Sanford Schwartz is the author of Christen Købke and William Nicholson. (June 2015)

The Lure of Life on the Missouri

George Caleb Bingham: Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, 29 1/4 x 36 1/4 inches, 1845
There is a lovely stylishness and sense of artificiality about the paintings George Caleb Bingham made of fur traders and boatmen on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. In pictures that date mostly from the latter half of the 1840s and seem to take place in the early hours of a …

The Lost Voice of Art

Kenneth Clark, circa 1941
It is a rare event for an art museum to do a large and ambitious exhibition about a person who was not a visual artist. But then Kenneth Clark, the subject of such a show now at Tate Britain, was for some five decades a unique figure in the cultural …

Wildly Inventive Sigmar Polke

Sigmar Polke: Watchtower, 118 x 88 1/2 inches, 1984
MoMA has brought together the most complete overview of Sigmar Polke’s art that any museum has attempted. It is a remarkable and challenging event. Polke was funnier, brainier, and more ferocious in his need to experiment than, it can seem, many artists are.

The Gift of Piero

Piero della Francesca: Saint Jerome and a Supplicant, circa 1460–1464
American, or at least New York, lovers of the work of Piero della Francesca—love seems to be a better word than admiration to describe how people feel about this artist—have been given a rare two-part opportunity over the past year. Last winter and spring the Frick Collection brought together a …

Quiet, Sensuous Piero

Piero della Francesca: Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, 20 1/8 x 15 inches, 1450

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Piero della Francesca: Personal Encounters,” is the first ever exhibition about Piero’s devotional works. They are small-size paintings created for bedrooms or set-apart areas in the home. In spirit they take us to much the same austere and bare-bones realm as his more public pictures. Yet they present more directly and pleasurably the qualities that make Piero such a special figure, even by the heady standards of the fifteenth century, when so many Italian and Flemish artists, were finding one personal way after another to portray the actual, corporeal world they lived in.

Discovering L.S. Lowry

L.S.Lowry: A Footbridge, 21 x 17 inches, 1938
Aside from Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and David Hockney—and, possibly, Henry Moore (for viewers of a certain age) and Damien Hirst (if you have only recently been paying attention)—British art of the past hundred or so years is a dimly known terrain for American audiences. The very considerable figure of …

The Capture of Hidden Moments

Eric Fischl: The Old Man’s Boat and the Old Man’s Dog, 84 x 84 inches, 1982
In 2010, the artists David Salle and Richard Phillips mounted a first-rate show, to which they gave the provocative title “Your History Is Not Our History,” that was about the art of the 1980s. The point of the exhibition, which included, among others, Carroll Dunham and Barbara Kruger, Julian Schnabel …

Making a Long-Gone World Alive

William Matthew Prior: William Lawson, 30 x 25 inches, 1843
It is sometimes said that, before the Civil War, American artists usually showed African-Americans in a trivializing and condescending manner. The thought is that, in antebellum days, American painters—and this would be largely painters working out of the Northeast, where our art world was at the time—saw black …

The Art of Our Terrible War

Sanford Robinson Gifford: Camp of the Seventh Regiment, near Frederick, Maryland, July, 1863, 18 x 30 inches, 1864.
Taken simply as an exhibition of paintings and photographs, the works that make up “The Civil War and American Art,” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, form a muffled and somehow scattered, even numbing, display. In pictures that date from 1852 to 1877 but were mostly made during the war …

Surrealism Made Fresh

Salvador Dalí: Study for ‘The Image Disappears,’ 20 1/4 x 26 inches, 1938.
Surrealism has entered the language as a synonym for almost anything that seems odd, uncanny, or freaky. For some, the very word connotes a profane, or carnivalesque, lifting of the lid on hidden, even repressed, thoughts and feelings. But initially this art was romantic and revolutionary in its goals. A little like Dada, which was more a spirit in the air than a movement, and probably put as much energy into cabaret performances and the issuing of statements as the making of artworks, Surrealism was about the need for radically new approaches to writing, art, and experience itself.

Where the Macabre & the Fantastic Meet

Quay Brothers: They Think They're Alone, decor for the film Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies, 1984
With his great theme of Americans and their avid encounters with European experience, Henry James might have found the Quay brothers to be updated versions of some of his own characters. Something like a romance with European life and culture, anyway, seems to be at the center of the art …

The Moment of Moroni

Giovanni Battista Moroni: Portrait of a Twenty-nine-year-old Man, 22 3/8 x 17 1/2 inches, 1567 (left); Portrait of a Little Girl of the Redetti Family, 15 3/4 x 12 5/8 inches, circa 1570 (right)
The catalog of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Bellini, Titian, and Lotto: North Italian Paintings from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo” has on its cover, amusingly, a work by Giovanni Battista Moroni. Perhaps the designer of the appealingly small-sized catalog chose the Moroni, a 1567 portrait of a young man with a background of a neutral color, because, more than other pictures in the show, it provided a good space to set forth the lengthy title. But the cover could be saying, editorially, that while Bellini, Titian, and Lotto are the presumed attractions, it is Moroni’s image of a tense young man, with closely cropped hair and beard, that genuinely grips our attention.

Surprising Young Lucian

Lucian Freud: Man and Town, 11 1/8 x 15 1/8 inches, 1940–1941
It isn’t altogether news that the realist painter Lucian Freud, who died last July at eighty-eight, was something of a child prodigy—and was certainly a disciplined, adventurous, and ambitious artist already by his early twenties. But the variety, peculiarity, and technical mastery of his work from the 1940s, when he was in his twenties, may strike viewers as a gift from out of the blue.

The Art of the Impersonator

Cindy Sherman: Untitled #353, 36 x 24 inches, 2000

The end result of Cindy Sherman’s many approaches is a roller coaster of discontent, at times recalling Otto Dix, at other moments Carol Burnett. Sherman can be reproachful and quietly barbed, or merely leaden and gloomy, or showily horrifying, or buoyantly nasty. The works that held me longest were of her strivers and her patronesses. They bring together the poles of Sherman’s thinking: her feeling for contemporary life and for the monstrous.

The Art of the Classic Loner

Forrest Bess: Untitled, 10 7/8 x 12 7/8 inches, 1960
There is a heightened sense of freedom and experimentation, touched with a gentle, deadpan humor, pervading the work of the American painter Forrest Bess (1911–1977). Looking at his unusually small pictures, which are like so many short, enigmatic tales—they were made from roughly the middle 1940s to the early 1970s—we …

A Grand & Tender Artist

Wilhelm Lehmbruck: Inclined Woman’s Head (Bust of Kneeling Woman), 17 1/2 x 17 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches, 1914
The work of Wilhelm Lehmbruck makes one realize how rare it is in the sculpture of any era to see, on the faces of figures, subtle and convincing states of feeling. The emotions expressed by the men and women done by this German artist, who died in 1919, at thirty-eight, …

The Cauldrons of de Kooning

Williem de Kooning: Woman I, 75 7/8 x 58 inches, 1950–1952. Illustrations (c)2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
At the Museum of Modern Art’s Willem de Kooning retrospective, the gift shop is selling a mug that has on it this quote from the artist: “In art one idea is as good as another.” The line is typical of the thoughts one finds in de Kooning’s published statements and …

Quicksilver Frans Hals

Frans Hals: Petrus Scriverius, 8 3/4 x 6 1/2 inches, 1626, and his wife, Anna van der Aar, 8 3/4 x 6 1/2 inches, 1626
Hals was a painter of instantaneity, of the secular, everyday here and now. He delineates the second when, cast in a precise but never excessive or dramatizing light, a portrait subject comes before us as a breathing character, someone we think we know a little. It is Hals’s feeling for the singular moment, person, and degree of illumination that sets him apart from his peers as a portraitist—whether those who came before him (such as Holbein or Giovanni Battista Moroni in the sixteenth century), or were his contemporaries in Holland and elsewhere (such as Rembrandt, van Dyck, Rubens, or Velázquez), or came later (such as Reynolds and Gainsborough in the eighteenth century and Ingres and Thomas Lawrence in the early nineteenth century).

Oddly Brilliant Beginnings

Lyonel Feininger: Newspaper Readers, 19 3/4 x 24 7/8 inches, 1909. Illustrations (c) Lyonel Feininger Family, LLC/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
About ten years ago I began seeing now and then, whether in books or galleries, fanciful and brilliantly colored pictures by Lyonel Feininger (1871–1956) that—made when he was first painting, and showing people doing this or that—had an exuberant, even anarchic spirit that seemed at odds with his temperament. Like …

Anselm Kiefer, in Love with Loss

A still from Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow showing Anselm Kiefer's 'tottering, bunker-like' structures

Over the years, Kiefer’s work, continually summoning up Bible stories, wartime legends, and mystical awarenesses, has become woozily grandiloquent. He is an extraordinary showman, however. His pictures, where model ships or women’s frocks are often placed atop images of endless fields, the sea, or forests, can have a phenomenal physical presence. He is a master transformer of materials. From the first he made lead, steel, straw, glass, or crumbly clumps of cement with rebar sticking out bespeak fragility and delicacy.

The Drama of the World at Night

George Ault: Bright Light at Russell’s Corners, 19 5/8 x 25 inches, 1946
The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition “To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America” is on the face of it a welcome and overdue event. It presents as a kind of hero and dominant presence a painter who has been a slightly peripheral figure in our art. On a …

Looking into the Beyond

Caspar David Friedrich: View from the Artist’s Studio, Window on the Right, 12 1/4 x 9 3/8 inches, circa 1805–1806
At some point in 1805 or 1806, the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich made two sepia ink drawings of the windows in his studio, looking out onto the Elbe River, in Dresden—drawings done with extraordinary exactitude of a subject that, conceivably, no artist had ever handled this way before.

‘Deft, Ingenious, Creepy’

George Condo: The Executioner, 1984
The Executioner, perhaps the strongest and most genuinely disturbing work in George Condo’s show at the New Museum, might be called a representational painting about the allure of abstract art—or, to be more precise, the allure of letting yourself go in the making of a world of curving, looping, entangling …

‘A Tremendous Painter’

Lovis Corinth: Herbert Eulenberg, 23 5/8 x 19 5/8 inches, 1924
Lovis Corinth, who died in 1925, at sixty-seven, has long been a hazily known figure for the wider museumgoing public in this country. But at least in New York, artists and art writers, in my experience, have kept aware of this German artist’s landscapes and portraits because he had an …

Bitter Truths

Otto Dix: To Beauty, 55 x 48 inches, 1922. The figure in the center is a self-portrait of Dix. For a slideshow of works discussed in this review, see the NYR blog, www.nybooks.com/blog.
In 2006, the Metropolitan Museum opened one of the most engrossing shows of twentieth-century art it has ever done. This was “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s,” a beautifully selected look at the work of Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Otto Dix, and a number of lesser-known figures—including Karl …

Slide Show: Otto Dix

This summer, the Neue Galerie in New York is offering the first large-scale American exhibition of the gleefully provocative German painter Otto Dix (1891–1969)—providing a rare opportunity, as New York Review contributor Sanford Schwartz says, “to appreciate an artist who could almost be our contemporary.” Here are a selection of images from the show, together with comments taken from Schwartz’s piece on Dix, which will appear in the Review‘s August 19 issue. The exhibition closes August 30. (Images provided by Neue Galerie New York.)

The Light on the Castle

Christen Købke: One of the Turrets at Frederiksborg Castle, 69 5/8 x 63 3/4 inches, 1834–1835
The early-nineteenth-century Danish artist Christen Købke wasn’t the first or the last painter to record the subtlest effects of light. But at his current traveling retrospective, which I saw at the National Gallery in London—it is the first extensive show of his work ever held outside his homeland—a viewer could …

The Artist Behind the Blur

Miroslav Tichý: Untitled, n.d. According to Sanford Schwartz, ‘Tichý makes photography a monitor of the nebulous and evanescent—of flashes of beauty in everyday life that go by so quickly we are not sure we have really seen them. His images expand our idea of the medium’s power.’
When Diane Arbus was first becoming widely known, at the time of her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1972, viewers absorbed her pictures with the knowledge that she had taken her life the year before, and this painful fact intensified their already disturbing, even frightening, nature. At …