“Snow Storm — Steam Boat Off a Harbor’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “J. M. W. Turner” is a beast of a show. With nearly 150 works in oil and watercolor spanning more than half a century…

In the history of Western painting, Turner looms large as a prodigiously gifted, productive and innovative figure. His complex legacy reflects his interests not only as an artist but also as a poet, naturalist, philosopher and lover of music and theater. His paintings of storms at sea or Alpine plunges are early examples of the natural sublime; his squalls of paint presage the Romantics, the Realists, the Impressionists and even the Abstract Expressionists. He built luminosity into his canvases by painting on white grounds (rather than the traditional black), and he used color as color and paint as paint more directly than anyone before him. His works pop out when seen one at a time in a museum collection. How could anyone paint so abstractly so early? Victoria was barely on the throne!

Seeing Turner’s work in bulk is another matter. His innovations can be dulled by its repetitiveness and unvarying skill. His squalls of paint were usually intended as quite realistic pictures of heavy weather, as signaled by the fussily accurate bits of ship wreckage drifting by. And anyway, innovation, influence and precedence don’t necessarily make a work compelling when you’re standing before it.

In the present Turner’s achievement still seems to be up for grabs, something to fight about, which adds excitement to the ups and downs of the Met show. There may be fights about which are which.
Turner (1775-1851) rode the cusp of art history as if it were a great wave crashing through one of his seascapes, and this show rides it with him…

Almost from the beginning, Turner’s work was both admired and disparaged, as several labels in the exhibition attest. John Ruskin, by far his greatest admirer, often ran out of superlatives. Yet by 1801 one critic was already complaining about illegibility and “an affectation of carelessness…”

This show may be wearying because there is something imperious and impersonal about the sheer force of Turner’s ambition. It is almost as if his drive to capture nature or history in motion was so intense that it didn’t leave room for anyone else, including the viewer. Maybe that’s why despite all his hard work and even the majesty of his vision, you can emerge from this exhibition impressed but oddly untouched, even chilled.

Roberta Smith
New York Times