On ViewMetropolitan Museum of Art
Jacques Louis David: Radical Draftsman
February 17 – May 15, 2022
Charles Ray: Figure/Ground
January 31 – June 5, 2022
In a fortuitously fertile juxtaposition, the bodies politic of the greatest French painter of the Age of Revolution and the bodies poly-tech of our own most inventive and incisive figurative sculptor are simultaneously on view at the Met. Jacques Louis David, progenitor of Neoclassicism in the 1780s, proponent of the French Revolution in its most repellent phase in the 1790s, Napoleonic shill, and creator of loony exilic visions in Brussels late in life, is represented in a comprehensive and revealing show of eighty-three drawings and one painting in three small rooms that explores his process and the evolution of his major pictures. Charles Ray’s semi-survey of his career in nineteen works in two vast rooms hollowed out of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Exhibition Hall ranges from photographic documentation of performances at the University of Iowa in the 1970s to Archangel, a megaxylic sculpture from 2021. For Ray, process is product and product is sculpture encompassing both figure and ground, manufactured material forms that “tail off into reality” in the artist’s memorable phrase, bodies as responsive to our time as David’s were to his. Two centuries apart, David’s works on paper and Ray’s objects in multiple media would seem irreconcilable, but the French artist’s emphasis on the male body in the service of politics and female body negated through powerlessness and the American sculptor’s insistent figuration in bodies as they relate to space, time, and viewer reception jointly expand upon our human condition.
As contributors to the smart, accessible, and welcomingly academic David catalogue admit, these are not drawings to set the heart aflame, unlike those in Bruegel and Bronzino and Fragonard exhibitions in these same spaces in recent memory.1 But they reveal the way that the artist developed salon machines that changed the direction of Western art while expanding and engaging its audience, establishing him as the first modern artist. For David, leaders who were arbiters of history formed the reason to paint, and classical art provided the template for his ideas. The first room contains sketches made in Rome and its environs, seminal experiences compiled into books to be consulted throughout his career. Early thematic drawings show him evolving out of the presiding and institutionalized late Baroque and Rococo in search of a new form of expression. The result: the lightning bolt that is The Oath of the Horatii, shown in the Salon of 1785. Sketches reveal the germination of the idea and the artist’s approach, from black chalk designs to more resolved images with details worked out in pen and wash, to a drawing on which oils were applied in sections to sort out the hues, and then larger chalk images of individual figures shaded and modeled and squared for transfer to his large canvases. In the Horatii, exemplary moral behavior conveyed through classical subject matter with Greek and Roman stylizations and details, a frieze-like composition, sculptural bodies and shading, and a toned-down color scheme heavy on primaries established the basic ingredients for Neoclassicism. As the curators note, he chose “psychological depth over graphic violence” in these scenes. The second gallery follows the same format in showing David’s formula for making The Death of Socrates (1787) and The Lictors Bringing Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789), with multiple sketches and, in the case of the former, the Met’s own finished product. Like the Horatii, Brutus, featuring the story of the Roman leader in the early Republic who was compelled by law to have his sons executed for treason, was commissioned by Louis XVI’s administration. But when it was exhibited at the Salon two months after the attack on the Bastille in 1789, it was heralded as an image redolent of committed patriotism and personal sacrifice, a repositioning the artist fully embraced.
The other half of this gallery includes a David drawing that eternally soars, The Oath of the Tennis Court (1791), never before exhibited in the United States. Little in the early work prepares you for this assured treatment of countless bodies acting in purposeful unison, a modern School of Athens in its groupings of characters and powerful use of negative space. David successfully transformed the classical ideals of oath-taking, political purpose, and ethical responsibility into a contemporary image of the meeting of the National Assembly at Versailles in June of 1789 with the express purpose of hammering out a constitution, swearing an oath to stay in session until that job was complete, and joined by sympathetic clergy from the Estates General. Nearby are sketches for members showing how David started with the nude and then clothed his subjects. At 26 by 40 inches, it is a large and ambitious work that the limitations of the gallery have sadly consigned to a corner, and whose distinctive orange hue, not evident in reproductions in the catalogue, enhances its compelling fervor. Here, David peaked. The planned large-scale canvas for the new National Assembly was never completed—the winds of historical changes and the ruthlessness of successive phases of the Revolution meant many in David’s cast of characters fell into disrepute or had their heads fall into bloodied baskets below the guillotine.
This room also features drawings David made while an active participant in the next phase of the Revolution. The publisher Jean Paul Marat, a kind of Andrew Breitbart with political aspirations, was David’s friend and an odious character, lionized into eternity in one of the most iconic images of modern martyrdom, Marat at His Last Breath (1793). While David capably solved the problem of expeditiously addressing contemporary history in this swiftly completed work, represented here by a haunting drawing of Marat’s dead head—a modern St. John the Baptist on a platter—the problems are the subject, the context, and the politics. Ever eager for fame and success, David’s association with murderous mouthpieces and enactors of the Terror under his other close friend, Robespierre, in whose government he willfully served, should not be overlooked. It directly led to his imprisonment—twice—under successive administrations. During his incarceration he made a fiery self-portrait and multiple drawings of fellow Thermidorean prisoners—images such as Portrait of Bernard de Saintes and the vivid Portrait of a Man (both 1795) are exquisite and more romantic than classical but responding to them is a bit like admiring Arno Breker’s sculpted Nazis. David then sought security by hitching his star to Napoleon, as shown in the final gallery, becoming the magnetic and megalomaniacal Corsican’s chief painter, and engaging in a kind of cringe-inducing bootlicking in the form of massive amounts of square footage of canvas that heroicised the emperor. What are we to make of the dubious alignments of this artist? How do we negotiate the aesthetic power and creativity of Bonaparte Crossing the Alps (1800-1801) and The Distribution of the Eagles (1810) with their cult of ruthless personality, their propagandistic support of someone we might now term a war criminal? And how to navigate these in an exhibition of drawings, at a time when politics in this country are at its most divisive since the 1860s, when we have endured a mob attack on the nation’s capital (a frequent occurrence in Paris from 1789 to 1871), and when autocracy is on the rise globally and has erupted in aggressive warfare to an extent not seen in Europe since the 1940s?
It is probably better that the exhibition has little to say along these lines. But that does not mean David’s allegiances should be glossed over in favor of the David of formal invention and narrative fluidity. We do not learn about his wife and children until the final wall of the last room—odd, as family themes are prevalent in the work. His politics are but sketchily conveyed. Nonetheless, David’s curious and compelling final drawings in Brussels in exile surprise. He rethought his designs in peculiar compendiums of figures from earlier works shown from the bust up and in landscape format, while also producing freer drawings from memory of his own works such as a portrait of his daughter Pauline and Leonidas at Thermopylae, as a wistful van Gogh would later paint versions of Jean-François Millet pictures from memory in the asylum at Saint-Rémy. Absent a political cause and significant commissions, and in fading health, David in Brussels, like Gustave Courbet in Swiss exile a half-century later, found himself aesthetically at sea.
Robert Rosenblum introduced me to David, first in his writings and then in classes at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU. His passion for the period persisted in his teaching long after he had moved onto contemporary art. The hallway that takes you from David to Ray at the Met is installed with Dan Flavin’s cool white The Diagonal of May 25, 1963 (To Robert Rosenblum) (1963), from the minimalist artist’s first series of fluorescent works. An eight-foot-long fixture on a 45-degree angle positioned from lower left to upper right, it points you to Ray’s Two Horses (2019), a tremendous recent acquisition. Rosenblum wrote of Flavin that he was part of a cadre of artists in the early 1960s who “were drafting new aesthetic constitutions”—The Oath of the Tennis Court was never far from his thinking.2 He wrote little on Charles Ray,3 but the Chicago-born, California artist’s revisioning of the body, in a variety of materials, provides rich fodder for art historically associative minds. The works in Figure Ground consistently recall past art while upending expectations. Emotion in Ray is not performative as it is in David. But Ray’s faces are emotional without being outwardly emotive, starting with the photographic self-portrait of a sculptural self-portrait that leads off the display, No (1992). Ray’s recent sculptures with their Praxitilean melting features and mostly sightless eyes pull you in with pathos without stress or strain—motion is not his bailiwick, except for the monumental cypress wood Archangel (2021), a distillation of Cézanne’s Bather with Outstretched Arms (ca. 1878), Michelangelo’s David, and the Artemision Bronze, originally conceived for public exhibition in Paris in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
Ray’s object sculpture included here feels overshadowed by the impressiveness of his figural works. Tractors and cubes and spinning discs in walls and glass tables and three small sculptures of eggs are all of interest, but the human body, first in performances involving his own frame, followed by an exploration of mannequin works, and now in extraordinary and exquisite machined metal and luscious woods and white painted steel is his true métier. “Let us think of figuration and what it is to sculpt a person,” Ray writes in the sharp catalogue of this show, in his own artfully nebulous essay on his work. There is an argument in the exhibition and catalogue about the importance of touch in the sculptures, a record of their distinctive manufacture, but this is not very much evident in front of the works—traces are more conceptual than haptic. There is no need to try to distance Ray from the embraced banality and depersonalized creation of Jeff Koons’s work, for example. Ray’s figures bear an imaginative sense and attention to surface that raises them above.
Professedly uninterested in narratives, Ray nonetheless drew on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for three works in the show: Huck and Jim (2014), Boy with frog (2009), and Sarah Williams (2021). The first two were privately commissioned, site-specific public artworks, for a fountain outside the Whitney and on the piazza outside the Punto della Dogana in Venice, respectively. Eventually Ray eliminated the water feature, but the Whitney lost its nerve, and the artist withdrew the commission. In Venice, Boy with frog was installed and then moved in the face of a negative social media campaign revolving around a displaced and beloved lamppost. Outside of the essential debate about the Confederacy and white supremacy in sculpture, prudish populism has replaced the political oppositions David encountered in current considerations of contemporary public art.
The only women in this show are tropes in the form of a mother, a daughter, a woman in an odalisque pose—all naked—and Sarah Williams, really a cross-dressed Huck Finn. The transgressiveness of the latter work, along with the male nudity present in multiple other figures, represent a kind of frisson. The male nude was David’s entry to timelessness, the true vocabulary of history since Donatello and Michelangelo (and Boy with frog has Donatello’s David’s adolescent potbelly while recalling Cellini’s Perseus, with a frog instead of Medusa’s head). For Ray it calls up society’s more recent bashfulness about the form, and inevitable discussions of homosociality, homosexuality, and male self-consciousness, all valid and present and fleshed out in the catalogue. But a monumental work such as the twice life-sized Huck and Jim, with its expansion of the story beyond the details, with its subtle address to its environment in the murky reflectiveness of its stainless-steel surface, and that hovering hand of the freedom-seeking slave, like the Madonna’s outstretched benedictive and protective hand over her son in Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks, has a formal and compositional and social power. At the same time, it draws on readings about race and sex and power relations. Mime (2014) and Archangel and Sarah Williams bear similar associations. The body politic and the body poly-tech remain potent aesthetic avenues for navigating the present, grippingly tailing off into our own, ever-shifting, reality.
- David was curated by Perrin Stein with assistance by Daniella Berman, and Ray by Kelly Baum with Brinda Kumar.
- In 1963, Flavin sat in on Rosenblum’s classes on Neoclassicism at Columbia. See Robert Rosenblum, “Name in Lights,” Artforum, March 1997, https://www.artforum.com/print/199703/dan-flavin-32845
- Just two brief mentions in a retrospective assessment of Jeffrey Deitch’s “Post Human” show of 1992 in Artforum, October 2004, https://www.artforum.com/print/200408/post-human-7615