October 15, 2007

IMHO: Don't stop me if I'm repeating myself

"Déjà Vu? Revealing Repetition in French Masterpieces," organized by Eik Kahng. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Through Jan. 1. Phoenix Art Museum, January 20 through May 4, 2008. Check out the NYTimes slide show of the exhibition.

"America's Presidents," Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC. Permanent exhibition.

Repetition has always been a common practice among painters. For a few recent examples, look at Brice Marden’s vine, Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s tree, Sean Scully’s square and rectangle. But if the exercise is recurrent, artists have different reasons for indulging it. Several years ago, Louise Belcourt, a painter and friend, and I were both working on paintings in which, from an outsider’s viewpoint, little changed from one image to the next. “What are you trying to do?” she asked. “I’m trying to make it better,” I said. “How about you?” She responded, “I’m trying to make it different.”

Indeed, painters may tackle the same subject generation after generation. In my poky seaside town, the harbor, river, and drawbridge have been artistic fodder for over a hundred years. The light changes, new buildings appear, trees come and go, and painting styles evolve. The popularity and bankability of the repeated motif tell us something about art history, community aesthetics, and the artists themselves.

As a theme, “repetition” is often embedded in the content of exhibitions without being specifically articulated by the curators. I recently saw "America's Presidents" exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. The perspective afforded by the shared format of portraiture illuminates interesting differences that wouldn’t emerge if the portraits weren’t all displayed together. That Nixon chose Norman Rockwell to paint his historic portrait, Kennedy chose Elaine DeKooning, and Clinton chose Chuck Close reveals how the presidents see themselves, and how they want to record their place in history, as well as their knowledge of art and appreciation of art history.

At the Walters, “Déjà vu? Revealing Repetition in French Masterpieces,” examines the practice of repetition among French painters in the 1800s. “Why do painters repeat themselves? What did repetition mean within the Academic tradition? How do the motivations for repetition change in the modern period?” the press release begins. To anyone who has ever seen a show of Monet’s water lilies (who hasn’t?) the fact that French painters explored recurring themes is well established, so the exhibition’s thematic conceit is not exactly a revelation. Repetition is a given for painters, and nearly every non-narrative painting show demonstrates it. Still, there are enough fine paintings in the show at the Walters to make a visit worthwhile.

Related Links:
Check out an earlier TCOP post with links to the NYTimes, Washigton Post and Baltimore Sun reviews of the Walters exhibition.

From the archives: Donald Kuspit on Sean Scully

Sean Scully and Eli Broad

Sylvia Plimack Mangold: tree, view, season