Art review: History of persecution connects two artists featured at Farnsworth

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Art review: History of persecution connects two artists featured at Farnsworth

“Leonard Baskin: I Hold the Cracked Mirror Up to Man” at Farnsworth Art Museum. Photo by David Troup

Two compact exhibits at the Farnsworth Art Museum confirm an old adage, which I’ll turn more superlative here: Great things come in small packages. Although “Leonard Baskin: I Hold the Cracked Mirror Up to Man” (through Jan. 15) has been around for some time, that show and “Louise Nevelson: Dawn to Dusk” (through Dec. 31) are apt statements for our particular moment in time.

Both shows represent the work of Jewish artists, which, with the approaching Hanukkah holiday, seems timely. Furthermore, Louise Nevelson was born Leah Berliawsky near Kiev in present-day Ukraine, but fled the tsarist regime’s pogroms with her family in 1905 and eventually settled in Rockland.

Nevelson’s background is a reminder not only of this region’s ongoing history of conflict, but also of the censorship and persecution faced by Ukrainian-born artists such as Alexander Archipenko, Kazimir Malevich (although of Polish descent) and others – first under imperial, then Communist, systems. And inhumanity of many stripes – towards Jews, Native Americans, Black and colored people, victims of war – is the subject of Baskin’s exhibition.

As challenging as Baskin’s images are, during the year’s most poignant, commercialized holiday, it’s worth remembering those who are less fortunate, or find themselves in circumstances that make joyous celebration almost unthinkable.

Years ago, when I was studying journalism and art history at New York University, I ran the lunch counter at a Greenwich Village restaurant called Café Loup, which was frequented by writers, intellectuals, and artists. One day the door swung open and in walked a woman with heavy black kohl around her eyes, her head wrapped in a long black scarf trailing behind her as she parted the water from the restaurant. Louise Nevelson knew how to make an entrance. She came to eat with her friend Dorothy Dehner, the painter and sculptor who was married to the mercurial artist David Smith for 23 years.

Louise Nevelson, “The Endless Column,” 1969-1985, Painted wood sculpture, Bequest of Nathan Berliawsky, 1980.35.30, © 2022 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo courtesy of Farnsworth Art Museum

What I knew of Nevelson’s work at the time was mainly her all-black constructions, although a few years later I saw her immaculately white 1977 “Chapel of the Good Shepherd” at St. Peter’s Church in downtown Manhattan (now under restoration) would discover. At the Farnsworth, a wall legend accompanying Nevelson’s seminal 1959 white constructed environment called “Dawn’s Wedding” quotes her explaining her initial detour away from the black works that made her famous: “For me, the black contains the silhouette, the essence. of the universe. But the whites move a little out into outer space with more freedom.”

In fact, freedom was Nevelson’s modus operandi. Which means that what’s most interesting about this show is less these famous works than the adventurous explorations she made on the way to get to them.

Among the surprises here are Nevelson’s early paintings, through which she tried various genres while developing her own signature. For example, with its rounded shapes, color palette and Art Deco aesthetic, a 1929 work like “Female Nude” bears the stylistic imprints of Kenneth Hayes Miller and Chaim Gross, two of her teachers at the Art Students League in New York.

Louise Nevelson, “Woman with a Red Scarf,” 1946, oil on board, Bequest of Nathan Berliawsky, 1980.35.24, © 2022 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo courtesy of Farnsworth Art Museum

The angularity and bright hues of her 1946 self-portrait, “Woman with a Red Scarf,” resemble the work of German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Although painted in 1946, three years before she first visited Mexico, the Central American influences of “Two Women”—from the dress to the Tamayo-like paint application—indicate that she was already familiar with the work of the great Mexican murals.

Freedom of experimentation – as well as an obsessive quest to find her own voice – is also evident in Nevelson’s journey through various mediums. Over the course of the show, we see her create art with paint, carved wood, cast bronze (the show is particularly strong in these holdings), collage (of both cut paper and wood), embossed handmade paper, silk screen materials, jewelry and more . We see paintings, sculptures, manufactured environments and even a stage design for a 1984 production of the opera “Orfeo and Eurydice.”

One fascinating pairing occurs diagonally across one side of the gallery. To the left of the entrance is a wall cabinet containing several of Nevelson’s collaged wood pendants, some with gold-painted overlays, mostly from the 1980s. In the corner diagonally opposite the case is “Series of An Unknown Cosmos I,” a 1979 wood and paper collage on plywood that no doubt represents the jewelry. It almost looks like a study for those body decorations.

Louise Nevelson, “Series Of An Unknown Cosmos I,” 1979, Wood and paper collage on plywood, 36 x 24″, Gift of Louise Nevelson, 1985.23.25 Photo by Dave Clough

By then, Nevelson had long established her particular magic of assembling collaged wooden forms into her truly – to use a word that has become trite today – correctly – iconic works. Yet she continued to dabble in different media, working out ideas through a plethora of techniques.

This is the mark of a great artist: the refusal to stand still, to reject constant replication of the work for which people have come to know you. By the time she joined Café Loup in the early 1980s, she had done all of these things. I’m glad I didn’t know the extent of it. Otherwise, I might have been too tongue-tied and too starry-eyed to simply greet Nevelson and Dehner and lead them to table 14.

THE EVIL THAT PEOPLE DO

It’s hard to imagine that Leonard Baskin was ever a happy person. A sculptor and graphic artist, this was after all the man who in 1942 founded one of the earliest and most influential art presses in the United States, which he called Gehenna, a term meaning “place of misery” and sometimes used as a synonym for hell. He was 17 and a student at Yale, and World War II was three years later.

Lynchings of African Americans had been taking place for nearly two centuries by then. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by an atomic bomb was only three years away, and the development of the hydrogen bomb a decade in the future. Not unimportantly, he felt deep empathy for all this suffering. As the son and brother of rabbis, he was already well acquainted with a heritage of persecution. In “Cracked Mirror” one feels Baskin’s visceral distaste for our human capacity for cruelty.

Leonard Baskin, “Hydrogen Man,” 1954, woodcut, 62 1⁄4 x 24 3/8 in., Collection of the Farnsworth Museum of Art, Gift of Kenneth N. Shure and Liv M. Rockefeller, 2007.23.1 Photo courtesy of Farnsworth Art Museum

And that’s why it’s an important – with a capital “I” – exhibition to see. As they like to say in academia these days, “trigger warning”: This is a downer and deeply disturbing. Check out “Hydrogen Man,” a woodcut on paper measuring 3 feet by almost 6 feet. It is a picture of a man reduced to bones and raw fascia muscle, which appears to have been flattened (or the skin evaporated cleanly from his body).

It is a haunting and horrible image. Yet it is made even more so when we realize it was printed from an almost life-sized single block of carved wood. Baskin’s choice to work at this scale (the scale of many works in this exhibition) must have strengthened his own identification with his subjects. He produced images of tortured souls in his own relationships. To indelibly imprint this idea on our psyches, the exhibition produces an actual block of wood, carved on both sides, which he used to produce two of his unsettling life-size prints.

Leonard Baskin, “Man of Peace,” 1952, woodcut, collection of Kenneth Shure and Liv Rockefeller, © The Estate of Leonard Baskin Photo courtesy of Farnsworth Art Museum

The small gallery these works occupy is replete with similarly disturbing references, including lynchings (“The Hanged Man”) and the Holocaust (“Man of Peace” and various other works). Still, as depressing as Baskin’s messages are, you can leave the show inexplicably exhilarated. I suggest it is twofold.

First, they are works of conscience, and no matter how uncomfortable works of conscience make us feel, there is an inherent aliveness in being aware of our discomfort (the opposite of which is the deadness of pitting our feelings against these kinds of truths to numb). The more aware we are, the more we feel the totality of our human experience, including the innate dignity of our higher selves and our capacity to be kind and compassionate.

Baskin recognized that, although humans “made Eden a landscape of death,” we are still noble, even “glorious” beings because we possess an ever-present hope of redemption. Second, witnessing an artist’s power to invoke our aliveness is awe-inspiring. Baskin once wrote that “the forging of works of art is one of man’s remaining semblances of divinity.” And this is simply why art matters.

Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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