The Best Show I’ve Seen in New York

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Van Gogh and Expressionism at the Neue Gallerie. Ok, not the best show I’ve ever seen in N.Y., but certainly the best for a while, enlightening, well focused and full of powerful canvases. And not just by Van Gogh, but by the German and Austrian artists the Neue was established to elevate, like Schiele, Klimt, Kirchner, Emil Nolde and Franz Marc.

Van Gogh was introduced into the bloodstream of German and Austrian art through an escalating series of gallery and museum shows, in Berlin, Vienna, Munich and Dresden, that started around 1900, ten years after his death. Within another decade he would become the force that ignited German Expressionism. His acid yellows, mauves and ultramarines would discharge into the pallette of an astonished and even worshipful generation of painters. For many of them Van Gogh’s influence was brief, but decisive and above all liberating. They responded not only to his formal qualities, the blunt impasto, the fearless juxtapositions of impossibly vivid colors, but to his conviction that painting could be the channel through which powerful feeling could find equivalent form. One the catalogue essays quotes Kafka on literature. “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us”. For German and Austrian painting at the beginning of the last century, Van Gogh was an ax.

Field with Flowers Near Arles, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888 — Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

So, the “anxious”, coiling line in Kokoshchka’s portraits? From Van Gogh, of course. Kokoschka used Van Gogh’s intensities as a permission slip to move off from his own stalemated beginnings in Viennese Jugendstil — the Austrian variant of art nouveau — and to find his way to the blunt, crackling energies of his later canvases. The ferociously colored, bluntly modeled forms in Franz Marc? Van Gogh again. Marc, Kandinsky and the other artists of Der Blaue Reiter group all succcumbed to him at one time or another. The self-portrait by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff that all but disintegrates into a cascade of thrashing pigment squeezed straight from the tube? Van Gogh, pushed to the point of no return.

Self-Portrait, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, 1906 — Nolde Stifftung, Seebull

The Neue show was organized by guest curators Jill Lloyd,a London based art historian, and her husband Michael Peppiatt, the publisher of Art International (And author of an excellent book on Francis Bacon.) They also put together the terrific Neue show five years ago that gave a lot of people in the U.S. — this is another way of saying “me” — their first sustained look at the delectable perversities of Christian Schad. Give these people something else to do.