I. “Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde” at the Met

Investing Vollard with the almost statesmanlike title, “Patron of the Avant-Garde” is pretty generous for someone Paul Gauguin once called “the worst kind of crocodile.” Maecenas he wasn’t. Vollard was somewhere between racketeer and true believer, which is to say he was the consummate gallery-owner. Ambroise Vollard did for fin de siecle Paris what Leo Castelli later did for New York: putting to use a crackerjack eye for talent along with a canny mercantile sense, he helped inaugurate a new era of art. Following Cézanne’s smash-hit solo-exhibition in 1895 and the daring van Gogh retrospective a year later, the gallery-owner became an indispensable vehicle and evangelist for the good news of Post-Impressionism, just as his gallery on rue Lafitte became a noted avant-garde haunt.

It was Vollard who staged Picasso’s first solo-exhibition in 1901 and Matisse’s first in 1904. He was the primary dealer for Cézanne and Gauguin, not to mention a gaggle of Fauves, and was often associated with the Nabis, particularly Pierre Bonnard. When he wasn’t busy schmoozing with Odilon Redon or feuding with Gauguin, Vollard was plunged knee-deep in the treacherous world of artistic commerce where you sell for 1500 francs what you bought for 50, where you insist with a smile that such-and-such painting isn’t for sale and keep it in your office, and where there’s always another backroom, another stash held in speculation, another wealthy Russian industrialist who wants to see this place called Montmartre.

All of the works featured in the exhibition had something to do with Vollard. That means in addition to a wide variety of Late- and Post-Impressionist painters, such as Odilon Redon, Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and Edgar Degas, whose works Vollard acquired indirectly either for resale or his own enjoyment, the painters whose works Vollard bought and sold directly are featured prominently. Among these are the Nabis, Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard and Maurice Rey, and of course Cézanne (don’t miss Three Bathers and other excellent works), van Gogh, and Gauguin (whose vast, monumental masterpiece Where Do We Come From? What are We? Where Are We Going – a linear tableau of Tahitian figures fixed in symbolic activities and poses – is a beautiful statement of personal religion and the cosmic outline of Gauguin’s Tahitian vision). Although Vollard organized Matisse’s first show, he failed to act quickly enough to become the artist’s primary dealer. However, he did secure this position for pretty much every other Fauve. Of especial note are the beautiful vases André Derain painted on a lark of Vollard’s and the Derain’s Thames series done after Monet’s Thames series. One of the Fauves, an underrated painter named Georges Rouault, was a particular favorite of Vollard’s, and the dealer remained convinced of his genius until the end of his life. Although much of the work from Picasso’s 1901 exhibition will appear unfamiliar if new and exciting, Vollard also managed to buy a number of works from the artist’s Blue Period. There is also a Cubist portrait of Vollard himself.

What I really like about this exhibition is the way it converts the typical museum experience – a warehouse of paintings disgorged en masse from the plenum of art-history – into the fabric of lived history composed of such details as which painting of Cézanne’s Monet hung in his bedroom, which Poussin-inspired piece of the same artist Matisse loved more than any other, what portrait van Gogh painted of the doctor who repaired his ear, and what sort of humorous palaver Vollard and Gertrude Stein shared one afternoon.

II. “New Orleans after the Flood: Photographs from Robert Polidori” at the Met

No one who saw the raw footage coming out of New Orleans of those poor, desperate people at the Convention Center or Superdome can ever forget them. Bereft of even the semblance of assistance, they languished in that heat and disease and pestiferous water for almost a full week. However, these are not those images. As befits his profession as an architectural photographer, Polidori’s subject is not man, but the house man built. The photographs on display capture the massive structural devastation New Orleans sustained, bearing witness to its strange new landscape of trash-mound ridges carved by floodwaters, whole neighborhoods left to molder, and motley wreckage. Polidori’s creative decision to forgo shots of people doesn’t diminish the humanity of his photographs, but rather relegates it to a kind of revenant haunting of empty buildings – the reigning stillness perhaps being the most affecting thing of all.

We see in Polidori’s photographs how nature plays havoc with the human proclivity for making signs and imposing networks of them over the land: an uprooted stop-sign leans against a wall, two residential road-signs blithely point down ruined streets; and yet we also see a remarkable tenacity in their maintenance: someone has already affixed a flyer to a large fallen tree advertising a tree-removal service.

The true devastation documented by these photographs took place in the interior living-spaces whose disordered piles of junk and broken furniture Polidori records with a visual exactitude and tranquility reminiscent of a Dutch still-life. Everything has been knocked over and split apart and waterlogged and left in random heaps. New sources of perceptual detail come to light: the inside of a couch, the grimy texture of a lampshade, or the spread of mold across a wall. The familiar has been rendered strange because the familiar has been destroyed.

Hurricane Katrina is likely to be remembered as much a catastrophe of government as one of nature – just ask the people who spent a week in the Superdome or tried to exit the city only to be turned back by armed men. However, there’s a certain detail from one of Polidori’s photographs I find strangely compelling. On the far wall there sits a framed picture – somehow undamaged – of a young African-American male in military uniform looking ahead with a gaze that might be described as idealistic. There’s just so much compressed meaning in that little picture and its pocket of erstwhile domesticity: the loving home, the dutiful son, the sense of patriotism, the faith in government, the hand that must have put that picture up, and the hand that kept it from the waters – I can’t decide if it’s sad or redemptive.

III. “Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980 – 2005” at the Whitney

For those of the belief that it’s incumbent upon a museum of contemporary art to gross out its visitors every once in a while, Kiki Smith’s exhibition at the Whitney is a must-see. Giant diaphragm mounted to wall? Check. Row of empty jugs with labels like semen, urine, blood, and pus? Check. Flotilla-of-spermatozoa sculpture? Check. A blanket jointly woven from wool and human hair? Sculptures of dead crows flung out across the floor? Check and check.

However, Kiki Smith’s work transcends the status of the merely outré in order to probe archetypes, illuminate nightmares, and in general muck about the unconscious in a way that is visceral, cathartic, and highly-relevant. For this exhibition the Whitney presents a collection of sculptures and installations meant to be representative of her activity over the past 25 years. On display you’ll find Rodinesque figures locked in invisible torment, striking yet nuanced assemblages of disparate materials, and a Cambrian explosion of organic forms. The quality of Smith’s work is relentlessly physical like only a sculpture of unraveled duodenal tissue can be, and yet it partakes of an anguished interiority as if the interconnected galleries were chambers of her psyche or chapters from her life. In this reprise of her career, Smith manages to allude to, evoke, and begin to work through a whole host of neuroses, fixations, anxieties, loathings, and submerged wishes relating to the body and its sexual being. Along the way we’re privy to a gallimaufry of her creations part Claes Oldenburg and part David Cronenberg.

Many of Smith’s works embody some form of emotional or symbolic ambivalence through the literal process of physical merging. For The Shield Smith has made a plaster cast of a pregnant woman’s belly. The resulting shield-like object has the look of a primitive fetish (in the anthropological sense) and yet also resembles a giant diaphragm – a bizarre conflation of physical fact and magical object, prophylactic device and the very thing it was to guard against. Elsewhere, a model of Little Red Riding Hood sports a suspiciously lupine beard, and nearby there is a nude female sculpture that has just emerged from the carcass of dead wolf. She looks empowered. The whole ensemble tackles the original Little Red Riding Hood myth from a number of angles – as a provocative dream-distortion, as an unsettling deconstruction of the apposite sexual archetypes, or as a feminist revision of the original myth from a narrative of safeguarded virginity and phallic menace to one of female sexual empowerment. You know, chick stuff.

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