Cathedrals and Constellations: Encore Performances of Recent Public Talks by Professors Kenneth Silver and Pepe Karmel

12 Dec

Gaston Lachaise, Man Walking (Portrait of Lincoln Kirstein), 1932, Bruce Museum

Lyonel Feininger, Cathedral woodcut, 1919, MoMA


On December 8th, 2011, the Fine Arts Society sponsored a special event, “Cathedrals and Constellations:  Encore Performances of Recent Public Talks by Professors Kenneth Silver and Pepe Karmel.”  Professors Silver and Karmel are both former chairs of the Department of Art History.  Professor Silver is a specialist in French and American twentieth-century art.  His recent work includes the major exhibition, “Chaos and Classicism:  Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936,” which showed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao in 2010-11.  Professor Karmel’s research interests include Picasso, Pollock, Cubism, Minimalism, and contemporary art. He is currently working on a book on global abstraction.

Kenneth Silver’s talk, “Classicism Triumphant: How Antiquity (Nearly) Eradicated the Middle Ages in the Discourse of Modernism,” was originally presented at a one-day symposium on “Antiquity in the Twentieth Century: Modern Art and the Classical Vision, held at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, held on November 4th, 2011.  The symposium was organized in conjunction with an international loan exhibition, “Modern Antiquity:  Picasso, de Chirico, Léger, and Picabia in the Presence of the Antique,” on view at the Getty Villa from November 2, 2011 through January 16, 2012.

As Professor Silver demonstrated, in contrast to the early-nineteenth-century Romantic preference for the medieval (and its attendant anti-classicism, or anti-academicism) in painting, sculpture, and architecture, by the twentieth century classicism was understood as endemic to modernist aesthetics. Clean lines, distilled forms, ideal beauty, and myriad other expressions of what was thought to constitute classicism came to dominate contemporary art and writing. Yet, the suppressed “other” of modernity—the art and culture of the Middle Ages—was always nipping at the heels of the classical and deflecting its seemingly normative art.  Debates about primitivism and refinement, Christianity and paganism, the decorative and the functional, north versus south, and structural mechanics versus “organic” development were all versions of the historical debate about the antique world and its medieval successor. In tracing these discursive transformations and paradigm shifts, Professor Silver considered, among other practitioners, J.A.D. Ingres, Viollet-le-Duc, Puvis de Chavannes, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, George Balanchine, John Soane, Gaston Lachaise, Lyonel Feininger, Walter Gropius, and Albert Speer.

Pepe Karmel’s talk, “Abstraction as Abstraction: de Kooning’s Black Paintings, 1948-49,” was originally delivered at the “de Kooning Now” symposium at The Museum of Modern Art, on November 11, 2011.  The symposium was organized in connection with the exhibition “de Kooning:  A Retrospective,” the first major museum exhibition devoted to the full scope of the artist’s career, on view at MoMA from September 18, 2011 through January 9, 2012.

Professor Karmel’s lecture examined the group of paintings that were featured in de Kooning’s first solo exhibition, which opened at the Charles Egan Gallery on April 24, 1948.  De Kooning’s mysterious, white-on-black canvases have typically been discussed as exemplars of high modernist “flatness.”  Professor Karmel noted that contemporary observers would have seen them as images of  “star charts,” with white dots and lines floating in the darkness of the night sky.  He also highlighted de Kooning’s ceaseless technical experiments, inspired by his artistic dialogue with Jackson Pollock.  Constantly adding new layers of paint, working wet-into-wet, and overloading his brush to create waterfalls of dripping paint, de Kooning created a pictorial vocabulary that determined the future course of his own career, and continues to influence artists today.

Willem de Kooning, Dark Pond, 1948

The aim of the Fine Arts Society, the Department of Art History’s CAS student club, the creation of a community of NYU students interested in art history.  Students interested in membership in the Fine Arts Society or desiring further information about the club’s activities should contact Co-Presidents Joey Steigelman (jhs430@nyu.edu) or Ramsay Kolber (rlk302@nyu.edu).

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