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Exhibitions of the Week: Sargent Portraits at the Met, Chuck Close Self-Portraits at Pace


Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends (Until October 4 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

To visit Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends is to feel that you are growing more cultured by the minute. Perhaps the single finest American painter of the late nineteenth century, John Singer Sargent was an artist with an enviably balanced style: intelligent, but not brainy or cerebral to the point of distraction; virtuosic, but incapable of dulling his work down with cloying stylization. He can, of course, be faulted for conservatism -- for painting bare-shouldered society women (circa 1880) years after Manet painted scandalous nudes; for depicting inviting shade-soaked countrysides (circa 1910) years after Cézanne deconstructed the whole landscape genre. Modernism didn't exactly happen for Sargent -- and that isn't exactly an insult. The artist's new retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art showcases the vitality and variety that Sargent, without ever really departing from classic realism, was able to achieve, even as most of the other artist on the globe spun off in new directions.

Lucidly curated by Sargent scholar and Sargent great-nephew Richard Ormond, along with Elizabeth Kornhauser and Stephanie L. Herdrich of the Met, the exhibition offers a combination of passion projects and conventional portraits. Normally, the former would be the reason to show up, but many of the family groupings that begin the show are minor masterpieces of affect and suggestion. The double-portrait of the Pailleron children -- an older boy, a younger girl -- is a brooding work that depicts two children with weirdly aggressive visages, its background of lurid gold and red made more lurid by the boy's white collar, the girl's white dress, and occasional folds of highlighted drapery. In contrast, with its central image of a little boy and little girl holding the same watering can, the outdoor Garden Study of the Vickers Children is a Hallmark card waiting to happen. Yet with a few touches - the girl's look of earnest concentration; obtrusive, fluted lilies that won't go away - Sargent rattles an otherwise easy and sentimental canvas. These studies of now-forgotten sitters will begin by lulling you and end by challenging you. But don't neglect the many celebrity cameos, some of which are also saturated with mood and atmosphere-the two jauntily Gothic full-body renderings of Robert Louis Stevenson; the fascinatingly detached headshots of Rodin and Monet; the classicizing, domineering, and frankly not all that interesting visages of Henry James and W.B. Yeats.

The later rooms of Sargent: Portaits of Artists and Friends are devoted to images of business magnates and artistic luminaries: some of the images of actors and actresses are unashamed bombast, probably Sargent having a little fun. These rooms correspond to Sargent's later years, which were eventually consumed by the murals for the Boston Public Library (1890-1919). He would give a protracted farewell to portrait painting during this period, so that much of what he created towards the end registers as a form of decompression and diversion. Easygoing, liberated, and glorious. While the signature early portraits thrived on strident expanses of color - the great red cloak of Dr. Pozzi at Home (1881), the black dress and whitish flesh of Madame X (1883) -- the later works feed on active brushstrokes and carefully coordinated hues. The Sargent watercolors that Ormond and his co-curators have chosen for one of the last galleries conjure sensations of sunlight and quiet from their variegated colors, and the nearby canvases depicting outdoor landscape painters, loungers, and leisure-goers are imbued with a shady, afternoon stillness. Sargent's "culture" isn't merely about knowing luminaries or knowing how to depict them. It's about another kind of sophistication -- about grasping the world as it is experienced in real time and transmuting that experience to paint and canvas.

Chuck Close: Red Yellow Blue (Until October 17 at Pace Gallery)

Has Chuck Close grown more normal with the years? On the evidence of Chuck Close: Red Yellow Blue, the sixteenth showing of Close's work at Pace Gallery, the 75 year-old artist is still exhilarated by the possibilities of color, color contrast, color incongruity. The vivid magentas, teals, jungle greens, and lemon yellows here would be equally at home in a psychedelic laser light show or a recently-opened candy store, but they are instead lavished on Close's signature genre (shoulders-up portraiture) and adapted to his signature style (small, individual patches of "abstract" hue and form that add up to photo-realistic images). Time and reiteration have made it impossible to imagine Close doing anything else (except take actual photographs, which he does), and the rest of the world has caught up with his method. As Nancy Princenthal explains in her pithy catalog essay, Close's conceptual project, "which translates facial features into abstract data, has since become the bedrock of the Internet-based world." Analogies to pixilation, and to those novelty "big photograph made up of tiny photographs" posters, are becoming too easy.

Chuck Close: Red Yellow Blue is nonetheless a surprising exhibition: without necessarily reinventing Close as a radical, it is a reminder of how disorienting and gently humorous his work is, perhaps always was. The exhibition is dominated by self-portraits, sometimes photo-collaged but more often painted -- Close's famous bald dome, round glasses, and neat beard are everywhere. (It is hilariously easy to compare Close's visage to Walter White's. Does Close know?) In ambience and effect, though, the exhibition is not predictable at all. Larger portraits, such as the 2013 Cindy Sherman, resolve themselves into pressure points of dark color; in contrast, the tiniest images of Close -- which are perfectly legible from far away -- resolve themselves, at close quarters, into nothing but loose blocks of pink and green. Pixilation aside, the ponder, click, wait experience of the Internet isn't the best analog for Close's work. He's too unexpected, and too fun.

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From This Author Patrick Kennedy