Thursday, August 13, 2009

James Ensor at the Modern

Finally made it to the Museum of Modern Art, my first visit since it reopened, since the reopening somehow coincided with my new fathershipness. My last visit must have been the Matisse/Picasso show in Queens.

I don't have much in the way of a fully formed reaction to the renovations and new galleries. I like that the helicopter is still prominent. The galleries feel a little confusing, for lack of a better word, in that I found myself having to think a lot about where I was walking next and why. And I have to say I liked the old Matisse room better, which had a window and felt more comfortable than the current Matisse gallery. The current gallery feels a little airless and claustrophobic in comparison and the paintings could use a little more breathing space. Some of the ab-ex stuff hasn't aged too well, I am sorry to say.

A couple reactions to the paintings, though, via my hero Henri Matisse. This time my favorite Matisse was the subtly drab Rose Table. And I found myself thinking about The Dance in a new way, perhaps because I've read Spurling's excellent two volume biography since the last time I was able to visit the Modern's fantastic Matisse collection. Looking at the Dance, I was struck by how he must have felt working on this piece in his studio, how strangely frightening it must have been, working on that scale, with that kind of color, and that simplified drawing and elegant crudity of line. It might have been exhilerating and terrifying all at once to be looking at this big wild thing in your studio.

I am nowhere near as afflicted with studio anxiety as Matisse was [it was almost debilitating for him], but I do feel it often enough to be comforted in knowing that Henri - and another painting hero of mine, Willem de Kooning - had his own doubts in the studio.

So anyway, the Ensor show. A trip and a half. Before this, I had seen only a handful of Ensors, and had not really ever given him much thought. When you've only seen a few in person, it's easy to write him off as a flake and a reclusive eccentric. But the chance to see a larger selection, all at once, that includes the scraped and knifed and darkly colored early work, the trademark masks and grotesqueries, and the beautiful graphic work - both the drawings and the etchings were a real revelation - really helped to make his work resonate with me, especially because of the theatricality, weirdness, and humor of my own b-movie paintings.

I'm not sure how yet, because only work will tell, but I'm looking forward to seeing how Ensor's own obsessiveness, theatricality, weirdness, and humor will affect my work. I know it's time to make some prints again, monotypes, drypoints, and some larger linocuts. And we'll see what happens.

No comments: