A Musing About Art and Time - Does A Work Of Art Have To Reflect Its Time?

Does it matter when a work of art is made?

I think so.  

So if someone painted an impressionist painting today, it might not ring true at all.  (In fact, if you look at galleries that sell to non-collectors, you will see much that copies impressionism (Wally Findlay Gallery still does this - much looks like smarmy works for rich but intellectually lazy viewers.)

We expect a work of art to be true to its time.  Certainly that is what is taught in art schools.  And in 1969, when I started at Cooper Union, that was what we were told.  

But while art was to be timely, we were also advised to study the art of the past.  So we were expected to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art regularly (admission was free then).  I would go at least twice a week and spend hours just looking. 

I wanted to see the old European paintings, but in the year I arrived at Cooper Union, I was appalled to learn that 30 rooms of old masters were put in storage in order to make room for a celebratory exhibition of modernist works of the so called New York School.  The show was titled “New York Painting and Sculpture 1940-1970.”  It was all about the modernist works that transformed American art in the post war period.  There may have been a Hopper or two (I don’t remember at this late date) but the bulk of the show was of the dominant artists of the NY gallery scene.  

I went through the show dutifully, and in fact gained an appreciation for some of the artists (I love Motherwell still, also DeKooning, Rothko and Franz Kline.)  But as a budding painter who wanted to paint trees, hills and so forth, it was discouraging.  

These 2 pictures represent the modernist strain at Cooper Union in 1969-73. The architect is John Hedjuk, the painter is Stephen Posen.  

As I gained confidence at school, I found alternative sources in Wolf Kahn and Paul Resika.  I also found Nicholas Marsicano whose conveyed his knowledge and love of the Italian Renaissance through intense conversations was we painted the model.  I named my son after him.  The two paintings below are by Paul Resika and Wolf Kahn

But the ideology was mostly true.  That is, while the painters I loved were conservative, they were conservative within the modernist framework.  If an artist fully replicated the style of the old masters, it might seem peculiar.  Thus, the modern nudes (Lucien Freud is one example) feel distinctly modern.  

I have the same attitude toward architecture.  Thus, I love old buildings, but would be worried if a brand new construction looked exactly like an ancient work.  

And yet, why does the date of construction have any importance?  

To that end, I will highlight a three works of architecture that are recent enough to be modern but look to all the world like ancient works.  I like them despite their replication of the old ways. 

My first is St Bartholemew’s Episcopal Church on Park Avenue in NYC.  Completed in 1918, it is a faithful replication of a Byzantine basilica.  It is dark and glows with mosaics and polished surfaces.  

And remember, when it was finished, the Bauhaus was only a few years away.  

My second example is the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark New Jersey.  The corner stone was laid in 1899 and the church was dedicated in 1954.  Its time ran from after the invention of the light bulb, to the explosion of the atom bomb.  Nonetheless, this replica of Gothic style creates the space we need for contemplating the ineffable.  Enter it and you immediately feel a sense of peace.  

There is nothing false in its soaring towers.  

So why?  

Let’s consider one more.  The Frick Collection is housed in a building that looks to all the world like a late Renaissance, or early Baroque villa.  The rooms inside are pastiches of elegant rooms from various architectural periods.  

Yet there is not better place to see art.  

So why are we not bothered, in the way that we are when we see an academic portrait of a politician.  With a painting, the replica is dead.  But with architecture, the replica lives.  

Again, I don’t know.  

The realm of art is that of contradiction.  A scientist may resolve contradictions toward a solution but art celebrates contradiction. 

There are a few painters today who present works with the full academic technique.  These are rarely shown in the best galleries, but a few artists manage to carve out careers painting portraits, nudes and so on.  I have yet to see one that really won me over, but when one does, I won’t complain.  

PS:  links to my photos and paintings

all of the posted works.


xmas book for my brother - his story


a short-lived effort to make a book 


a book published a few years ago


fine art


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