Vincent Van Gogh
“Populism” is defined by the dictionary as a belief in the wisdom of the common people, and there’s a distinctly populist agenda behind the high-profile masterworks show Double Take now on view at the Experience Music Project. Not only are the paintings in the exhibit the sort of classic and modern art not usually seen in museums devoted to pop culture, the curator includes no explanatory wall text, relying instead on unexpected juxtapositions of the art to encourage viewers to see familiar works in a “new” way. The show also offers visitors a first-time peek into the private collection of reclusive local mogul Paul Allen, an attraction all in itself. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin joins us with his “take” on Double Take.
It’s impossible to talk about the art in Paul Allen’s Double Take exhibit without also talking about the venue, the lender, and the phenomena. Much of the conversation that has taken place since the show opened in April has been a rehash of similar discussions that accompanied the 1998 opening of Steve Wynn’s Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art at his Las Vegas hotel-casino complex. Then, as now, a mega-mogul graced an over-the-top palace of popular culture with their own private art collection; then as now the trophy artists Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, Monet, Renoir and Cezanne were centerpiece attractions; then as now detractors insisted that serious art was much better appreciated in the rarified confines of a true art gallery than in a glitzy shopping mall (Vegas) or an architectural white elephant (Seattle). On this last point, the two most prominent local art critics took opposite sides, with Sheila Farr at the Times saying the EMP setting made it impossible to appreciate the art in the Double Take show, a position mocked by her counterpart Regina Hackett, who advised Farr to get her head examined.
Having experienced both the art and the ambience, I’m inclined to take sides more with Ms. Farr than Ms. Hackett. Sure, great art transcends its setting, and the vast majority of the 28 works in this modest-sized exhibit are outstanding pieces in their own right. But since the concept of the exhibit itself turns out to be so flimsy, the distractions of the environment – the tacky design, the glowering rent-a-cops, and the sense that these are works only to be shared with the public on very limited terms – seriously taints the pleasures of the viewing. Perhaps part of the problem is that we have so few local opportunities to see the sort of art on display here, the here-today-gone-tomorrow sensation a visitor experiences is particularly poignant.
It’s always a challenge to make something meaningful out of a showing of an idiosyncratic private collection. It was one thing for a victorious Roman general to impress the hometown crowd by parading trophies of their conquests, but it would not do for triumphant modern entrepreneurs to simply invite the public to marvel at their wealth and power as demonstrated by their art collection (although that’s always a subtext). Curators assigned to design such shows generally search out a common theme or an over-arching narrative, a job made easier if the collector has focused on one period, style, or theme.
Since collector Paul Allen has done none of the above, curator Paul Tucker has chosen to make a virtue of necessity, pairing older pieces from the collection with more edgy 20th century works, matching art with no obvious relationship. The idea is to use the aura of novelty and transgression that still – theoretically – attaches to works by modern rebels like Eric Fischl and Jasper Johns to shock us into seeing old standbys like Manet or Seurat as the startling artists they originally were. Unfortunately for Mr. Tucker, the Impressionist masters whom wishes us to see anew are so familiar, so over-exposed, and so firmly embedded in the Pantheon of the Art Gods, that it would take nothing short of a collective brain transplant to get the average viewer to see a Renoir and a Monet as young and dangerous again.
But Tucker wants us to do more than simply learn to see the Impressionists in a fresh way, he’s also wants us to see the common elements that all art shares, and it would take a curmudgeon indeed to not enjoy some of the groupings he has arranged.
One high point is the trio of paintings featuring the female nude. First off is a spectacular panel by Peter Brueghel’s grandson Jan, an "Allegory of Sight." An idealized nude figure representing Vision (she’s looking at a painting held by a winged boy) is nearly lost in the glorious clutter of an enormous, imaginary art gallery. This Brueghel scene is perhaps inspired by the very real Rubens collection nearby, which also included classical sculpture, ancient coins, prints, and paintings hung from floor to ceiling. Then there is a lush, pointillist Seurat, whose three un-idealized nudes are meant as a statement of the artist’s adherence to the avant-garde. The women’s casual nudity, highlighted by piles of discarded clothing, is contrasted with the 19th century bourgeoisie in Seurat’s own masterpiece, the Chicago Institute’s "Grand Jatte" partly visible at the rear of the studio. A tiny Picasso egg tempera painting completes the set, also alluding to the classical tradition of the undressed female. Four bucolic women lounge on an outdoor patio with a view of the ocean, one admiring her reflection in a mirror (the customary attribute of Venus). For Picasso, such derriere-garde work represented a peculiar (and temporary) interruption in his neo-cubist progression, coming a full thirteen years after he all but destroyed the traditional nude in his earthshaking "Demoiselles de Avignon." Clearly, these three paintings are part of an ongoing dialogue with lots of artistic juice.
There’s also a real visual and art historical logic to the quartet of depictions of the Venice’s Grand Canal, starting with the acknowledged master of such views, the Baroque painter Canaletto, and continuing with three 19th-century visitors named Turner, Manet, and Monet. The last three happen to include the same church in their pictures (all the better for comparison’s sake), and Manet and Monet even paint virtually the same view. Compared to the others the Turner seems a bit vague and colorless, the rather late Monet a bit garish with an overdose of purple and red-orange. The luscious Manet, on the other hand, is a minor miracle of plein-air virtuosity – bold, glittering, and unfinished, a celebration of the painterly vision.
But many of the Double Take groupings simply don’t come off, or are too much of a stretch. What is one to make of the excellent Richter photorealist candle painting paired with another too-purple Venetian Monet? The connection escapes me. Nor do I see the wisdom behind setting a gorgeous van Gogh peach orchard next to a grisly, surrealistic Max Ernst landscape, which the curator sees as representing the destruction of the hope enshrined in the Van Gogh. And I’m equally incapable of seeing a typical Gauguin Tahitian painting of three women any differently in spite of it’s being set next to a Japanese sci-fi photograph by Kenji Yanobe of spacemen trudging across a desert. Strange people doing mysterious things in exotic settings? Please.
All this points out another problem with the show. In spite of his well-meaning desire to enliven our viewing experience, what Mr. Tucker instead provides is yet another distraction in an exhibit with too many to begin with. His curatorial hand is so heavy, that we feel we must work to see what he wants us to see, even when we don’t get the point. I’m sympathetic to experimenting with ways to look at familiar art, but this particular attempt isn’t worth repeating. I look forward to getting another look at each and every work on view in a more permanent and sympathetic setting, at that point in the future when Mr. Allen is ready to truly share his splendid art with the public.