In the two seasons Catherine de Zegher has been its director, the Drawing Center has gone from being cool to being important, which, depending on your point of view, may be either uncool or unimportant. Under her watch there have been only four of this institution’s signature “Selections” exhibitions—those erratic, short-term group outings dedicated to emerging artists. Instead, de Zegher has mounted six historical drawings surveys, including film director Sergey Eisenstein, Dutch artist-architect Constant, writer Henri Michaux, and now James Ensor, with a 95-work exhibition. The statistics for the two seasons preceding these are almost the exact opposite: There were seven “Selections” and five historical exhibitions, with three of these “history” shows devoted to Raymond Pettibon, young Irish artists, and drawings gleaned from various contemporary artists’ collections.
I miss the saucy “Selections” shows, which have turned up such promising talent as Kara Walker, Barry McGee, and Shahzia Sikander, but the good news is de Zegher is showcasing historical work that needs to be seen—not in some musty museum, but in a contemporary light, by us, here, now, on our turf, under our conditions. Not only is it important to count Constant, Eisenstein, or Michaux as “Selections”-style artists, it’s cool. If the past can’t be seen as pertinent, we’re sunk.
Nevertheless, the occasionally extraordinary, occasionally tedious “Between Street and Mirror: The Drawings of James Ensor” is flawed in ways that suggest the Drawing Center needs to take more seriously its bid to recast the past. Loan forms may have specified that lights be kept annoyingly low, but it’s doubtful they also stipulated that the walls be painted heinous shades of maroon and brown. It’s as though the Drawing Center is trying to appear museological, or attempting to evoke 19th-century Belgium. Whatever it’s doing, the place looks hokey and feels like some dank Communist-bloc museum.
Additionally, the Drawing Center doesn’t have to get things correct; it only has to get them good. That’s why it’s a shame that “Between Street and Mirror” presents such a by-the-book version of Ensor’s career, beginning in 1880 when the artist was 20 and ending—as all Ensor shows do—in 1899, when his visionary pyrotechnics ceased. Excised is “the deeply fishy late work” (to use the perfect phrase of critic Brooks Adams, who has written penetratingly on Ensor). Living the last 50 years of his life in his birthplace, the Belgian seaside resort of Ostend—where he played the role of the famous artist, received admirers like Emil Nolde, and lunched with the likes of Albert Einstein—Ensor turned to making copies of his old work and doctoring earlier efforts to make them look as if he had been stranger sooner. We’re never allowed to see, let alone question, this highly questionable work. Imagine a Pollock survey suddenly stopping after 1950, or curators neglecting—as they once did—the late work of Chardin, Guston, or Picasso.
Fortunately, these shortcomings don’t prevent most of the second half of this show from being a real rush, or stop you from marveling at Ensor’s insurrectionary spectacles of fine line and masterful smudging. Ensor is all about throngs, sleaziness, and frenzy. He’s an obsessive with a feel for goofy detail, a caricaturist with a magic touch for facial expressions. Figures grimace and glower; they wear weird hats, walk with ghouls, or vomit after eating human flesh. There are skeleton processions, cavorting clowns, and demons with scythes. In one screwball etching, Ensor (who died in 1949) projects himself into the future as a putrefied skeletal form in the year 1960. Elsewhere, you can revel in his mad, grand, convulsive pictures of crowds; gross-out depictions of defecating magistrates; ghoulish characters, freaky faces, and kooky carcasses doing preposterous things.
His massacres and hellish scenes are a Mardi Gras of confusion drawn as if by a wildly precocious, deeply disturbed 14-year-old boy. His sweeping landscapes of human pandemonium are second to none. Some of these images contain thousands of exactly drawn figures—all involved in some sort of conflagration, all pouring off the front of the page. These are Ensor’s impressions of his fellow citizens—in his words, “a horde of rich hotel keepers, innkeepers, shipowners, bloodsucking merchants . . . and the enemies of progress and innovation”—which makes you realize he was a pretty big crank.
Ensor is also responsible for one of the more radical paintings in MOMA’s collection, the garish, spectral Tribulations of St. Anthony (1887), which in its wildstyle painterliness presages artists like Cy Twombly and Terry Winters. More important, he is the maker of one of the greatest paintings hanging in an American museum, the Getty’s appallingly installed The Entry of Christ Into Brussels (1888). Art historian Robert Rosenblum called this gigantic upheaval of figures and gaudy color “the best painting in America, west of La Grande Jatte.” Ensor may not take you as deep as his contemporary Munch, but he takes you further out. In his own agitated way, he pulls back the curtain on the revolutionary fracture formed by the warring pressures of urban reality, private fantasy, social tumult, pageantry, disillusionment, the grotesque, and unadulterated phantasmagoria. Ensor is the king of this crack in our consciousness.
Influenced as he is by Bosch, Brueghel, and his countryman Félicien Rops, Ensor doesn’t come out of nowhere. He is Goya without the profundity or the suffering, Rembrandt without the immense love and mystery, Toulouse-Lautrec without Paris. Because of the way he renders his roiling world, however, Ensor is proto practically everything that follows. He is the uncle of us all. His tendency toward morbidity, childishness, spectacle, and irony anticipates Kafka, Klee, Kurosawa, and Kippenberger respectively. Neither an Impressionist nor a Symbolist exactly, Ensor—who really wanted to be an artist-provocateur like Courbet or Manet—is among the first great messy painters and leads inexorably to Expressionism. His doodleyness and linearity remind us of Miró, Oyvind Fahlstrom, and Jim Nutt, while his armageddon battle scenes are pure Henry Darger. Both the way Ensor juxtaposes unrelated objects and the way he sunders time and space pave the way for Surrealism. His quest for the id and his proclivity for all-overness presage abstract expressionism. His patchwork composition portends artists like Rauschenberg, Polke, and Basquiat, while his intoxicated, comic book style and sexual imaginings predict everyone from Peter Saul and Jim Shaw to Amy Sillman and Carroll Dunham.
Ensor feels modern to us because he is. Ensor wanted to astonish, to make it new, and to be an art star. He wasn’t beyond grandstanding. His art can feel gratuitous, affected, showy, and limited. You can find yourself spacing out, looking for the daffy bits, or playing private games of Find the Skeleton. Between these moments, however, Ensor can and does amaze.