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The many, the one, and the two
Bill Koch at the MFA, Brother Thomas at the Pucker, Cézanne and Pissarro at MoMA
"Things I Love: The Many Collections of William I. Koch"
In the Museum of Fine Artsí Torf Gallery through November 13.

"How Great Is Our Joy: New Porcelains by Brother Thomas"
At Pucker Gallery September 10 through October 16.

"Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne & Pissarro 1865Ė1885"
At the Museum of Modern Art, New York, through September 12.

Related Links

The Museum of Fine Arts' official Web site

The MFA's exhibition page for "Things I Love: The Many Collections of William I. Koch."

Pucker Gallery's official Web site

Jeffrey Gantz reviews "Brother Thomas: Creator of Luminaries."

The Museum of Modern Arts' official Web site

Malcolm the merciless has struck again. Last spring he packed the MFAís Gund Gallery with sleek, gleaming Porsches and Ferraris for "Speed, Style, and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collection." Now heís snuck into the Torf Gallery four Monets that MFA patrons donít ordinarily get to see plus a Renoir, a Cézanne, a Grant Wood, two Picassos, two Mirós, and a Modigliani that museum directors worldwide are drooling over, not to mention the two Americaís Cup finalists from 1992 presently beached on the MFAís front lawn. Heís not even allowing you to pay for the privilege: this new show is free with your MFA admission. The man has no shame.

Thatís one way to look at "Things I Love: The Many Collections of William I. Koch," the latest "controversial" show from MFA Ann and Graham Gund director Malcolm Rogers. Itís not the only way, but I confess I donít understand the controversy: this is not the first personal collection to grace the Torf Gallery, and itís hardly the least worthy. And if Rogers had the thought that mounting "Things I Love" might induce Koch to send a Monet or a Modigliani in the museumís direction, whatís wrong with that? Over the past three years the MFA has presented shows focusing on Impressionist still life, Dutch painting, Gainsborough, Rembrandt, Gauguin, and Art Deco, so itís not as if we werenít getting the traditional blockbusters. But does all our art have to be painting and sculpture? Canít we make room for Ralph Laurenís cars and Bill Kochís boats?

Of course, I used to be glued to the TV for Formula One and Americaís Cup races (when the Cup went Down Under, Iíd stay up watching till 2 am), so Iím not the most objective judge. But the question here, I should have thought, is not whether this is a "vanity collection" but whether itís good art. Itís not uniformly good, but it is uniformly interesting, especially when Koch explains, as he did to the press a week ago Tuesday, why he bought each piece and what it means to him. If thereís anything shameful here, itís the museumís failure to record Kochís remarks and turn them into an audiotape guide. (Bill likes to talk ó maybe thereís still time?)

Koch himself grew up in Kansas, went to MIT, built a billion-dollar alternative-energy company, became an MFA trustee, and turned his interest in sailing into an Americaís Cup campaign that in 1992 defeated the mighty Dennis Conner and went on to defend the Cup for the San Diego Yacht Club. (Thatís his boat, America3, and Il Moro di Venezia, the Italian boat he defeated and later bought, out on the MFAís front lawn.) "Things I Love" proceeds from an entry room highlighted by Grant Woodís Arbor Day and three America3-sized celebratory wine bottles to a room of "Impressionism and Its Affinities" (including canvases in Monetís Morning on the Seine and Water Lilies series), a room for Kochís Western art (guns owned by Jesse James and Bat Masterson as well as work by Frederic Remington and Charles Marion Russell), and a room for "Modern and Contemporary Art"; it spills out into the hallway for his maritime paintings and his models of Americaís Cup boats (all the way back to the first winner, America, in 1851), and then there are the Fernando Botero sculptures on the West Wing lawn and the two yachts, their 125-foot masts dwarfing the museum.

"I decided Iíd like to have things around me that remind me of happy feelings ó of happy moments in my youth ó and make me feel comfortable, peaceful, pleasant," Koch explains in the well-turned-out catalogue that accompanies the show. Thatís where, as a museum exhibit, "Things I Love" falls down: too many "pleasant" works. But Koch also reaches out to things that arenít so pleasant, like Grant Woodís nightmarish perspective, and that gives the show balance. Itís Europe versus America not only in the celebrated 1813 battle off Gloucester between the HMS Shannon and the USS Chesapeake (commanded by Kochís distant relation James "Donít give up the ship" Lawrence), but in Louis-Eugène Boudinís Canaret, Fishing Boats Anchored in the Port next to Fitz Henry Laneís The Golden Rule, or Joan Miróís Bird Woman next to Thomas Wesselmannís Seascape #20, or Dennis Miller Bunkerís The Brook: Medfield next to Monetís Field of Oats and Poppies. Where Boudinís boats are orphans in the storm, Laneís sun-dappled ship rules the waves; itís a standoff between yanked and Yankee. But Wesselmannís í60s seashore breast looks dated beside the still explosive Miró, and Bunkerís sea of grass is like a photograph in the midst of the Monets.

Kochís American West is a battle between Remington and Russell and their attitude toward Native Americans, one scornful, one almost worshipful. Remington tells stories, simple ones in The Trooper and Evening on a Canadian Lake and Coming to the Call, more perturbing in An Argument with the Town Marshal, where the marshal has half a dozen deputies and the "argument" looks like a bigger deal than the O.K. Corral. Russell borders on sentimentality with his Native Americans, but Scattering the Riders, balancing as it does between the individual and the community, could be a scene from a John Ford film.

The "Modern and Contemporary Art" room is dominated by the female body, often decorative and yielding, but in Modiglianiís Reclining Nude and Picassoís Night Club Singer a match for the male voyeurís gaze. That gaze is subverted by the tenderness of Picassoís Two Children (Claude and Paloma Picasso, one blue, one red, making art) and Gabriele Münterís Child with Doll (the barren artistís portrait of a neighborís child). And the three pictures by Raoul Dufy ó Rowing on the Marne, Regatta at Cowes, and The Coronation of George VI ó move from individualism to community to celebration. Perhaps thatís the lesson Koch, a genuine American maverick, learned in making the transition from Remingtonís The Bronco Buster to the skipper whose team won the Americaís Cup.

"Art is something seen about something unseen," is one way in which Brother Thomas Bezanson describes what he does, and maybe thatís the best defense of cars and boats as art. Brother Thomas is a potter from Nova Scotia who entered a Benedictine monastery in Vermont in 1959 and then in 1985 became artist-in-residence at Mount Saint Benedict in Erie, Pennsylvania. Heís having his 15th show at Pucker Gallery in whatís become a biennial event.

If William Kochís collections bespeak the many, Brother Thomasís porcelain bespeaks the one. That might seem an odd statement to make about an artist whose glazes run from black-and-copper tenmoku to iron yellow, red copper, celadon, ice crackle, night-sky blue, and oil spot in infinite variations and whose vases alone range from tall and square to spherical to long-necked to canteen-like. (There are also tea bowls, jars, flasks, and plates.) But his work keeps moving, like Stephen Dedalus in his famous conversation with Lynch, toward defining Thomas Aquinasís three characteristics of beauty: integritas, consonantia, and claritas, growing simpler and more focused in essence even as it grows more complex in appearance. Beauty here is not the perfect white pot; itís a large cut-lip moon vase with teadust tenmoku glaze that looks like lava spilling out of the Earthís crust, or a set of four "infinity" vases in tenmoku, purple copper, eggshell glaze, and blue kairagi, or a pair of kairagi-with-rutile tea bowls that suggest the earth cracking open ice in spring.

The votes are in and the critical decision appears to be unanimous. "Not since the similarly titled ĎPicasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism,í in 1989-90, has MOMA, or any other museum that I can think of, produced such a pitiless comparison of stylistically related painters, one great and one just very good," concluded Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker. Writing for the Village Voice, Jerry Saltz put it more succinctly: "Poor Pissarro, steamrolled by Cézanne."

Theyíre talking about "Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne & Pissarro 1865Ė1885," the summer blockbuster that you can still see (through Monday) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And itís a reminder that art history, like every other kind, is written by the winners. Pissarro and Cézanne worked outdoors together in Auvers and Pontoise in the early 1870s, and their landscapes arenít always easy to tell apart, though Cézanneís always have more earth in them and Pissarroís more air. Cézanne went on to see painting more as object than as representation; his canvases are forthrightly two-dimensional whereas Pissarroís temporize in every sense of the word, still equally open to time and weather. Modern ó that is, 20th-century ó painting followed Cézanneís line into Cubism and Abstraction; Pissarro holds open different possibilities. Cézanne is Stravinskyís Le sacre du printemps, Pissarro Debussyís Prélude à líaprès-midi díun faune. Do we need one and not the other? Is it too late to ask for a recount?

Issue Date: September 9 - 15, 2005
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