I know, I know.
You come here for photography and this show has absolutely nothing to with photography. But having seen this incredible exhibit, I just couldn’t resist the temptation to pass along a few thoughts. Since this is entirely outside the norm for this site (this is the very first deviation from photography-related topics in nearly two years of writing), I’m going to forgo the usual review structure/detail and just lay out some free form observations and conclusions.
Regular readers know that we reserve our highest “three star” rating for the best photography shows of the year, those shows that not only include superior pictures but add a layer of scholarship that forces the viewer to reconsider their understanding of an artist and his/her entire career. While I won’t pretend to be an expert on Monet, I can say with authority that this group of late works entirely destroyed my original conception of the artist. The use of color and gesture is radical, explosive, and exuberant, and the connection to Abstract Expressionism, which would come decades later, seems downright unmistakable.
The first room of this show is the straight man, the “before” that we all recognize immediately: water lilies on the surface of the pond at Giverny, refined, soft, and delicate. The following three rooms bring together the “after”, works from 1914-1924, and these are the ones that will blow your mind. The brush strokes get long, large, and swirling, with expressive, rhythmic gestures built in layers. The group of paintings in the third gallery use a palette rooted in deep purples and sublime blues. They’re still water lilies, but they have become altogether more abstract, free and lively, the mesmerizing color pulsating from the canvas. In one image, perhaps my favorite in the show, the reflections of willow trees are transformed into thick vertical squiggles that shimmer down the surface.
The last gallery confines its palette to earth tones and fall colors: rust, yellow, orange, brown, with remnants of green thrown in for good measure. These paintings move even closer to complete abstraction; they are nearly unidentifiable as the subjects they supposedly depict. In the three versions of the path under the rose arches (hung together for maximum effect), the layered piling up of colors varies just slightly, with minute shadings of light and dark creating three distinct impressions, each bold and earthy. And in one version of the Japanese bridge, the brush strokes become so wild and unruly that the subject ceases to matter, and the composition is transformed into an all-over blast of chaos and energy.
Sometimes it’s easy to get trapped in the world of photography and lose sight of the bigger picture of the art world. So break out of the photography ghetto and go see this show. Go for the use of color, the masterful blending and mixing of tones, some of which will leave you hypnotized. Go also for the connections to the future, the hints of Abstract Expressionism in the flowing, eruptive gestures. But mostly go because it will make you break the foundation conclusions about Monet stuck in your memory from Art History 101 – I guarantee you’ll leave this show with an entirely new perspective on one of the greats in the history of art. It’s not photography folks, but it’s certainly, undeniably, three stars.
Claude Monet: Late Work
Through June 26th
522 West 21st Street
New York, NY 10011