Thursday, January 11, 2024

Art Eyewitness Looks at the Art Scene in 2023

Reflections on the Art Scene during 2023

Text by Ed Voves

Photography by Anne Lloyd

Every year presents a new lineup of special exhibitions. These are occasions of great expectation when they are announced and growing anticipation as opening day looms. Usually, the first "look-see" at the finished, mounted exhibition is a thrilling event, deeply satisfying and richly rewarding in memories for further reflection.

In the case of 2022, the number of spectacular exhibitions was so remarkable that in January of 2023 we at Art Eyewitness were still trying to cram one last visit to Matisse in the 1930's, Modigliani Up Close, and Tudors: Art and Majesty

There was a real sense of loss as the final day for these "once in a lifetime" exhibits approached. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Gallery view of Matisse in the 1930's
at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The "show" in the art world, as for the theater, must go on.

When the museum press releases for the spring/summer 2023 exhibitions arrived, it was clear that there were some unusual and enticing viewing opportunities in store. 

Among the exhibits for the spring of 2023 was The Sassoons at the Jewish Museum in New York. This brilliantly curated exhibit displayed a rich array of rare books, Old Master paintings and Judaica collected by the Sassoon family during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023)
 Gallery view of The Sassoons at the Jewish Museum, New York

Interwoven with the narrative of the rise and fall of the ambitious - and in many respects, admirable - Sassoon family was a question which challenges some basic assumptions about the process of collecting art.

Much of the wealth of the Sassoon family came from the opium trade. This inhumane commerce, by modern ethical standards, was not illegal during most of the period which the exhibition so brilliantly brought to life. But the opium trade was certainly controversial during the 1800's. Were the Sassoons and the splendid art collections they amassed tainted by the moral ambiguities of their commercial dealings?

Similar instances of dubious business practices, with profits funneled into art collections and museum endowments, happen all too frequently today. What place has consideration of such questionable conduct in art exhibitions? 

This isn't a matter to be easily brushed away, as an autumn/winter exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum showed, Medieval Money, Merchants and Morality.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023)
 Gallery view of Medieval Money, Merchants and Morality
 at the Morgan Library and Museum

Medieval Money, Merchants and Morality tells the story of the Mercantile Revolution of the late Middle Ages and the troubled response of people in Europe to this seismic shift in human affairs. All of the coins, florins and thalers, used as a means of exchange, were loaned at rates of interest in contradiction to Christian religious doctrine. Ledger books, based on Italian innovations in accounting, recorded these transactions, meticulously compiling assets and debts, especially the latter. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2023)
Frontispiece from a Register of Creditors, ca.1394-95,
illuminated by Nicolo da Bologna, Morgan Library & Museum 

To people of faith, double-entry accounting and bankers' strong boxes clashed with Jesus' teaching, the Sermon on the Mount. It was a real dilemma, reflected in countless illustrations in medieval religious tracts, superb examples of which are on view at the Morgan exhibition. 

I am planning a review in coming weeks of this fascinating exhibit and its insights into the interface of finance and fine art during the late Middle Ages. Through the prism of the past, we might just gain a more objective awareness of our own attitudes and actions.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Gallery view of Van Gogh's Cypresses at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Along with these provocative exhibits, 2023's "scorecard" was a mix of hits and misses. 

Van Gogh's Cypresses at The Met was sure to be a crowd pleaser, as indeed it was. Several other exhibitions were disappointments. Despite high standards of presentation, something seemed lacking with these exhibits.  

In the case of any of the 2023 exhibitions which left me perplexed, I elected not to post a review. I never want to risk discouraging patrons from visiting an exhibit, unless there is a glaring cause for concern.

Moreover, the planning and organizational challenges which museum curators face, under normal circumstances, have been compounded by the difficulties of doing so during the recent Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
   Auguste Rodin's Thought, Philadelphia Museum of Art

It is vital not to forget the heroic efforts of museum curators, as I emphasized in the tenth anniversary essay of Art Eyewitness, posted in July 2023. One of my favorite works by Auguste Rodin, Thought, exemplifies the effort which goes into works of art, by the artists who create and the curators who preserve and display these treasures - for us and for future generations.

That being so, during 2023, I grappled with several problematic "concerns."  I will share some of my thoughts about these, but not because of any unique fault in the exhibitions I discuss here. These are being used as case studies to focus on issues which I see in the broad scheme of art "matters."

Judith Joy Ross appeared at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, April-August 2023. Ross is a contemporary Pennsylvania-born photographer, whose oeuvre recalls the 1930's portraiture by Walker Evans. The exhibition was a major retrospective of her work to date.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
Judith Joy Ross photo & detail, Untitled, from the series, Portraits at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C., 1984 

Ross is masterful in capturing thoughtful and provocative images of "ordinary" Americans, in day-to-day situations and in moments of deep grief. I was especially moved by the photos of people visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.

The difficulty with the Judith Joy Ross exhibition was not quality but quantity. There were approximately 200 photos on view, most of the prints are in the 10 x 8 inch range, and all but a very few in black & white.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Gallery view of Judith Joy Ross at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Judith Joy Ross filled the vast space of the Dorrance Galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. By mid-point of my - several - visits to the exhibition, a real sense of "image saturation" set-in, making it difficult for me to do justice to the individual photos. 

The initial galleries of Judith Joy Ross concentrated on portraits of children and young people. These were posed in the informal setting of summer relaxation, kids just "hanging out." There were some fantastic images among them, but the number and general similarity of these pictures detracted from their impact. The same held true for most of the later galleries, though the display of photos of people observing the 9/11 wreckage of the World Trade Center was unforgettable.

With so much in Judith Joy Ross worthy of praise, I was left at a loss to explain the exhibition's blunted impact. 

Searching for answers, I recalled The Met's Diane Arbus: In the Beginning. This 2016 exhibit, even though it was presented in the dungeon-like confines of the old Whitney during The Met's brief tenure, was a memorable success. The Met curators restrained their selection to 100 photos and adjusted its focus to Arbus' early years. I wish a similar policy had been implemented for Judith Joy Ross.

In an earlier "incarnation", I was a photo archive librarian for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News newspapers. I learned to appreciate each photograph as a unique documentation of an event, person or place. 

In this state of mind, a bond of understanding is created with each work of art, be it photo, painting, sculpture, etc. From this, a feeling of empathy soon follows. When that occurs, we start to hear what Andre Malraux called "the voices of silence."

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Wall Painting with Christ and a Nubian Dignitary   
    on view in the Africa and Byzantium exhibit, Metropolitan Museum      
Once I began to reflect on the effectiveness of major retrospective exhibits of photographs, I naturally began to question modes of display of other genres of art, as well. This can lead to "subversive" thinking, not exactly a bad thing.

There was such a moment at the press preview of The Met's magnificent Manet/Degas. This was a huge exhibition. With an itinerary of celebrated works. Manet/Degas maintained an incredible momentum and irresistible allure. It did't quit.

Yet, for one special moment at least, there was a pause in the excitement of the Manet/Degas press preview.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2023)
 Gallery view of Manet/Degas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 
showing Édouard Manet's The Balcony, 1868-69

The speaker's podium was unoccupied and, except for a single art lover, nobody was paying much attention to one of Manet's greatest paintings, The Balcony. This group portrait shows Berthe Morisot, seated holding a fan, the landscaper painter Antoine Guillemat (looking very pleased with himself) and the violinist Fanny Claus, lost in thought. 

Anne Lloyd Photo (2023)
Édouard Manet's The Balcony (detail), 1868-69

None of these three is really looking out from picture, trying to engage us, the viewers. Yet, the painting itself is trying to do exactly that, to catch our eye. This landmark of nineteenth century art is reaching out to grab hold of our attention and keep us looking at it for a little while longer than the average of seventeen seconds which museum goers devote to a work of art. 

Anne Lloyd Photo (2023)
Berthe Morisot in Édouard Manet's The Balcony , 1868-69

Posing behind the empty podium at The Met, The Balcony appeared about to speak. Manet's masterpiece, like Berthe Morisot in the picture, was composing its "thoughts" before conversing with us.

"I'd like to say a few words to you," The Balcony declares. "Let's ignore the art critics, the bloggers, even the curators. I want to speak to you - directly."

As silly as this may initially seem, works of art do speak to us - and we do reply! The dialogue takes place in a state of mindfulness. 

Back in 2015, Art Eyewitness reviewed Looking at Mindfulness: 25 Ways to Live in the Moment through Art. This wonderful book, written by a French psychiatrist, Christophe André, helps readers meditate through art to "restore our capacity for introspection and reconnect with ourselves, rather than sustaining ourselves with a constant drip-feed of external orders, distractions and activations."

The process of utilizing art to enter into a state of mindfulness is not easy and, increasingly, art museums are making things more difficult with sound tracts and special effects which belong in a movie multiplex. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 The Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum with
Jacolby Satterwhite's A Metta Prayer featured in the background.

The Met's recent The Great Hall Commission, A Metta Prayer, by Jacolby Satterwhite, struck an unsettling note with me, the inverse of its stated intention. 

In this multi-media extravaganza (according to The Met's publicity blurb):

Satterwhite draws inspiration from the Buddhist Metta prayer, a mantra of loving-kindness, to build a narrative that rebels against the conventions of commercial video games. Rather than perpetuating violence, the characters in A Metta Prayer dance, perform, and pose.  

Praiseworthy in its goal, A Metta Prayer had, for me, the opposite effect. I was able to endure it for only a bit more than the average of seventeen seconds, mentioned above.

For the most part, art museums remain sanctuaries of calm reflection and inspiration. Special exhibitions, despite the crowds, can provide space for restoring "our capacity for introspection and reconnect with ourselves."

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023)
Prayer service at the press preview of Tree & Serpent
conducted by monks from the New York Buddhist Vihara 

Of all the major 2023 exhibitions, Tree and Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, provided an almost perfect atmosphere for cultivating spiritual harmony for oneself and empathy for our fellow creatures. On the surface, an exhibition devoted to the earliest Buddhist art would seem so geared to the topic of mindfulness that it is counterproductive to use it to illustrate this theme. That was not the case with Tree and Serpent, which was organized by one of the great curators of the present age, John Guy of The Met.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023)
Gallery view of Tree & Serpent, showing a red sandstone statue 
of the Goddess of AbundanceSri Lakshmi, 2nd century 

Many of the art works on display in Tree and Serpent predated the more familiar statues of the meditating Buddha, signature images of this now-global religion. Ancient Buddhism grew from a nurturing subsoil of fertility cults and deities, including protective cobras! The transcendental enlightenment of the Buddha has led to spiritual awakening for millions but it was - and is - a long process, based on constant practice. 

My expectations for Tree and Serpent  were indeed high, based upon my memories of an earlier exhibition at The Met, Lost Kingdoms Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia. Yet, the fulfillment of my hopes was greater still. This was not merely a "once in a lifetime" exhibition but one: to treasure for a lifetime.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2023)
 Gallery view of The Artist's Mother: Whistler and Philadelphia 
at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

A second "once in a lifetime" opportunity presented itself in 2023.  The Philadelphia Museum of Art hosted The Artist's Mother: Whistler and Philadelphia in a "focused" exhibition, June to October 2023. Over the course of nearly five months, Anne and I visited with "Le Mere de Whistler" and related paintings of artists' mothers by Celia Beaux, Alice Neel and others.

We went so often to the gallery where Whistler's Mother was displayed that it became a place of pilgrimage.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2023), 
James Whistler's Arrangement in Grey and Black:
 Portrait of the Artist's Mother (1871)

 To repeatedly enter into the presence of a great work of art is a rare privilege. It gives us the opportunity to study it, in all its facets, all the details of its artistic life. And its spiritual life? Do works of art have spiritual lives?

If artists devote mind and muscle, give heart and soul to create a painting or a sculpture and we respond in kind, then, yes, works of art are spiritual "beings" of a sort. We can  "commune" with them and the experience helps nurture bonds of empathy, which heighten our appreciate of other works of art, of other people.

Like the relationships we have with fellow humans, it is good to have a few old friends in the world of art. These are trusted companions who never fail us and are there when the "once in a lifetime" exhibitions have closed their doors.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2022)
 Auguste Rodin's Orpheus and Eurydice, 1893

Auguste  Rodin's exquisite sculpture, Orpheus and Eurydice,, is one of our most beloved, most trusted friends at The Met. Anne has even begun taking photos of Orpheus and Eurydice In sepia mode, which add a stark, other-worldly - and very fitting - nuance to this work. 

Like Orpheus and Eurydice, we are forging onward in this uncertain new year. Illness delayed this post by a few days, but we are looking forward, not looking back.

On the horizon for 2024 is the centennial of the Morgan Library and Museum, with major exhibitions celebrating Beatrix Potter and Belle da Costa Greene. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is preparing a major show highlighting Mary Cassatt's artistic technique, scheduled to open in May.

We at Art Eyewitness wish all a happy 2024, a year filled with great art and ever stronger bonds of empathy.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                  

Original photography, copyright of Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image:                                                                                                                        Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Gallery view of Van Gogh's Cypresses at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York City, showing Vincent van Gogh's Country Road in Provence by Night,1890.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023 ) Gallery view of the Matisse in the 1930's exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2023 ) Gallery view of the Sassoons exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York City.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023 ) Gallery view of Medieval Money, Merchants and Morality at the Morgan Library and Museum.

Ed Voves, Photo (2023 ) Frontispiece from a Register of Creditors, ca.1394-95, illuminated by Nicolo da Bologna, Morgan Library & Museum Collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023 ) Gallery view of the Van Gogh's Cypresses at the Metropolitan Museum. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Auguste Rodin's Thought, modeled,1895, carved by Camille Raynaud, c.1900, Marble, 29 1/8 x 17 1/16 x 18 1/8 inches (74 x 43.4 x 46.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Judith Joy Ross photo & detail, Untitled, from the series, Portraits at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C. Gelatin silver print. 1984.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023 ) Gallery view of the Judith Joy Ross exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023 ) Wall Painting with Christ and a Nubian Dignitary on view in the Africa and Byzantium exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023 ) Gallery view of the Manet/Degas exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, showing Édouard Manet’s The Balcony, 1868–69.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023 )  Édouard Manet’s The Balcony (detail), 1868–69.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) The Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum with Jacolby Satterwhite's A Metta Prayer featured in the background. 

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Prayer ceremony at the press preview of Tree & Serpent, conducted by the monks from the New York Buddhist Vihara Foundation.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Gallery view of Tree and Serpentshowing a red sandstone statue of the Goddess of AbundanceSri Lakshmi, 2nd century.  Lent by the National Museum, New Delhi.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Gallery view of The Artist's Mother: Whistler and Philadelphia exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) James Whistler's Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1871.. Oil on canvas: 144.3 x 162.5 cm (56 3/4 x 64"). Musée d'Orsay, Paris, RF 699.

Anne Lloyd Photo (2017), Gallery view of at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, showing 
Auguste Rodin's Orpheus and Eurydice, modeled ca. 1887, carved 1893. Marble: 48 3/4 × 31 1/8 × 25 3/8 in., 856 lb. (123.8 × 79.1 × 64.5 cm, 388.3 kg) Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Thomas F. Ryan, 1910. Accession Number:10.63.2

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