Shabby Men, Giant Names

Piccasso's The BatherThe Orange County Museum of Art is a freakin' zoo these days. While its echoing chambers would normally be a great place to conduct a crack deal, make a little “public” whoopee, or hide an inconvenient corpse, step in any day this week and you'll see people—if it's Tuesday, matrons, mostly—crowding against one another like they're subway rubbers. “Picasso to Pollock” is OCMA's very own “Van Gogh.”

Picasso? Pollock? Such shabby men; such giant names. But while the marketing folks lassoed the names of both for the catchy moniker, the original title for the traveling show—”Surrealism N Modernism: From the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art”—is much more truth in advertising. In fact, there's little Picasso and even less Pollock in an exhibit filled with works you can't believe are right in front of you. The real stars are Magritte, Dali, Arp and Matisse, with a little Picasso for flava, and those names should be giant enough for anyone.

It's tough for many Americans—and I'm among them—to embrace the cold intellectual enslavement to the surface that began with Braques' fiery fractures and culminated in Clement Greenberg's silly edicts that left America without a proper picture of anything for a good 30 years. (Finish Fetishists are still trying to scab over “the surface,” though thankfully their white-on-crusted-white didn't last long—for anyone but them—beyond the '90s.) What was in the past century a new and strange phenomena quickly bogged down in Manifesto This and Manifesto That, until by the time it got to our generation, it marched in lockstep with itself and had been wrung free of any juice or meaning. It was the province only of folks who wanted to be painters but had nothing to paint.

For that reason, “Picasso to Pollock” sounds like exactly the sort of purposely dreary and cringe-making work with which the Russian Constructivists sought to annoy their Stalinist bosses. It sounds as though it's all picture plane and no picture, all drip and no dream.

But, oh, honey. It's a beauty.

* * *

The Wadsworth, the country's oldest museum, must be a wonderful place. In the '20s, its director—whom I imagine sunny and peppy like Tim Robbins in The Hudsucker Proxy(“You know! For kids!”)—was jetting off to Paris and bringing back Picassos and Dalis to shock the stodgy folk in Hartford, Connecticut. He showed Rivera and Siqueiros and Tamayo. He paid sums in the tens of thousands for some works but couldn't scrape up $350 for Salvador Dali's Persistence of Time. Instead, he bought a different Dali for a hundred dollars less.

As it is, he and his collector buddies stocked the place like so much trout in a fishing pond with men who would become the heroes of the age. The sploogy spatters of Pollock are represented, but so are the representational works that preceded them—becoming subtly whoozier of brush with each speeding moment. We start with precise Rousseau painting aching, verdant country villages, and within five minutes, the lines become louche and unguarded with Matisse and his loopy The Ostrich-Feather Hat. Picasso stretches the line with his beautiful The Bather (a Hulk-like woman of epic thighs and tiny head that's almost neoclassical) before things get frenzied and Fauve, and then four seconds later, comes along with his pure-Cube breasts-and-pooters-everywhere The Painter. Balthus checks in to boast that he at least still knows how to paint, with a retro-Vermeer The Bernese Hatthat must have pissed everyone off considerably, and we get a handsome Mondrian in monochrome geometrics to remind us that Balthus' is the last portrait we'll be seeing for a few decades. Then, having made the point that the museum was in the vanguard and before subjecting us to the McCarthyism of the Greenberg-Surface years, it stops and lets the crowd-pleasing Surrealists take over.

At the precise moment that the seeds sown by Braque and Picasso seemed to be overshadowing every other sapling—poor saplings!—the Surrealists were having a Manifesto of their own, spewing forth Arp's clouds as musical notations, Magritte's clouds as interior dreams (paving the way for Peter Alexander's resin cloud boxes in the '70s) and Dali's luscious parlor tricks (the subject of much Manifesto-sodden angst among the purists) of Find the Young Lady in the Old Crone's Head. Georgia O'Keeffe is shown in the lovely, Deco (not that Surrealist, really, but not complaining) The Lawrence Tree. As seen from a vantage lying underneath it, it doesn't look at all like a vagina, but maybe the ganglia of some fallopian tubes? Yes, that could be. Meanwhile, the Winnebago set is clustered before Dali's Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach looking for hidden breasts and faces—and finding more than several.

The exhibit's beautiful, its touch both deft and light, and people are happy to be there in the presence of the works. Before they leave, people give a minute's duty to the lone Pollock and its dizzy, scrabbled surface.

Pollock? Yeah, he's there, too.


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