I hear it said all the time: Why paint today, when ever-new forms of interactive technologies compete for our attention? How instrumental can painting be in a world that’s changing faster than we can measure? Sure, we can bring it forward, revise histories, finesse attitudes. But cover new ground? There’s room for doubt.
This discursive rumble is most audible in Chelsea, where it is rare to encounter art that is not almost exclusively of the moment. Anything produced before postmodernism gets bumped up to midtown, with the result that big questions about painting and the relevancy of art are staged in a partial vacuum. That said, as galleries have become increasingly large, with the clout and the budget to mount ambitious, museum-quality exhibitions, new models are emerging that challenge the status quo of “all contemporary, all the time.” New art is beginning to rub shoulders with modernist art, downtown, in ways that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.
Mix it up, and the rewards can be huge. There’s no better example than “The New Landscape/The New Still Life: Soutine and Modern Art.” This is the kind of show you dream about but rarely see—especially in the summer, especially in Chelsea. It includes 17 still-life and landscape paintings by Soutine, produced primarily between 1918 and 1927, his “brilliant” period. Drenched in paint and pathos, images of dead animals—rabbits, pheasant, chickens, pictured midway between the field and the frying pan—are brutal, gory, and beautiful. Equally mesmerizing, his trance-like visions of the Mediterranean village of Ceret verge on orgiastic. These rarely seen paintings are captivating—you can’t stop looking at them. But that’s only half the story. Soutine’s energized canvases are grouped with works by 21 artists who have been influenced, directly and indirectly, by the Belarusian expressionist who is known as a preeminent “painter’s painter.”
The curators draw a wide circle of influence from mid-century to the present. They have a bone to pick with MOMA for recently de-accessioning one of Soutine’s finest canvases and for currently failing to display any of his work. Art-historical disputes aside, they invite the viewer not only to reflect on the idea of artistic influence but also to develop a connoisseur’s eye for detail by exploring the rich affinities between Soutine and some of the most notable artists of these and past times. Paintings by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Jack Tworkov, and Bill Jensen, together with (surprise!) a little suspended sculpture by Joel Shapiro, are grouped with Soutine’s monumental Carcass of Beef, and immediately begin to talk to one another. Multiple common denominators spring to action, and we’re inspired to compare gestures, compositional structures, shifts in scale, ruptures, palettes, and many other qualities that beckon to one another in ways that are nothing short of thrilling.
The affinity between de Kooning and Soutine is especially strong—most notably the speed and Dionysian density of their paint and the sense of rapture they are able to generate. But it is no less astounding to see what happens when Joan Mitchell’s abstractions are matched with Soutine’s near-liquid paintings of the French countryside. Together they achieve full-blown lyricism. When a pathetic yellow turkey by Alice Neel is hung alongside a pair of bloody pigeons by Soutine, we see their shared penchant for exploring a nauseating edge that locates life and death, familiarity and disgust, in uncomfortably close proximity. A threesome staged in the rear gallery introduces Soutine’s dead pheasants to two of Georg Baselitz’s creatures—an eagle and a dog, both upside down—and Louise Bourgeois’s suspended bronze sculpture The Quartered One. In this explosive union, no one gets out alive.
What is the relevancy of painting today? If the chemistry of Soutine and the 21 artists exhibited (all acknowledge and comment on his influence in the accompanying catalog) is any indication, the point is that we can see more, feel more, and intuit more. How critical these humanistic skills are today, in a world not unlike Soutine’s during World War II, in which empathy is in such short supply.