pasqualini was much closer than I thought a couple of days ago. In fact, to me it seems even more likely that Allegri did in fact write those soprano solos for Pasqualini.

That saves at least a little of my bacon. Now I have to stop writing and swallow that tough old crow.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Picture of a Castrato

Apollo Crowning Marcantonio Pasqualini with Laurel

The other day Andrew Sullivan posted a reader’s note about one of everybody’s favorite pieces of Baroque music, Gregorio Allegri’s exquisite setting of Psalm 51, usually known simply as “the Allegri Miserere.”  The composer wrote the Miserere some time before 1638 for the choir of the Sistine Chapel, and it quickly became so popular that successive popes threatened to excommunicate anyone who even attempted to copy it.  In 1771, however, the twelve-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart heard it in Rome with his father Leopold; and although he didn’t copy the score, he went back to their lodgings and wrote out the entire piece from memory.  Anybody who’s heard the music can immediately understand its early and lasting fame: It’s so beautiful that it makes you weep.

The note also provided a link to a wonderful article about the music, which in turn made me think of one of the weirder Italian Baroque pictures in the Metropolitan Museum.  It’s a full-length portrait painted in 1641 by the distinguished Roman artist Andrea Sacchi (c1599-1661).

In the center stands Apollo, naked and epicene, holding his lyre.  Behind him Marsyas, the arrogant satyr who dared challenge Apollo to a music contest, writhes in anticipation of his imminent flagellation.  With his right hand Apollo places a laurel crown on the head of a dark-haired youth.  He is the sitter, the castrato Marcantonio Pasqualini (1614-1691).  Pasqualini wears a fine linen shirt hanging to just below his knees, and under that a pair of purple stockings and leather slippers laced with scarlet ribbons.  Over his shoulder and around his waist he’s draped what looks like the skin of a lynx.  (Does this puzzling costume signify a role in an opera that we no longer know?)  The singer’s hands rest on the keyboard of a clavicytherium, an arcane Baroque instrument so rare than nobody knew what it sounded like until a few years ago, when Steven Sørli, a harpsichord maker in Amherst, MA, began to build new ones for early-music keyboard players.

Full-length portraits of persons who were not of a high ecclesiastical or noble rank are so rare in the period that I can’t think of one.  However, at the moment when Sacchi painted Pasqualini’s portrait the castrato was an international superstar of the brand-new genre of musical drama we call opera.  He had begun his career as a soprano in the Sistine Chapel choir, which alerts us to the fact that Allegri wrote his Miserere for that ensemble during the reign of Pope Urban VIII Barberini (elected in 1628, died in 1644).

Urban VIII was an immensely civilized man, but even more civilized was his nephew Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679).  It was he, for example, who arranged for the eccentric genius Francesco Borromini to design the church of San Filippo alle Quattro Fontane, just up the street from the Barberini’s fabulous new palace (also an architectural “first,” and also with Borromini and Bernini as [mutually hating] architects).  Francesco Barberini was just as important as a patron of the other arts.  For example, Francesco hired Andrea Sacchi, the painter of this portrait, for the decoration of one of the palace’s main rooms; and he and his brother Antonio commissioned Bernini to design a theater in the building, the likely venue for operas that Pasqualini sang under Barberini patronage.

It was probably Cardinal Francesco Barberini who attached the brilliant castrato to the Barberini household after hearing him sing in the Sistine Chapel.  Indeed it seems likely to me that Allegri wrote the famously difficult soprano parts of the Miserere specifically for Pasqualini.  That would be one reason why attempts to imitate the sounds heard in Rome for performances elsewhere usually ended with everybody wondering what all the fuss had been about.  Castrati were carefully trained over years of conservatory study not only in vocal technique, but also in counterpoint and other compositional devices.  No matter how ravishing the sounds that came from his throat, no uneducated castrato could have created the spectacular but musically correct improvisations that were part of the glamour associated with the most famous of them.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to look at Sacchi’s portrait of Pasqualini while listening to a performance of the Allegri Miserere featuring 17th-century ornamentation in the soprano solos?  Maybe somebody could persuade the Met to undertake such an enterprise.

1 Comment

by | March 17, 2014 · 2:14 pm

Of Icons and the Iconic

Giovanni Belini, "Greek" Madonna, 1460s. Milan, Brera

Giovanni Belini, “Greek” Madonna, 1460s. Milan, Brera

In the undergraduate Art History Department at NYU this semester I am teaching a course called “The Golden Age of Venetian Painting,” which is a slightly cheesey term for the art of Giovanni Bellini (c1432-1516), Titian (c1489-1576), Tintoretto (c1518-1594), and their colleagues.  (Obviously, and unlike the Florentines, Venetians weren’t rigorous about keeping accurate records of birth dates.)

Penetrating questions and astute remarks pop from students like sparks from a fat-pine fire.  They are so attentive, so alert, so curious, and so courageous about asking questions, making comments (and even disagreeing with me) that being with them is like breathing pure oxygen.  What’s more, the composition of the group itself is exciting.  The mixture includes a young American woman of Chinese descent who could be headed for graduate school; there’s a native Japanese speaker who doesn’t volunteer very often but, when she does, she’s worth listening to; there’s a charming young Italian who I can only suppose is too polite to point out my linguistic mistakes; there are interesting contributions from two young men, representing the northern and southern halves of the Americas, enrolled in the Tisch School of the Arts in Digital Media; and there’s a young woman from India or Bangladesh who rounds out the wonderful assortment of backgrounds, experiences, and points of view.

Uniting these talented and curious young people are their common experience of New York City in 2014 and the various ways that digital media bind people together.  The fifty-year distance between their youth and my youth has allowed us to have fruitful discussions about the hermeneutics of today’s critical vocabulary, such as “the male gaze.”  The students were genuinely engaged with considering the stability of a term like “the male gaze” when deployed in an interpretation of sixteenth-century Italian culture.  Referring to a painting by Giovanni Bellini known as the “Greek” Madonna — because it evokes the kind of Orthodox holy images that were commonplace in Renaissance Venice — yesterday a student used the word “iconic.”

When I asked her what she meant by “iconic,” her answer led to a conversation about words and their meanings.  We discussed how the denizens of Silicone Valley have in some ways degraded the English language.  At first the students couldn’t think of another meaning for “icon” apart from the little thingy on the computer screen or a term for a movie star.  Now they know that Bellini derived his “Greek” Madonna from an icon, not a thingy, and that “iconic” images are those of Christ and the Saints, not of Alec Baldwin.

These wonderful young people immediately perceived how important it is to be sensitive to cultural differences when we assume that the people we address will understand what we have said in the terms we intended.  That’s a language lesson for politicians as well as for students of the Humanities.

11 March 2014


Filed under Uncategorized

Shooting Warhol artwork increases value

I thought it was amazing that Dennis Hopper put two bullets in to a Warhol portrait and its auction price was ten-fold its high estimate:


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized