12/06/2006 04:16 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Sex and the City: Two Duchesses, a Dancer and a Dane Dominate in New York

Art Basel is just around the corner and I will miss hobnobbing with the hipsters this year in Miami but there is much to be seen elsewhere that merits our close attention.

Just a little south of the Glitter and Doom Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the El Greco to Picasso show at the Guggenheim, John Currin has unveiled his first show with Larry Gagosian --everything already sold, ("the porn first" confided a Wasp-y blonde behind the front desk at the Madison Avenue galleries). But seeing the three in succession is instructive: the old is keeping up quite nicely, thank you, with the new.

duchess.jpgTo begin with the sublime. Despite a concerted effort by the curators of the El Greco to Picasso show at the Guggenheim to categorize, sort, codify and explain, this show is mostly an excuse to throw a lot of amazing Spanish art on the wall. And how lucky we are. So many paintings from collections one can't normally access, others that rarely travel. (n.b. Allow at least two hours to commune with the divine here). Though there are favorite Picassos--a very early portrait of his wife Olga in Spanish dress which disappears into the background like an unfinished paint-by-numbers, a young bullfighter from 1925 in a shimmering silver frame and a somber, chic, mid-century modern landscape--the most startling and contemporary images come from earlier masters. The Solana streetwalkers. The De Pereda walnuts. The Murillo subjects, their eye front and center, challenging you to be as as audacious, as contemptuous of the quotidian as they. But the Goyas are especially enticing. One after another, many small in scale, these astonishing paintings with their bold and unconventional subjects (bandits stripping a woman, straw mannequins, young women of dubious repute holding parasols for each other, still lives with sheep heads, peasants, cannibals and shipwrecks) dominate the undulating gallery, easily holding their own against more in-your-face Dalis and Miros.

To the right: Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828)
The Duchess of Alba, 1797
Oil on canvas; 82 3/4 x 58 3/4 inches (210.2 x 149.3 cm)
The Hispanic Society of America, New York

One century-spanning theme does resonate beyond the other, more curatorially forced--that of Women, "dual sources of pleasure and peril", the ladies, duchesses, infantas, virgins and whores, weeping and mourning mothers upon whom Spanish civilization is forever moored-- and fixes Pedro Almodovar's continuing hommage to these same Iberian iconicas firmly within the Spanish cultural sweep. (To visit the Guggenheim show, have a little tapas break at Mario Batali's Casa Mono and then see "Volver" would be a Manhattan day of perfection).

dancer.jpgThe Met's slice of German life, Glitter and Doom is considerably more focused: portraits by the Verist school from post WWI Germany, the era of the Weimar Republic, when German artists searched for its soul, but found instead its underbelly. We can't help but think of Cabaret when we see these images of the demimonde, so powerfully have Kander/Ebb/Minelli/Grey stomped over the Kit Kat boards, but there is new, and often powerful imagery to be absorbed amongst the searing, confrontational work. Even the Beckmanns and Dixes--the more familiar names in the exhibition--are featured by lesser-seen examples. Here too, the female subjects shine in unconventional ways: a Beckmann double portrait of Marie Swarzenski and Carola Netter, the wife and mistress respectively of the brilliant director of the Stadel museum in Frankfurt Georg Swarzenski (the wall label carefully notes that the sitters did NOT pose together and seem to barely be able to share the confined space of the picture frame, the wife looking determinedly away from her younger, more relaxed rival), two Otto Dix portraits--one of the dancer Anita Berber, a racy talent who succumbed to her many addictions and another of a widow with a veil (this when the word widow almost became a euphemism for prostitute there were so many starving next-of-kin), and a full on, large scale money shot of masturbating lesbians by Christian Schad who apparently painted everything from memory. (!)

So to arrive at the Currins is to be absolutely filled up with modern, shocking, extremely well-painted images that render them a bit been-there -done-that, when the whole point of all the beautifully detailed copulating and masturbating people is to indeed, raise one's temperature. Still, I find Currin's lively pastiche of art history and appreciation for irony coupled with his gift for old-master devotion to subject and application of paint impressive. Currin is the real thing, an Emperor of painting, whether or not his models have their clothes on.CURRI 2006.0038b.jpgI am happy to waltz with him through genres, his Federal-style images of plates, wife Rachel and pregnant suburban ladies at Gagosian (of a piece with the Cranach-cloned images of women and sumptuous still lives in his earlier Whitney retrospective), all highlights on any dance card. But these are not the paintings one's eye is drawn to at the main Gagosian gallery. Inevitably, the tangled limbs catch you first. (for a more complete, unexpurgated view of these works, the Gagosisan website, listed above, is the place to go.) Yet, the twin Guggenheim-Met exhibitions demonstrate that the juxtaposition of intimate subjects with technical mastery is not at all new and that Currin's "Dane" follows easily in the provocative steps of Goya's "Duchess" and Dix's "Dancer", the tall, sexy trio lording it over us with their insouciance and moxie.

To the right:John Currin
The Dane, 2006
Oil on canvas
48 x 32 in. (121.9 x 81.3 cm)
Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery, photo by Robert McKeever
Copyright John Currin

Lest you think that it's just the guys having it off, down the street at the new uptown branch of Zwirner and Wirth were the Lisa Yuskavage "smalls" (this exhibition just closed). Yuskavage is Currin's female counterpart in the contempo art world along with Elizabeth Peyton, Yuskavage for the T & A, Peyton for the artful portraits, and this show--which made one feel extremely dull and flat chested-- reveals just how cutting edge and influential another past master, Fragonard, with his lusty but delicate scenes de boudoirs has been.

The grand tradition of art is, of course, to pay hommage to one's elders and betters with a different spin and sometimes Yuskavage and Currin manage to make one blink (though whether that's from sheer graphic audacity or a new idea is hard to say).

ERNST la Grande Duchesse.jpg
Across the street from the Currin, in a perfect grace note, a compelling show of Max Ernst at Nahmad reveals an homage with consummate technical polish plus thinking-cap-on scholarship. Ernst must have had Goya's magnificent and bold Duchess of Alba ( 1797, part of the Guggenheim show but which resides normally at the wonderful Hispanic Society) with her fabulous sexy black lace dress and pointy Blahnik-y gold shoes in mind when he painted his burnt-orange, apocalyptic version in 1940. The gown is organic, the fabric multiplying like lichen which has attached itself to the haunted crags below, the hat perched at a rakish tilt that defies gravity. But as in the Goya, the legs and ankles, traditionally considered the sexiest and most pornographic for their hidden quality are the focal point. Ernst's Duchess is losing one of her mules, stumbling towards sin as she grasps a cloud in vain for the power to resist what I imagine to be the man lying in wait for her on the ground below.

Above:Max Ernst
I Saw a Grand Duchess Who Lost Her Shoe
1940; Oil on canvas; 21 5/8 x 18 1/8 in. ( 55 x 46 cm)
Courtesy of the Helly Nahmad Gallery

The Warhols downstairs at Gagosian are the perfect transition to the Barney"s Christmas Warhol windows (just a bit further down Madison--c'mon, you can do it....twenty blocks to a mile in Manhattan--so 88 to 61 not a stretch). This is your dessert, your confection with the cherry on top, the reward, if you need one, for being such a good student. Warhol, of course, the master of making old-new, and spinning it so we believed him, that we had to have one, preferably of ourselves. (Simon Doonan, the creator of the windows, another genius of design). As the PBS documentary by Ric Burns illuminated, Warhol was a prodigiously talented graphic designer who went over to the dark side, (the Factory was the Weimar-worthy capital of the demimonde in the late sixties and seventies), but who retained his love for and expertise with pattern, color and repetition, as well as his meticulous craftsmanship. The windows parse the various Warhol stages and prove that artists can hit a home run by fooling around with gender and commerce but they need to remember tag up at second and third in order to have it count.

The Spanish and German masters spent their lives refining their impressions of society and it's still relatively early days for Currin and Co., though with the white hot prices these artists are commanding already, they could have a Julian Schnabel moment on their hands if Larry G. and David Z. aren't careful. (That's ok, Julian turned out to be a really fine director.)

We may actually have George Bush to thank for stimulating a Weimar moment in our own culture between the wars in the middle east in which we have lost men and women as well our soul. Artists are meant to explore and exploit our national psyche--perhaps it's no accident that Currin and his peers are reaching back to a time when navel and breast gazing was safer than looking outward at the destruction, a time when all bets were off.