In the Studio: Paintings at Gagosian

| 24 Mar 2015 | 11:22

The artist's studio can be many things: refuge, incubator, a place for imagination and experimentation, and, as seen in the extraordinary exhibition In the Studio: Paintings at Gagosian Gallery, a metaphor for the mind. Artists keep close, pinned on walls, stacked in corners, propped up against their canvases the things that occupy their thoughts and inspire their vision. It's both where they work and where they work things out. What the artist harbors in the studio reflects what harbors in the artist's mind.

John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, has pulled together an intriguing and occasionally astonishing collection of works that paint a picture of their own. We often look at paintings and see schools and styles, centuries and names. One of the delights of In the Studio: Painting, though, is actually looking at what's in the pictures. There we find artists' tools, artists' props, artists' models, artists' walls, artists' dreams. We also see the more day-to-day aspects of the studio—cups of coffee, half-eaten meals, dirty brushes, the kitchen sink, and lots and lots of paintings.

Drawings, paintings and assemblages spanning the 16th century to the late 20th offer a glimpse of what goes into the making of art. The primary impetus is vision, and Elderfield skillfully opens with pure abstraction in the first gallery. Two extraordinary Picassos, never shown together before in the United States, share the room with a complex, self-referential Jasper Johns, In the Studio, from 1982. Johns' painting-slash-collage depicts pictures of his own pictures and a three-dimensional stuffed arm dangling in front of a painted an arm blurs the division between the picture plane and the viewer's space. Adjacent to it, a compelling Robert Motherwell in primary colors, “The Studio,” from 1987, is saturated with vibrant red. It has to be arresting to stand out in a room with two Picassos and a Jasper Johns. It is.

From that introductory wallop, we enter a quieter space, a darker gallery, filled with small masterpieces that must be approached closely and with a different sensitivity. There's an exquisite pen and ink drawing from the school of Breughel the Elder, Honoré Daumier's “The Painter at his Easel,” a visual pun in a Hogarth painting of Hogarth painting his muse, and classically elegant works by Jean-Léon Gérôme and Thomas Eakins. Here, the focus is on the painter painting and how things work in the studio — how models pose, how easels are turned, how light is captured. An intriguing question is posed in Matisse's “Studio Under the Eaves,” where a dark, dingy little garret opens into a tiny window filled with a patch of riotous colors — a Matisse in waiting. One wonders what point Matisse was making about what it takes to make the journey from the reality of the studio to the realization of the vision.

The exhibition broadens to include a focus on artists and their tools, with two beautiful still-life paintings by no less than Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin depicting the tools of the trade: palettes, brushes, pots, paper, books and rulers. Later, we find the props artists use, with a glimpse into Diego Rivera's studio and his mindset. Papier-mâché models of fantastical figures and a voluptuous reclining woman crowd the space, while at the center, the model of a dove, which Elderfield explains is a reference to Rivera's recently deceased wife, Frida Kahlo, offers a point of stillness and light.

We also learn that a lot of what fills artists' studios is art, much of it by other artists. In Larry Rivers' “The Wall,” we find an upside-down signature of Matisse. Roy Lichtenstein references a head by Fernand Leger and Matisse's green bottle filled with nasturtium leaves in two paintings. Some artists are tidy and organized, others, less so. The controlled chaos in Rauschenberg's “Small Rebus” is chock-full of imagery, stamps, shreds of paper and other bits of the material of life. Yet, he arranges them into a masterful composition.

Helen Frankenthaler's “21st Street Studio,” painted in 1950, is filled with the same vibrant reds, blues and yellows touched with black and white that show up in Motherwell's 1987 painting from earlier in the exhibition. The two were married from 1958 until 1971. Who, we wonder, looking at the dates of the paintings, influenced whom?

Frankenthaler's work brings up another question. It's difficult to quibble with an exhibition of this magnitude, with works of this caliber and a curator of Elderfield's skill and renown. But with close to 40 artists presented, only two women have been included in the show — Frankenthaler and Lygia Clark. Really? Only two? Art is a potent means of communication. What is being communicated when we are shown works that span close to 500 years and three continents, and only 5 percent of the artists represented are women?

Still, the show is extraordinary. There are gorgeous works that New Yorkers might have never seen before. Elderfield's curatorial vision and execution provide a fascinating insight into the mind and world of the artist. In the Studio: Paintings at Gagosian Gallery also offers a glimpse at what a world of knowledge, a lifetime of experience, a gallery with clout and dedication — a kind of curatorial dream team — can achieve. It's a superb, elucidating exhibition that will leave visitors with a greater understanding of art. You can't ask for much more than that.