Thursday, May 6, 2010

I dig: Claude Monet

The exquisiteness of the Claude Monet "Late Works" exhibition at the Gagosian is destined to throw even the seasoned gallery-goer off balance. Setting aside for a moment the groundwork that went into this show — led by Paul Hayes Tucker's curating and culling precious works from six international museums and various private collections, which, in this writer's mind, sounds as rigorous as a proper museum survey — the awesome transformation of the gallery space to temporarily house these works is outstanding. And lest we forget, we are privileged to view these Monets up close, sans admissions fees and cloakroom queues. We can visit this exhibition as often as we can make the trip to West Chelsea, all the while thinking 'wow, Gagosian, you've done it again'.

(Claude Monet Le Bassin aux nymphéas, 1917-19, Oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 78 3/4 inches, (100 x 200 cm), W. 1895. Honolulu Academy of Arts, Purchased in memory of Robert Allerton, 1966, photo courtesy Gagosian Gallery)

The exhibition is divided chronologically by 'start date', as some of the paintings on view span up to six years from conception to conclusion, and also by theme. These themes, in my broadly cumbersome terminology, are: early figurative Nymphéas and variations, later experimental pond settings, wilder Nymphéas veiled in blue tonalities, and finally the autumnal Le Pont Japonais and L'Allée de Rosiers. The floor-plan mirrors the first and last galleries, housing overall smaller works, against the interior second and third galleries with their considerably larger, more experimental canvases. The color factor pumps up considerably as we progress, especially in galleries three (dense blues) and four (burning red-oranges), preceding David Hockney's sensitive color-playfulness by decades.

Stepping into the exhibition space beyond the front desk is akin to tentatively peering into some secret art-filled rabbit hole. In another cinematic allusion: you feel like this isn't West Chelsea anymore. What I mean by this is: despite the white-box setting, Gagosian has successfully converted their 21st St location (a versatile space, too, handling both massive pieces like Richard Serra and Alexander Calder and ultra-customized environments like Piotr Uklański and Hiroshi Sugimoto w/ equal aplomb) into a suitably intimate, musuem-like vibe. Only w/o the queues, gift shops, and extraneous. The Pablo Picasso "Mosqueteros" last year — which of course preceded the current Modern Master mayhem at the, ahem, museums this year — hit close w/ that 'specialness' of exhibition atmosphere. But the gallery has nailed it with Monet. Perhaps it is the layout of custom partitions. The first gallery space beyond the front desk is an octagonal room, flattened on two sides by the entrance and exit corridors, bathed in a soothing neutral light that calls up the respective canvases w/o blasting them with glare. I cannot help but think of the Met, specifically the Special Exhibition Galleries on the 2nd Fl that housed the wonderful Francis Bacon centenary retrospective last year and the current Picasso show (and, even more specifically, the polygonal starting room in that gallery). This is an important point to note in the Monet exhibition (and really whenever you're out viewing out): what kind of space is [it] in, how is [it] hung, what is the lighting like, and how do the [works] play off one another? Yes, a Monet (or a Picasso, or fill in the blank) leaned against a garage wall would still be a beautiful piece, no doubt, but ALSO yes: the execution of an exhibition on the whole matters, if not on an immediately apparent level then at least a visceral, underlying one. This flattened octagonal room is nicely mirrored in the back gallery space, connected in between by two high-ceiling airier chambers that house his larger canvases, each with a subtle metal boundary in from of them (none such in galleries 1 and 4). The breadth of the show is impressive, and there are helpful links within the two decades of these late-period works. Just compare the first work in the show (Nymphéas from 1904) with the suite of L'Allée de Rosiers (1920-22) from the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris. The former, with its defined reflections in the pond and crisp flower blossoms on the layered lily pads, could be considered Monet at his most figurative, at least in this exhibition. Yet it links quite nicely w/ the latters' strong tree canopies and warm oranges and reds, which like the vegetal greens in Nymphéas denote true color. This will be a theme I revisit later on, so remember it. Beyond this general tidiness of clearly defined lilies and tree-lined paths is a gauzy, gestural romp into blue-saturated fields, massive wavy aquatic fronds and wetly composed dioramas. Let's dive in.

There are eight works total in the 1st gallery, the earliest in the show, focused on reflections and fragmented views of the water lily pond. Beyond the powerful first piece (from 1904, which I refer to above), there are what I call a trio of 'dualities', six works that echo each other in pairs, plus a sunnier work from 1906 that, with its clear reflections and ordered space for lily pad accumulation at the bottom relates in spirit to the opening canvas. As for my so-named 'dualities', in the two Nymphéas of 1907, the canvas from Pola Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan reads as a murkier overcast answer to its pinkish-blue neighbor (from a private collection) to the left. The Nymphéas of 1905, with their narrower profiles, bear a subtler difference, but stand nearly in the hallway that bisects their shared wall, so that they're almost in your peripheral vision, and you'll not need a history of color-theory or -correction to deduce the vibrant saturation in the left canvas. The link between the final two Nympheás in the room is a bit funnier but bear with me: I see these, the 1907 canvas from Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, and its somewhat cooler, squarish neighbor, as: 1) two crops of the same scene and 2) two times of day. The fiery sunset of the former, beginning in the tangerine rivulets north and center and phasing into a sparser Orange Crush pond, segues to the placid sea-greens and -blues of the private collection canvas, the stilled waters during the afternoon.

(Claude Monet Nymphéas, 1914-17. Oil on canvas, 59 x 78 ¾ inches, (150 x 200 cm). W.1814. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel. Photo courtesy Gagosian Gallery)

Cross the corridor into the next room, however, and the neat frame edges dissolve into wilder and much larger compositions. The massive Nymphéas (1914-17, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris) on — if my polar coordinates are accurate — the west wall, is in the running for largest canvas in the show. It is large enough that you could climb full-body into it, were it a window, and it features a great bundle of juicy grasses or reeds in the center over a pale milky green backdrop, like that of matcha in bubble tea. Les Agapanthes (1914-17, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris) on the south wall, hidden from view when you first enter this space, is dominated by great gestural paint swaths denoting the titular flowering plant, with cloudy white lilies sneaking above and to the right of the main focal space. The central canvas in this room, Les Bassin aux Nymphéas (1917-19, Honolulu Academy of Art) is truly ecstasy-inducing, seriously, what w/ its central crystal-clear watery expanse dotted on all sides by seductive red blooms. It's also one of two canvases in the show under glass (the other is the 'daytime' Nymphéas in the previous gallery). I think it's in the painting's best interests to be protected because: 1) the lighting is calm enough not to throw terrible reflections against the glass, marring viewing enjoyment and 2) it could well cause someone to feel pleasantly lightheaded, staring into the glorious aquatic slick. The third gallery continues Monet's experimentation and large canvases, only this time w/ an overall intensely blue predilection. Nymphéas (1916-19, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris), the other front-runner for 'largest canvas in the show', acts like a precursor to color-field painting, w/ the smear of greens and blues occupying roughly the lower half of the canvas, permitting an orderly school-of-fish formation for the lilies in the upper quadrant. The other Musée Marmottan in this room, Nymphéas (1916-19) on the opposite wall, features a light blue diffusion and floating forms that reminded me on 1st viewing of the underwater level from "Super Mario Land" for Game Boy, specifically once you plugged the cartridge into a Super Game Boy and then that into a Super Nintendo, so you could customize the colors that, w/ its 12-color limit, could only begin to emulate the endless variations of an undersea palette.The nearly impenetrably blue Nymphéas (1919) from Fondation Beyeler, Basel, exposes its stream covered in lily pads and its right-lying mossy expanse once you step back far enough and relax your eyes. And the lively Nymphéas (1914-17) from a private collection enacts this lovely ballet b/w kelp-green foliage and concentrated white blossoms — seeing this in person is like sticking your head under the surface of your favorite storybook country lake.

I tend to linger the longest in Gallery 4, the other flattened octagonal room, which houses some of the master's final — and in my opinion finest — paintings, the Japanese footbridges and tree-lined paths transfixed in either perpetual autumn or sunset, depending on your preference. There was a handsome Le Pont Japonais (1920-22), ablaze in yellowy-oranges and shimmering as if enveloped in a sultry breeze, at the MoMA's fine "Monet's Water Lilies" installation, which ended last month. The versions in Gagosian's exhibition are smaller but satisfy me just fine, in particular Le Pont Japonais (1918-1924, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris), the intro work, with its resonating mulberry hues around the bridge, is even more feverishly abstract than the canvas in MoMA's show. This and the trio L'Allée de Rosiers bookend the larger vertical painting Coin du Bassin aux Nymphéas (1918-19, private collection), a dense, tranquil forest scene, or what looks to be a forest w/ bare peeks of aquamarine water creeping here and there. Its neighbor Saule Pleueur (1918-19, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris), is even drier, yet totally permeated w/ life in the darting greens and yellows around the central trunk. And of course we have L'Allée de Rosiers (all 1920-22, the first and last from Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris and the middle from a private collection), the quiet rustling of leaves and shift of daylight, the path extending into the distance as the colors become more vivid and complex with each following canvas. The reds and red-oranges of the first fill with bursts of light and color, like showers of flower petals of every species floating through the treeline and accumulating on the path, as the sunlight winks through the branches. And I swear I see a shadow in the distance of the second canvas (maybe the third as well), like the constructed park-scene in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup: it may or may not be there, but it somehow comforts me. It is a powerful coda to a fascinating exhibition.

(Claude Monet L'Allée de Rosiers, 1920-22. Oil on canvas, 35 x 39 1/2 inches, (89 x 100 cm). W.1934, MM 5089. Musee Marmatton Monet, Paris. Photo courtesy Gagosian Gallery)

Claude Monet "Late Works" is on view at Gagosian's 522 W 21st St location through June 26. Yes, you should totally go, multiple times.