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Josiah McElheny’s “Island Universe.”

On the face of it, Bob Dylan’s surreal, sardonic, incendiary poetry has little in common with artist Josiah McElheny’s professorial aesthetic – a sensibility that traffics in science, self-consciousness, and shiny surfaces.

McElheny makes art deliberately, methodically, and critically.

But Dylan cries out for quotation on many occasions, I find. And McElheny’s compelling show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, “Some Pictures of the Infinite,” just happens to be one of them.

“Inside the museums,” sang Dylan in “Visions of Johanna,” a twangy, portent-filled song from the great 1966 album “Blonde on Blonde,” “infinity goes up on trial.”

The same verse goes on, of course, to give us the unforgettable images of Mona Lisa with the highway blues (“you can tell by the way she smiles”) and – in a climax of inspired rhymes – a jelly-faced woman with a mustache saying, “Jeez I can’t find my knees.”

But it’s that notion of museums putting infinity on trial – staking their own claims on timelessness, insulating their contents from the endlessness of the outside world – that lingers in the puzzled mind, and which seems so apposite to McElheny’s “Some Pictures of the Infinite.”

It’s a show, after all, about infinity. It’s also about museums, mirrors, modernism, multiverses, revolution, the Big Bang, and much more.


Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe


Jasper Johns’s “The Dutch Wives” (Harvard Art Museum)

Jasper Johns is an artist one finds difficult to love, and then, on reflection — and often against a backdrop of crisis or doubt — comes to love wholeheartedly, soberly, sincerely. He is an artist for grown-ups. He might seem reticent, puzzling, at times willfully tangled up in himself. But if you are struggling to make sense of art, life, or any conceivable combination thereof, he is not the bafflingly forked path he can seem, but rather a guide, one who won’t take your hand but will instead send you back out on your own, your sense of the mystery renewed and expanded.

Johns, 82, is one of the giants of modern art. If his work derives directly from that holy trinity of modern art — Cezanne, Picasso, and Duchamp (Father, Son, and errant Ghost) — there are times when it seems every major postwar development in art, from Pop and Minimalism to Process Art and Conceptualism, derives from him.


Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe

Richard Diebenkorn, ”Ocean Park #36,” 1970

A great and stately unfolding occurs in the “Ocean Park” paintings of Richard Diebenkorn, among which can be counted some of the most beautiful works of art created in America, or anywhere else, since the Second World War.

To stand before these austere but drenchingly beautiful canvases is as close as art gets to the feeling of taking refuge on a cold day under a warm shower. The larger paintings, in particular, impose a physical, almost drug-dragged restraint against removing oneself from their ambit.

Between 1967 and 1985, Diebenkorn (1922-1993), who had already earned acclaim first as an abstract painter, then as a figurative one, settled with his wife Phyllis in southern California. In a beachfront community called Ocean Park in Santa Monica, he occupied first a small, windowless room and then, after six or eight months, a larger, light-filled studio that had just been vacated by his friend, the painter Sam Francis.

There, at the age of 45, and without quite knowing what he was doing or why, Diebenkorn threw himself back into abstraction. Over the next two decades he created 145 “Ocean Park” paintings, some as large as 8½ by 6½ feet, others much smaller.


Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe

Shambhala in Modern Times by Tibetan artist Gonkar Gyatso. (MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON)

I can’t remember the last time the Museum of Fine Arts put on an exhibition incorporating psychedelic silkscreens, Tibetan thangkas, Pink Floyd, unicorns and snow lions, instructions on how to open a condom wrapper, digital animation, dwarves, a collaboration with Nepalese nuns, and a prospective apocalypse. But I hope it’s not too long before they do it – or something similar – again.

“Seeking Shambhala,’’ on view at the MFA until Sept. 30, is one of those under-the-radar, single-gallery, collection-based museum shows that comes close to out-wowing the museum’s loudly trumpeted, loan-based blockbusters.


Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe

Paul Klee famously said that a drawing is simply a line going for a walk. The formulation was taken up by artists of all stripes, from die-hard abstract modernists to Crockett Johnson, the man who created “Harold and the Purple Crayon.’’

But of course, a line is singular, whereas life is bewilderingly plural. The three artists in “Emerging Dis/Order,’’ an excellent contemporary drawing show at the Bates College Museum of Art in Maine, remind us that lines are multidirectional. They swarm and multiply, and will not be kept on a leash.

“Emerging Dis/Order’’ – an unfortunate title that all but screams “Fussy academics in charge!’’ – is, against the odds, an ambitious, approachable show well worth visiting. A better title might have been “Swarm Intelligence,’’ which one of the artists, Alison Hildreth, used for a series of paintings she worked on in 2005. It captures exactly the quality these three women have in common: a fascination with how forms multiply, divide, and coalesce again.


Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe

Petit Interieur a la table de Marbre Ronde

There’s a great big metaphysical joke at the core of the genius that was Henri Matisse, and it has to do with the idea of work, of labor, of effort.

Matisse, in his full-throated maturity, represents the opposite of these things. His work stands for ease and effortless beauty, and for an almost total absence of pressure – the pressure of careful outlines and fastidiously filled-in paint and, by extension, of life itself, with its repressed desires, irreconcilable demands, and emotional heavy-lifting.


Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe

Nothing can really compare to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s “El Jaleo’’ or the Museum of Fine Arts’ “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,’’ but when I’m asked to name my favorite picture by John Singer Sargent, I often nominate this one.

It’s a great picture – but, I freely admit, it’s also personal. My wife, a violinist, ran off to Paris to join the circus, and it so happened she chose the Cirque d’Hiver. She was kind enough to bring me with her, and so I spent a lot of time in the steeply sweeping, circular interior depicted here by Sargent.


Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe

Mark Bradford’s “A Truly Rich Man Is One Whose Children Run Into His Arms Even When His Hands Are Empty.’’ (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)

Imposing and even quite grand at a distance, Mark Bradford’s paintings, like the sprawling cities they evoke, suggest ruins up close.

They are ruins — the ruins of other modes of communication, other forms of speech. One over the other, Bradford layers old billboard signs, maps, and street posters. They’re salvaged, shredded, stripped, glued on, and rubbed back.

Working intuitively, he converts all these materials and more into works of art that are dense with history, freighted not only with political and social readings but with an abiding, poignant silence.

It’s the silence that gets under your skin. To wander around Bradford’s superb survey show at the Institute of Contemporary Art is to oscillate between the desire to get up close and even to touch (the impulse to run your fingers over their corrugated surfaces is almost impossible to resist) and a growing sense that you are in fact looking on from unreadable distances, like a general watching a chaotic battle from the top of a distant knoll, or an uncomprehending politician flying high over a disaster zone.


Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe

Pawel Wojtasik’s ”Below Sea Level” is a long multichannel video of New Orleans scenes displayed, cyclorama-style, on screens that completely encircle the viewer.

If you’ve grown accustomed, resentfully or otherwise, to the frivolity and antics of the contemporary art world, the recent shift in mood toward elegy and soulfulness can be discombobulating, and even rather hard to take. Are we really to take seriously the Weltschmerz and despair of brutally ambitious young turks just out of art school, prospering denizens of Chelsea, or millionaire friends of Elton John?

Sam Taylor-Wood, one of the six artists in “These Days: Elegies for Modern Times” at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, fits that last description. That she has also survived cancer and a recent divorce from her dealer, Jay Jopling, and that her art peddles in the fundamental themes of love and loss, doesn’t, unfortunately, change the fact that it has always been trite.

In almost everything Taylor-Wood does, you can feel her sniffing the winds of popular appeal, art-world cachet, and tabloid sensation, and pitching her work at the point where all three meet.

If clowns in art are suddenly all the rage again, Taylor-Wood will take photos of clowns (see here her photos of dejected clowns in “After Dark (with Flower)” and “After Dark (Trapdoor)”). If David Beckham has been caught sleeping around, she will make a video of him sleeping innocently like a god. And she will never a miss an opportunity to borrow gloss and gossip value from her many other celebrity friends, from Robert Downey Jr. to Woody Harrelson.

Still, precisely because she has the knack of keeping things simple, Taylor-Wood occasionally hits the mark, and one of her works in “These Days,” a video filmed in time lapse called “A Little Death,” has rightly become a modest sort of classic. It shows a hare and a peach in a still life arrangement reminiscent of paintings by Chardin, the hare’s leg nailed to the wall, its head slumping on a table. Over the period of just a few minutes, we see the hare efficiently disassembled by maggots, while the peach remains absolutely the same.

The sight is at once incredible (how systematic these maggots are!), banal (you die, and this is what happens; get used to it), and mysterious (how to explain the immunity of that peach? Is it somehow a metaphor for the death-defying powers of eros, bolstered by the sexual reference in the work’s title, which in French refers to orgasm?). It’s as pithy an updating of the still life tradition of the “vanitas” as you could ask for.

In spirit, “These Days” relates most closely to the mood of late Romanticism. The artist is seen as a sort of mournful outside observer of various catastrophes, his or her capacity for poetic expression providing but a fragile bulwark against the great debacle at large.

It’s apt, then, that the Con necticut-based artist Robert Taplin has taken as his inspiration Dante’s “Inferno,” from “The Divine Comedy.” Taplin’s series of sculptures and dioramas made from wood, polychromed resin, lights, plaster, and Plexiglas take their cues from scenes in “Inferno,” updating them as allegories of contemporary strife.

THESE DAYS: Elegies for Modern Times At: Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, through Feb. 28. 413-664-4481,

The series begins with quiet scenes in familiar-looking interiors: Dante, a portly everyman figure based on Taplin himself, rising from bed, or sitting at a table, his head down, being summoned by two figures, Virgil, his guide, and Beatrice, his love.

Each subsequent work in the series takes us to another of the circles of hell: the smoky aftermath of a roadside bomb in what could be Baghdad; gathering crowds of refugees trying to cross the River Styx; a cave populated with refugees, many of whom meet our gaze; and so on.

The interpretations are sufficiently offbeat and unexpected to escape the dangers of kitschy illustration. The best one, I thought, was No. 5, “I Saw Shadows Carried on That Wind,” which has us looking through a window out over a courtyard in the gloaming. The ravishing sky is streaked with clouds and punctuated by two airplanes. The intimate courtyard below, its depth enhanced by Taplin’s stage-set-style tricks with perspective, seems forlornly abandoned, yet freighted with significance. The only evidence of life is a man disappearing behind a wall.

The show’s curator, Denise Markonish, has taken the first part of her title from a Jackson Browne song covered by Nico (these elegiac shows tend to have abstruse origins – see, for instance, the New Museum’s recent “After Nature,” which took its name from a poem by the late German writer W.G. Sebald and its inspiration from a diverse array of literary sources).

Markonish has been inspired by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and, wanting to temper the show’s overriding mournfulness with glimmers of hope, she adorns the small exhibition brochure with some lines from Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus”: “And all things/hushed. Yet even/in that silence/a new beginning,/beckoning,/change appeared.”

Is it change we can believe in? Up to a point yes. Like almost all such shows, “These Days” is hit and miss. But it has haunting moments, and, impressively, it complements several other displays currently at Mass MoCA, including a huge room devoted to somber but thrilling works by the German artists Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer and a group show offering a wistful take on the state of the environment called “Badlands: New Horizons in Landscape.”

The cumulative effect is not exactly uplifting, but it has a real emotional pull, like a complex chord that echoes in the chest and threatens to constrict the throat.

To go from Taplin’s haunting worlds within worlds to Micah Silver’s concocted environment inspired by Yves Saint Laurent’s Safari Jacket, or Chris Doyle’s lame video animation riffing on various artistic representations of the apocalypse, is inevitably to be disappointed. But the show has other high points, including a series of works by George Bolster, an artist in his mid-30s who was born in Ireland and lives in San Diego.

Bolster riffs on the morbid ecstasies of religious experience. His contribution comes in two forms: One is a dramatic installation featuring a narwhal suspended by red strings from a ceiling. The room is lined with mirrors. Its ceiling is decorated with scenes from the Day of Judgment. A song by Radiohead, “Reckoner,” plays from speakers. It’s a bizarre but very singular scenario.

Bolster’s second contribution, in a neighboring room, is a series of drawings in pencil, silver, and pen on Maplewood veneer, each of them very private and evocative versions of well-worn religious subjects, with contemporary detailing and flickering sexual undercurrents. “La Vierge Et L’enfant Et Son Dior,” for instance, shows a short-haired woman – the Virgin Mary – with a unicorn on her lap in a pose recalling the Pietá. Bizarrely, a Christian Dior handbag dangles from her arm.

The elegy here seems to be for the loss of religious belief – but it is all a little too cool and savvy for us to feel carried away by a sense of conviction.

The other strong piece, “Below Sea Level,” is a long multichannel video displayed, cyclorama-style, on screens that completely encircle the viewer. It’s by Pawel Wojtasik, a Polish artist living in Brooklyn, and it’s a kind of collage of scenes from New Orleans, adding up to both a tribute and a lament.

It has its longueurs, but that is in the nature of elegies, is it not? One can mourn only so long before life leaks back in.

Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe

‘Kurt” is among the portraits Elizabeth Peyton painted of musician Kurt Cobain. (courtesy:Flag Art Foundation)

Elizabeth Peyton attracted attention in the mid-1990s not because her work was any good – that would take years – but because it catered to certain hankerings (for beauty, for human connection, for the rush of infatuation) that up until then the art world had grimly suppressed. People were disproportionately grateful.

With her smooching, facile portraits of historical figures like Napoleon, Ludwig II of Bavaria, and a young Princess Elizabeth (the future queen), Peyton indulged impulses of preening romance that are usually the province of pop music. Such tendencies became explicit when she started painting from photographs of doomed or dandyish rock stars like Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious, and Jarvis Cocker.

It’s almost always wonderful when artists dare to be shameless – to go ahead and paint what they want. The trouble was, little of Peyton’s early work rose above the standard of lackluster fashion illustration, or of those saccharine, on-the spot portraits made by street artists in tourist traps.
Still, we can be thankful that she was encouraged by the kind reception extended to her early work, because she has gone on to produce one of the most daring and exquisite oeuvres in contemporary art. I fell completely for Peyton as I ambled through “Live Forever,” the retrospective at the New Museum here, feeling more and more like a mopey, heart-struck teenager every minute.

Many of you will not want to give in to such feelings, deeming them indecently frivolous. So let me try and convince you otherwise.

The first thing to say is that, over a relatively short space of time, Peyton learned to paint. Above all, she became a scintillating colorist, giving her colors an airy expansiveness and oozing fluidity as she brushed them onto Masonite rather than canvas.

Getting pleasure from the process gradually took on more importance for her than rote reiterations of a given mood. Consequently, the atmospheres conjured by her paintings became more interesting.
Compare, for instance, two paintings typical of Peyton’s output: Both are of rock stars and both are based on photographs already in the public domain.

The first, of Keith Richards, shows the Rolling Stone close-up in profile. The tones are dark and mournful. The touches of ruby red and purple in Richards’s shadowed, downcast eyes and the delicacy with which his bejeweled fingers touch his chin give him an appearance at once precious and damaged.
The image of Eminem, by contrast, shows him not as the felonious hip-hop star we’ve come to know and love, but as a little boy of almost preternatural beauty having the buttons of his winter jacket done up by some invisible adult. His face is painted with red and pink stripes which zing against long hair the color of orange rind; he wears a festive crown, and he stares at us with dark, unblinking eyes. The extraordinary intensity of this stare is accentuated by his white, unblemished complexion.

The immediacy of the image is unmanning. If Richards resembles a shipwreck at night, this boy could be the lighthouse.

But the images have a lot in common, too. In both, Peyton uses color and brushwork to calibrate exquisite contrasts between proximity and distance – not just physically but emotionally too. Her paintings of the famous dead and living are not just love letters to far-off objects of mass infatuation. They are love letters to present-tense moods that, once extinguished, are difficult to rekindle.

It’s important to talk about the paintings themselves, because there’s a tendency to talk about Peyton as a social phenomenon – the ex-wife of Rirkrit Tiravanija and the friend of artists such as Matthew Barney and Maurizio Cattelan; the chronicler of New York’s Lower East Side in the 1990s and beyond; the recorder of a decade and a half of pop culture obsessions.

Unfortunately the catalog essay by curator Laura Hoptman plays up these aspects. Personally, I don’t care for any of it. I find the best of her paintings too suggestive of the sensuality of indolence to make me give a fig about sociology.

One of the biggest influences on Peyton is David Hockney. At a time when abstraction, Minimalism, and stiff-jawed seriousness were all the go, Hockney painted and drew virtuoso portraits of famous intimates with hedonistic relish. The connections between Hockney and Peyton run deep, and have been acknowledged by Peyton, who has made several portraits based on photos of Hockney as a young man.

But the more I look at Peyton, the more I think not of Hockney but of Matisse in Nice in the decade after World War I. Like Peyton, Matisse alternated in those years between painting reality (his daughter, the views from his hotel window) and painting fantasy (girls posing as odalisques against makeshift, theatrical backdrops that no one was expected to believe in).

He became less concerned with flat expanses of saturated color and more interested in light, which he rendered with loose, airy brushstrokes, delighting in stripes and patterns, gorgeous color contrasts and creamy atmospheres. Like Peyton, he was motivated by beauty and sensuality, but not limited by them. Rather, he sensitively orchestrated the distance between himself and his objects of desire, creating a kind of tension between artifice and reality that remains as exquisite as it is elusive.

Peyton is hardly in the same class as Matisse. She seems to miss as often as she hits, and the misses can be really dreadful: kitschy, clumsy, often both. But there is an imperious, melancholy flavor to the Nice paintings that I often detect in Peyton’s work too. The paintings of both artists are ravishingly sensual, and yet frankly attuned to their own hamminess. They flirt knowingly with disappointment and disbelief.

It’s interesting, too, that Peyton, whose success has spurred many detractors, faces the same kinds of criticisms Matisse faced during the Nice years. He was accused of complacency, shamelessness, and playing to the market when he moved to Nice, while Peyton is criticized for making saleable commodities that valorize glamour.

“Fine, if you say so,” is about all one can say in response. But why not really look at the paintings? Why not give yourself over to the tremendous expanse of lazily brushed-in, cotton-candy pink set off by isolated outbreaks of dark chocolate, maroon, and scarlet in “Spencer Drawing”? Why not delight in the tour-de-force of stripes and lollipop colors in “Ben Drawing”? Or why not succumb to the gorgeously casual holiday atmosphere of the three self-portraits, “L.A. (E.P.),” “Live to Ride (E.P.),” and “E.P. Reading (self-portrait)”?

In the end, I love the unlikeliness of Peyton’s success. Who would have thought that one of the most acclaimed and closely watched artists of our time would be a young woman who paints small, unabashedly girly portraits in oils on board – pictures that have no tough-guy conceptual underpinning to speak of?

Compare Peyton to Barney (the subject of one of her recent portraits) and it’s hard to believe that they’ve been borne aloft by the same art world. But they have, which is what makes contemporary art generally – and my job in particular – so much fun.

Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe