The Gadfly and the Virtuoso

City Arts

September 27, 2011

New Yorkers who make a fetish of artistic technique—of traditional verities adroitly set into place—should make a beeline for Babcock Galleries to view a handful of diminutive paintings-on-paper by Robert Schwartz (1947–2000).

Schwartz employed gouache, an opaque form of watercolor, to meticulously representational ends, obscuring overt handiwork in the service of rounded volumes, uninflected surfaces and a pearlescent array of earth tones. Bring a magnifying glass to glimpse even the slightest evidence of touch: Schwartz’s precision was inseparable from a self-effacing temperament. He was a devotee of miniatures—of illuminated manuscripts, Netherlandish art and, I would guess, Indian painting. The crystalline approach inherent in The Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves is brought to bear on “Living on Grasshoppers” (1990), Schwartz’s metaphorical tableau about—well, it’s hard to say.

Robert Schwartz’s “Living on Grasshoppers” (1990), gouache on paper, 8 x 8 1/2 inches, part of Babcock Galleries Robert Schwartz exhibit. Courtesy of Babcock Galleries

Consider the scene: a proscenium is set up in the center of a courtyard surrounded by vaguely Mediterranean buildings. The stage is littered with art historical reproductions and occupied by four nudes—one woman and three men. A clothed woman of regal bearing sits on a stone column. She’s being presented with a series of canvases for her approval; she responds to one canvas with a highly affected gesture. (We don’t see what’s on any of these paintings.)

Leaning on the stage are two older, working-class women; one engages in a fruitless conversation with the nude woman, the other gazes with admiration at a beefy male. At stage right is a middle-manager type, hand to his forehead, looking askance. The picture is airless, the context trans-historical, the tenor homoerotic and the humor mock-satiric. Metaphor is wrapped tightly within so many different guises that its purpose is confirmed even as its range is rendered moot.

Some of Schwartz’s figures—his actors, really—appear in several pictures. The gray-haired woman at the center of “Living On Grasshoppers” is also seen in “Three Virtues, Civil in Domestic” (1991). A burly gent with curly hair can be seen striking a heroic pose in “Perspective At The Foot of the Tower” (1992) and tolerating the lament of a friend in “While You Are Waiting, It Is Only Fitting” (1993). Viewing Schwartz’s pieces en masse strengthens the theatrical nature of the compositions. Imagine an impeccably choreographed blend of the High Renaissance, Giorgio de Chirico and Tom of Finland, and you’ll get a good idea of Schwartz’s quixotic accomplishment.

Actually, it’s not that quixotic. Schwartz can be fairly neatly fitted into the tradition of Magical Realism, a loosely aligned group of American painters— Jared French is one; Paul Cadmus, another— drawn to enigmatic narratives, hushed symbolism, painstaking craft and the male nude, both as historical touchstone (cf. Michelangelo) and object of adoration.

Schwartz’s cloistered dioramas don’t necessarily trigger a “been there, done that” response. Their crisp detachment is preferable to French’s treacly mysticism and, for that matter, John Currin’s unctuous pastiches of Durer and Internet porn. But Schwartz’s pursuit of “certain truths about being human” is too occluded, too remote and finite, for philosophical access. Which means they subsist primarily as feats of painterly virtuosity and, as such, have much to recommend.

Robert Schwartz Through Oct. 27,
Babcock Galleries, 724 5th Ave., 212-767-1852

Huffing and puffing through myriad YouTube postings, navigating New York City’s art districts on his trusty Schwinn, James Kalm has graduated from being a guerilla videographer to an art world fixture—a presence as ubiquitous as the umpteenth condescending gallerista or Jeff Koons’ shit-eating smile.

Loren Munk’s “The Bowery and the New Lower East Side” (2008-10), oil on linen, 60” x 36” inches, part of Lesley Heller Workspace’s Location, Location, Location; Mapping the New York Art World exhibit. Courtesy of Lesley Heller Workspace.

Kalm is more endearing than either—quirkier, too. These qualities are readily apparent in his POV videos of gallery openings, museum press previews and sundry other public events. Documenting the art scene with dogged persistence, Kalm has received kudos from out-of-towners eager for a glimpse of goings-on about New York City. He’s also earned the enmity of dealers whose sense of exclusivity frowns upon grassroots communitarianism. Watching Kalm being shushed out the door by a functionary at Pace Gallery—yes, you can find it online—is to realize that art is, you know, not for just anyone.

Community counts a lot for Kalm as it does for Loren Munk, whose paintings are on display in Location Location, Location: Mapping The New York Art World at Lesley Heller Workspace. “James Kalm” is, in fact, Munk’s alias and one of the art world’s most badly kept secrets. Alongside his roles as “vlogger” and artist, Munk writes for The Brooklyn Rail, a journal that’s made a niche for itself as an arts community booster.

Kalm/Munk is a geographer intent on capturing each and every facet of his particular sub-culture. From the humblest Red Hook living room to the poshest Blue Chip gallery, no venue is beyond his ken or interest; all are an integral component of that living, evolving and consternating thing known as “the art world.” Munk’s paintings—labyrinthine diagrams of criss-crossing linear networks, innumerable factoids and the stray slogan (“There are over eight million paintings in the NAKED CITY, this is only one of them”)—embody a sense of the city’s cultural identity and standing. Location Location, Location consists of eight large paintings and one small study dedicated to a specific area of the city: Soho, the Bowery, the West Village (home of the famed Artist’s Club), East 10th Street and the Village of the Damned (the Lower East Side circa The Mudd Club and Keith Haring) and The New Lower East Side of Whole Foods and The New Museum.

Munk has been around long enough—he set up shop in Red Hook in 1969—to witness the scene’s aesthetic, commercial and logistical shifts and, not least, the role of the real estate market in shaping them. (“What Manhattan Makes Brooklyn Takes” underlines the artist’s eternal search for affordable studio space.) Rendered in bold colors and with lumpish clarity, each canvas functions as an art world “Who’s Who” and “Who’s Where.”

Munk has done his research. Take time to unravel his text-heavy pictures and you’ll discover not only the addresses of Alfred Stieglitz’s ground-breaking Photo-Secessionist Gallery and the fabled Cedar Tavern, but the studios of Edward Hopper, Ad Reinhardt and Eric Fischl, as well as those of half-remembered figures like Herman Cherry, Richard Nonas and Aaron Ben-Shmuel. Esoterica is embraced for the sake of accuracy; for the sake of obsession, too.

Nodding to Edward Tufte, the Yale academician who pioneered data visualization, Munk is a statistician-cum-self-made folk painter—an artist driven by inescapable categorical imperatives. There are pictorial smarts at play in Munk’s images. He traverses the divide between language and image more nimbly than one might, at first, suppose. But the work is powered more by encyclopedic necessity. This makes for art that is daunting in its details, impressively focused, a tad invasive and a little eccentric. Maybe a lot eccentric—extremity of character accounts for a lot of Munk’s charm. Location, Location, Location is where the cliché “one of a kind” earns its keep.

Location, Location, Location; Mapping the New York Art World
Through Oct. 16, Lesley Heller Workspace, 54 Orchard St., 212-410-6120

Read more about the artist

Loren Munk