A Wealth of Color: Alzaruba on Bonnard at the Met

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Pics from Respond at Goucher College

Run, don’t walk to see one of the most remarkable NYC painting shows in recent memory- not at MoMA or any hot contemporary gallery, but at the Met. If you are interested in the endless possibilities paint continues to offer, and especially of the mysteries of color, this long over-due retrospective of Pierre Bonnard’s late interior paintings is exactly the kind of scholarly, yet astonishing exploration that explodes with the depth and breath inherent in great art.

Long relegated to second or third tier status by the powers that have been, Bonnard’s status is being re-assessed. He deliberately stepped away from the ground breaking developments of the early 20th century and went his own quietly unique way. Many have dismissed his work as being out of step, or reflective of Impressionism. In certain periods of his paintings, there is much to be argued towards this point, especially by art historians who are not artists and often do not grasp the act of seeing. Picasso famously dismissed him, but very few, especially Picasso- ever came close to pushing the subtle nuances of color relationships into such hallucinogenic incandescence, again, again and yet again. In contrast, Matisse considered Bonnard worthy of his most profound letters and friendship. Like Titian in his old age, Bonnard came fully into his own vision in his last decades. One can also argue a great comparison to the under appreciated works of Morandi. This gem of a show is a knockout- even missing what are considered his greater paintings, such as Martha in the tub.

What is relevant to contemporary practice? Setting aside his imagery, which deserves ample consideration, Bonnard painted, scrubbed, rubbed, worked and endlessly re-worked layer over layer over layer of tints and shades of contrasting colors in complex ways that defies casual viewing and easy categorization. Working on un-stretched canvas, the size of many paintings frequently shifted to new developments. He often spent years on works, many of which he considered incomplete at his death. These speak eloquently as deep wells of experienced seeing; overflowing with surprises, abstractions and relationships that richly reward prolonged viewing. Plus, this show has a number of astonishing private works that have rarely been seen in public. Table in Front of the Window hasn’t been in public in14 years. Others come from remote locations.

This show is timely in many ways. Just as our culture has rushed into an economic disaster based on greed, so have many artists rushed after fame and fortune at the cost of developing their talents. It’s time to take stock- and ask ourselves- what is it that we do that will have such staying power long after we are gone? Can our practices rise to such developed heights? What are we aiming towards?

After seeing the show this weekend, I went gallery hopping around Manhattan and Long Island. Bonnard’s practice contrasts greatly with the contemporary scene. My eyes kept thinking about his paintings even as I searched- for work that has that moment, or approached a facsimile of such visual resonance. Nothing came close. Long addicted to the three-second visual bite, the range of contemporary work, however clever, were often turned out with a minimum of effort, little or no comprehension of color relationships or design, let alone a great or original idea of any depth. These days, the concept of the masterpiece has long been tossed with the baby and the bathwater, in favor of intellectual fervor over the conceptual grime around the tub edge. What are we aiming towards? Cans of shit? One cannot make history without first understanding it’s complex lessons and heights. Bonnard opened a rare door into the mysteries of light that few have dared. We can only see as far as we look.

Alzaruba is a sculptor and performance artist living in Baltimore.

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