Friday, January 27, 2023

Norton’s New Exhibition a Trove of Contemporary Art Riches

For those who didn’t grow up in the heyday of Pop Art and post-abstract expressionism, the key artists of these movements are more referential than tactile. We see names like de Kooning, Twombly and Rothko appear often enough in art reviews and scholarly journals, but rarely is their work presented, at least on South Florida’s museum walls.

Hence one of the great pleasures of “A Remarkable Gathering,” a new exhibition at the Norton that lives up to the promise of its title. Drawn from the astounding collection of centenarian philanthropist Emily Fisher Landau, these aforementioned artists and a couple dozen more vital pioneers of contemporary art only scratch the surface of its collector’s tastes and sensibilities—but what a surface it is. A full-on survey of mid-20th century art could have not started with a more appropriate, or indeed, remarkable, assemblage of trailblazing talent than the 40 pieces on display at the Norton.

The timeline spans all the way back to Georgia O’Keeffe’s anatomical blooms and Pablo Picasso’s endlessly rewarding Cubist masterpiece “Woman With a Watch”—even Picasso is not shown nearly as often as he deserves—all the way to pieces from the 1990s and the cusp of a new century. One such later work, Glenn Ligon’s “I Lost My Voice, I Found My Voice,” incorporates those two divergent declarations, painted in endless succession on a wood panel, until they collide into each other, forming a textural miasma. This streaming catalog of “lost” and “found” struck me as a distilled narrative of the human experience—a series of gains and losses, until it’s all over.

Glenn Ligon’s “I Lost My Voice, I Found My Voice”

In between, we are treated to such little-seen masterpieces as a woozy charcoal drawing from Piet Mondrian—the first time the Dutch artist has ever been shown at the Norton—to O’Keeffe’s “Ladder to the Moon,” a charming, magical-realist outlier from the painter’s rich oeuvre. An untitled painting from Rothko, of a blood-red rectangle on a forest-green backdrop, radiates an almost terrifying intensity, proof positive of minimalism’s ability to mentally stir us while offering almost nothing recognizable.

Agnes Martin’s “Grey Stone II” accomplishes much the same, presenting a canvas that appears nearly vacant from a distance but whose nebulous shapes carry spooky enigmas when viewed up close. An untitled work by de Kooning is a maelstrom of snakelike blue and red forms writhing on the canvas as if each has its own autonomy. A contribution from Twombly, also untitled, is a marvel of controlled frenzy, with numbers, letters and symbols dotting a blustery snowstorm of oil, crayon and graphite. There are four Warhol pieces in “A Remarkable Gathering,” but it’s a testament to the extraordinary artists hanging around him that they barely stand out.

Andy Warhol’s portrait of Emily Fisher Landau

“A Remarkable Gathering” reveals Landau to be a thoughtful and in some ways specific collector, one who gravitates to bold uses of textual and self-referential art. John Baldessari’s “What This Painting Aims To Do” satisfies both of these criteria: It’s a meta painting whose subject is the painter’s very intention. Ed Ruscha’s “Securing the Last Letter,” with a vice grip tugging at the final “s” in the stylized word BOSS, is an ideal introduction to the artist’s droll wit. I was particularly drawn to Robert Rauschenberg, as I always am; his “Vitamin” is a messy three-dimensional “combine” suggesting the illusion of a partially finished work. A painted cardboard box juts from the canvas, as if it’s collecting tips.

Landau’s world is one in which figurative classicism barely plays a part, reflecting an era where everything hip and modern and exciting in the art world reduced life to lines, colors, shapes, forms—and their absence. This work challenges audiences to wrestle their own meanings from the mysteries in front of them. Perhaps the exhibition’s most telling indicator of its collector’s sensibility is one of the few pieces with a figural form. Mark Tansey’s “Triumph Over Mastery II” depicts a shirtless artist on a ladder, painting over Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment.” Goodbye Old Masters; hello young Turks.

“A Remarkable Gathering” runs through Sept. 11 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1450 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. Admission costs $18 for adults and $15 for seniors. Call 561/832-5196, or visit norton.org.


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John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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