Monday, June 13, 2011

Soutine/Bacon at Helly Nahmad Gallery

A long way from the mean streets of Bushwick (or Soutine’s Montparnasse for that matter) the swank environs of Madison Ave and the Carlisle Hotel host the comparison shopping spree of Soutine/Bacon.
But wait a minute! Unlike the neighboring big buck boutiques, according to HNG no art’s for sale here. If you believe that I know about a lower East River bridge that’s not for sale either.
There has been some discussion of how the upper echelons of NY galleries are moving in on cash strapped museums to mount their own mini blockbusters. But these high end gallery exhibitions are really more akin to auction house action than museum retrospectives. Collectors and dealers are testing the waters in uncertain times. Unwilling to take risks with unsold lots at auction, they’ve camouflaged big ticket gallery extravaganzas with out price tags as a way to gauge market viability.
This harmless bit of backroom scheming bothers me not a wit. In fact it represents a chance to see work from private collections that might otherwise rarely see the light of day. There are some well known museum pieces in this show, obviously on loan and truly NFS. However, I would imagine that some of those same museum trustees that had a hand with these loans also might have serious interests with inventory still in private collections.
Indeed there are some rarely exhibited beauties here which I had never seen, including Soutine's Portrait of the Sculptor Oscar Mietschaninoff (1923-24) and Bacon's Untitled (Study for Dog), ca. 1960.
The unassuming little Study for Dog turned out to be my favorite Bacon in the show. This intimately blurred gesture of what I’d guess was a beloved pet seems untouched by the torment and angst that holds sway with most of Bacon’s more prodigious work.
Although Soutine’s still lives’ and portraiture are what distinguish his painterly exploits in a more formal context, I’m always floored by his landscapes. The impenetrably entangled vegetation choking off any chance of escape from the houses of Cezanne or Van Gogh in “Group Of Trees” confirms this artist as an undeniable powerhouse of paint.
You wonder if the so-called distortions in Soutine’s compositions are really just a keen extension of the way he felt space and light unfolding in his psyche. Was this representational art to him?
On the other hand, Bacon’s dastardly deeds sometimes feel stiff, even contrived in comparison. 
Bacon’s agony never seems to be followed by Soutine’s sense of release. The caged-in notion of Bacon’s being trapped in his canvases parallels Soutine’s inevitably chaotic contours. However while the hand of an unseen specter guides Soutine’s claustrophobic density, Bacon’s sheer force of will overcomes any extraterrestrial effects.
Bacon was a determinedly angry painter, who demanded respect, while Soutine owned nothing; he was simply the tip of the brush.    

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