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Good taste, singular vision
The Blake-Purnell collection at the Museum of Fine Arts
" A Singular Vision: The Melvin Blake and Frank Purnell Legacy "
At the Museum of Fine Arts’ Rabb Gallery through August 24.

Collecting is not an art, but it can be inspired. And with the acquisition of the Melvin Blake and Frank Purnell collection, the MFA now plays permanent home to a rewarding and often thrilling assemblage of late-20th-century figurative art.

The wall text that greets you at the entrance to " A Singular Vision " claims that Blake and Purnell, both New York physicians who began collecting in the 1960s and didn’t stop for almost 40 years (Purnell died in 1994, Blake in 1999), " were daring collectors. " That’s nonsense. If " daring " means systematically and intelligently procuring the works of recognized European and South American masters, then brushing one’s teeth in the morning should earn each of us a purple heart.

But these two were shamelessly politically incorrect. At a time when the Western art world was kowtowing to Abstraction and Pop and Conceptualism, Blake and Purnell were buying sensual, representational, typically figurative art by painters who weren’t in vogue. Their collection, which includes 60 individual works in various media, is also marked by its quirky, sometimes classical, invariably informed celebration of technical bravado, emotional clarity, and physical pleasure.

If I could go home with any subset of their holdings — and this was one of those rare shows where I found myself imagining how many of the works I’d enjoy living with — then I’d probably haul off the paintings of Antonio López García or Claudio Bravo. Were I to give in to greed, I’d include at least one Larry Rivers and both Domenico Gnolis and toss in the Lucian Freud and Balthus for good measure.

Blake and Purnell were introduced to López García in 1965, when his first US solo show took place at the Staempfli Gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side — not far from the doctors’ offices. His four paintings, two wood reliefs, and two drawings are rightly described in this show’s catalogue as the cornerstone of the collection. An influential figure among Spanish realists, López García achieved his poignancy by indirection, as in the 1967-’68 masterpiece Lavabo y espejo ( " Washbasin and Mirror " ). Realism is never real, and one of the remarkable features of Lavabo y espejo is its seamless amalgam of breathtaking exactitude and incongruous perspectives. Standing before the oil-on-wood, you half expect to see your own face reflected in the mirror you’re facing, even as the objects that fill the glass shelf below it — razor, shaving brush, tweezers, scissors, comb, toothbrush, cologne — register as simultaneously banal and glorious. It’s as if the sunlight falling on them had transformed the quotidian artifacts into treasures. Yet it’s the perspective, or multiple perspectives (which even the most faithful reproductions can’t convey in miniature), here — the sink that feels too far beneath the shelf, the floor that looks as if it were 20 feet beneath the sink — that make Lavabo y espejo oddly vertiginous and ultimately unreal.

This marriage of real and unreal is characteristic of López García. The dead girl of his 1957 Ataud (Niña muerta) lies in an open coffin in the middle of a city street. The couple making love in an empty city corner in the 1964 Atocha (Esparto) look ashen and ossified, as if they’d been airlifted from the ruins of Pompeii. Far subtler and more haunting is Hombre y mujer (also 1964), where we see from the rear a man and a woman whose extraordinary presence — you’d swear you can hear them breathing — is undercut by the blotchy markings that look suspended just above their skin, as if we were seeing them through an old newsreel. The two figures come across as vaguely yet unsettlingly mournful; their deflated postures imply resignation, and the blue-black space they face suggests infinite gloom.

Of the four paintings by Claudio Bravo, two strike me as superior, his Homage to St. Theresa (1969) and Portrait of Mr. Couchez (1978). The Chilean-born and now Tangiers-based Bravo almost can’t help being a showoff. His virtuoso manipulations of color and composition and form verge on photorealism, and they prove so astute that the challenge he faces as a painter isn’t to test his skills but to keep them in check. In Homage to St. Theresa, he keeps his sights on the seemingly simple: the painting depicts nothing more than the paper and twine that have been used to wrap a framed painting, which we see from behind. But Homage is huge, on the order of five by six feet, and the play of light across the motionless elements — every edge of the wrapping paper appears knife-sharp; every millimeter of the twine looks coarse and taut — gives the still life momentum, as does the title’s hinting at the perpetual secret of a painting we will never see.

Maybe the most amazing thing about Portrait of Mr. Couchez is that despite Mr. Couchez’s perfect body, which is rendered nude and almost life-size (it’s all the more remarkable since its ideal proportions and musculature read as a God-given physique and not a weight-room-manufactured one), what’s most absorbing is his face. The model’s gaze is intelligent, focused, and (most riveting of all) sincere. There’s also a wily, almost ironic, quality to Mr. Couchez: he’s nobody’s fool, but it’s wiliness in the service of generosity, the bazaar merchant who has kids to feed.

Bravo can stumble. Vanitas (1981) — an exquisitely executed, heavy-handed oil depicting a boy in a white robe and cowl (a novice, one presumes) with a peashooter aiming across a symbol-laden table at a brown-robed bearded monk (perhaps his teacher) sleeping in a chair — reeks of academic bravura. It’s so good, it’s stultifying. And Roman Jars (1991) suffers from an overlay of gauzy, romantic haze. Still, when Bravo’s on, he’s unmatchable.

I was surprised and delighted to see three powerful paintings by the American Larry Rivers among the good doctors’ fastidious loot. Particularly hard-hitting is Joseph, a 1954 oil depicting the artist’s 14-year-old stepson. Joseph stands nude and at an angle, head resting in his right hand, both elbows propped on a bookcase. He appears a ghost of himself: all the lines that define his body appear in multiples, so that he’s indistinct, like an image out of focus. And he seems pensive and trapped as he looks out at us. One of his stepfather’s drawings hangs behind him to his right; there’s another directly behind him, and the bookcase, which dominates the space, spills over with art books: Rodin, Piranesi, Art of the Century. If Joseph had a subtitle, it would have to be something like " Child As Ego Extension. "

Other extraordinary works in " A Singular Vision " include the MFA’s first Lucian Freud, Susie, a small oil of the head of the artist’s youngest daughter, as well as the museum’s first Balthus drawings — two ethereal pencil renderings of one solitary and one pair of entwined nudes. The two large oil-and-sand paintings by Domenico Gnoli, which depict articles of clothing beneath which ample flesh pulsates, prove both arresting and hilarious, as do the bronze and charcoal depictions of two plump, domesticated Venuses by Fernando Botero, who somehow succeeds at making female self-absorption and obesity appear tender and deeply sympathetic.

Issue Date: March 20 - 27, 2003
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