An Evening of Art, Music and Dinner at the Salmagundi Cub, NYC

May 24, 2010

SERENDIPITY, FOR SURE — I had stopped in at the Salmagundi Club in New York City to take a quick peek at two of my paintings hanging in their exhibition, “Noble Nocturne”, and was richly rewarded by an evening of delightful surprises. I was fortunate in having Kathleen Arffmann, the Club’s Executive Director, share an early dinner with me in their dining room, during which she urged me to take a look at the exhibition up in the main gallery and to stay for a musical program before I left. But first, before we went down to the dining room, she took me on a short detour to an upstairs room to share with me a mini-exhibition of the drawings of Richard Schmid. A long-time admirer of Schmid’s paintings, this was my first opportunity to study his drawings and was captivated by his precise and skillful draftsmanship — a bit of a surprise for me, since what had always drawn me to his paintings was the apparent looseness of style that gave his paintings a deceptive sense of spontaneity, far divorced from these careful studies (just one more confirmation that all good art begins with careful preparation!). So…my first pleasant surprise for the evening as it unfolded before me… then, on to dinner. I’d always enjoyed my meals at the Salmagundi, finding both the food and the ambience of the surrounding artwork to be what the German people call “gemütlich” — that is, comfortable and “homey”, reflecting an old-world tastefulness that befits one of New York’s venerable old art clubs — and being able to spend any time with Kathleen always an enjoyable and mind-expanding experience. So, although my intention was to just make a quick stop before I was on my way, I was happy to take my dinner there — though somewhat less enthused to take the time to look at another exhibition or sit through a performance. It is my habit to “take in” art in small doses, and whether it is literature, music or pictorial art, tend to partake of it discretely, preferring to allow each discipline to have its own space in my head. I had already taken an overview of the exhibition downstairs and was not prepared to “muddle” it with new images and certainly not prepared to combine it with music — a discipline I find even more demanding of concentrated and exclusive attention. However, since it was not my intention to write about “Noble Nocturne” I gave in to Kathleen’s urgings, subsequently pleased that I did and found myself, as noted above, delightfully surprised. The Salmagundi, as I said, is a venerated institution, the elegant old brownstone that houses it (the last standing on New York’s Fifth Avenue), a building that exudes culture and history, each of its rooms tastefully retaining its past glory — not the least the main gallery, which is a wonderful place to exhibit artwork. On the evening of my visit (May 21), the gallery held the John C. Traynor exhibition, nearly 100 paintings that had a fairly uniform distribution of city- and landscapes, florals, and genre scenes depicting figures in various situations and activities — most of which highlighted Traynor’s considerable skill in depicting the play of light on form. A formidable talent, Traynor displays a constant expertise, an unerring eye for perceptual illusions and a keen sense of the vagaries of form, space and color. Using a mosaic-like “patching” of brush-strokes, he manages to meld what up close appears disjointed to be, in fact, a unified whole — in other words, creating images in much the same fashion as our eyes make “sense” of the world around us. He is especially adept at making “real” the properties and influence of light as it affects the visual process — a particularly difficult problem for painters since, unlike form, it has no actual “substance”. Though varied in subject and motif, Traynor manages to impose a coherent aesthetic vision on his viewers, offering a body of work that is “of a piece” — confident, believable, compellingly “true”. This is work that deserves wide recognition and the pity is that the show only had a six-day venue, coming down on May 23rd — so I was indeed fortunate to get a chance to view it. The “icing on the cake” for the evening of my visit was to sit in this gallery — surrounded by these light-filled canvases — to listen to the talents of soprano Gretchen Farrar, accompanied by guitarist Francisco Roldán and pianist Alexander Wu, the group offering up a potpourri of songs and music that ranged from Spain, Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico to our own U.S.A. Far from clashing with Traynor’s paintings (my usual fear of lumping disciplines together notwithstanding) the experience of Gretchen Farrar, the soprano, singing “Madrugada” (“Dawn”) with Traynor’s Sunrise Through the Tuscan Hills as a backdrop — a 48” x 72” oil that featured a blazing sun on the horizon — was almost overwhelming in its impact and certainly an image that will linger in my mind for some time. The rest of the performance was equally harmonious with its elaborate “stage set” — I could not have asked for a more pleasing evening and came away with absolutely no regrets. My evening of Art, Music and Dinner at the Salmagundi Club was wonderful!

Sunrise Through the Tuscan Hills by John C. Traynor

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Believing Your Own Eyes

May 15, 2010

WHILE VIEWING THE exhibit, “Giovanni Boldini in Impressionist Paris” at The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, I overheard a woman say, “I know I’m not supposed to like them, but I love Boldini’s paintings!” I kid you not! How did we get to this pass? Just how far have we undermined the confidence of ordinary people to make them think that they cannot view art on their own terms? Unfortunately, although she might have been outspoken about her uncertainty on whether or not she “ought” to like the work of Boldini, she is surely not alone. Many are simply more hesitant to boldly state opinions and views on art — especially on art that they do not quite understand, or “get”. In fact, in the past 25 years or so that I’ve written for ART TIMES, I come across an increasing number of people who have opted out of dropping into art galleries and museums altogether simply because they claim to feel “confused”, if not, at times, downright “intimidated” by the exhibitions they see. So, where did this woman — and many of her counterparts — get the notion that we “ought” not trust our own eyes —  that we “ought” not like or prefer a certain style of art or, conversely, espouse something else? Where else, but having read it somewhere, presumably written by someone who was an “expert” in the business of looking at art! And just who, we might ask, are these so-called “experts”? I recently gave a talk on “The Art of Art Criticism”, a mini-lecture on the insubstantial ground that underlies all art criticism — in brief, that it is an art and not a “science” — and, as I often do in my presentations, made it a point to remind people that we give picture books to children because they do not know how to read — because looking at pictures is an inheritance all humans enjoy. Why have we forgotten that picture-making precedes by centuries word-making? Or that looking at and interpreting images has been going on since mankind became “mankind” — some even arguing that we became homo aestheticus simultaneously with becoming homo sapiens? Why have we lost sight of the fact that looking at images (“art”) is a “built-in” skill we all enjoy? As I emphasize in my lecture on Art Criticism, there simply are no infallible “experts” in the business. Kathleen Arfmann, Executive Director of the Salmagundi Club, NYC, recently directed my attention to an article in the New York Times (March 13, 2010), which featured the “New Guard” of curators that presently hold sway at many of our most prestigious art museums. Hailed by the Times’ writer as “The New Breed”, most are just breaking into their ‘30s, hardly seasoned enough to warrant the title of “expert” in matters of cultured taste. Granted they have an ever-growing audience for their tastes and anything-goes punditry, but comments like “fusty academics” in institutions that are “stuffy” or a “bit sleepy” coming from their “long years” of expertise starkly tell the tale. With such studied mindsets in place at the very dawn of their careers as arbiters of cultural taste, it is not difficult to imagine what they might have in store for us. Who can fault the confused woman up at The Clark Institute who simply did not want to come across as “fusty”, “stuffy”, or “sleepy”?  Since Boldini is anything but “cutting edge” it would be gauche — or even worse, “old-fashioned” — to admire his work, would it not? But, I wanted to shout out to this woman, “Please! Please! Enjoy the work! Trust your own sensibilities. It’s OK to be a bit fusty now and then! Really it is!” Of course, this squarely plumps me into one of those “sleepy” and “stuffy” categories…but then I am that. Still, I was 30 once — knew infinitely more than I know now — so who am I to point a finger? Of course there are new trends, new tastes, new things to engage the mind. And our institutions are correct to allow for these new points of view to be encouraged, touted, even supported. But is it necessary to peremptorily invalidate the past as “fusty”, “sleepy” or “stuffy”? Ought we make it necessary for viewers to be embarrassed by their choices? I offer a resounding NO! And let’s hope that poor woman regains her birthright of confidently looking at pictures once again. Let’s also hope that, as they grow into their responsibilities, these curators with their ready-made categories will eventually recognize that great art is timeless and that opinions, fads, and trends are only of their times, relevant only as long as the current tastes prevail.