Watermill, New York
Gardens are dynamic but predictable – useful traits if you’re a painter. Grounded in low earth, sensitive to water and air, they photosynthesize patterns of color and structure that breathe, bud, wither and die more or less according to plan.
Joaquín Sorolla and Esteban Vicente: In the light of the garden
Parish Art Museum
Until October 16th
Monet planned Giverny around the turning point. Frida Kahlo’s still lifes glorified the richness ripening outside her windows at La Casa Azul in Mexico City. Imogen Cunningham planted flowers and vegetables in her yard in Oakland, California to photograph. Raising three children while making art, she had to grow her subjects close to home.
“Joaquín Sorolla and Esteban Vicente: In the Light of the Garden” at the Parrish Art Museum through October 16 brings together two Spanish-born painters who, in their old age, oversaw the home’s green spaces, knowing that changes in weather and time of day brought with them they would bring regular surprises.
It’s a one sided show. Only eight of the 63 works are by Sorolla, and all of these works are interspersed with those of Vicente in the main gallery on the left. (Chief Curator Alicia G. Longwell is the organizer.) However, juxtaposing artists from different eras can create unexpected similarities. The energy of the sun and of painting itself enlivened them both.
Sorolla (1863-1923) was born in Valencia, studied art in Madrid and Rome and was internationally recognized for his virtuoso portraits and landscapes in the late 19th century. In the US he is perhaps best known for Visions of Spain, a series of 14 monumental murals of the Iberian Peninsula now installed at the Hispanic Society of America in Upper Manhattan.
All the paintings in the Parrish are of modest size. They were created in the large house he built north of Madrid between 1905 and 1916 and reflect his careful planting in his three gardens and courtyard. (Tea roses, camellias, and oleanders were favorites.)
A committed Impressionist, he worked quickly outdoors, typically completing a canvas in a day. Like his longtime friend John Singer Sargent, he could seduce viewers with his soft, creamy brushstrokes.
The petals and leaves in “Rosas” (1916) have an almost edible deliciousness. He flirted with modernity. The profusion of shaded flowers and shrubs (green, pink, beige, yellow) over a blue-tiled fountain in “Patio de la Casa Sorolla” (1917) borders on cloudy abstraction.
Vicente (1903-2001) was born in the province of Segovia but spent most of his life outside of Spain. After studying in Madrid and exhibitions in Paris, he went to the USA in 1936 when the Spanish Civil War broke out and became a citizen in 1942. In New York he formed friendships with De Kooning, Rothko and other Abstract Expressionists, who in 1950 accepted him as a voting member of The Club, the informal assembly of the New York School.
The paintings in the Parrish were mostly done during the last ten years of his life on the Bridgehampton farmhouse (not far from the Parrish) that he and his wife Harriet Peters bought in 1964. Vicente tended to paint what he felt about something rather than transcribing its appearance, and most of this work, although produced in his adjoining studio, in one way or another alludes to the natural world that surrounded him.
Softer and more open-ended than his abstractions from the 1970s, these canvases, with their at times intensively pulsating colourfulness, appear extremely delicate, as if sharp edges had been sanded down. Even paler and more ethereal are the 21 collages and pastels on paper that line the museum’s central hall.
Rich in vibrant greens and muted yellows, the compositions evoke the streams, ponds, beaches, marshes and farmlands of the East End. “Blossom” (1997) and “Flower of Flowers” (1997) focus on overlapping yolk-like shapes, while “Verde” (1998) and “Countryside” (1999) are more diffuse, like fields with no clear boundaries. Sometimes it’s as if Vicente is looking down on his neighborhood from high above.
At either end of the transept gallery are enlarged photographs of Vicente in his Bridgehampton garden and studio (taken by Laurie Lambrecht in the 1990s) and of Sorolla and his family at their home (uncredited). Wearing a blue work shirt, Vicente stands among waist-high wildflowers while Sorolla, wearing a waistcoat and tie, sits at his easel under a parasol in his garden. He suffered a stroke while painting there in 1920 and never fully recovered.
A co-production between Parrish and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente in Segovia, which has curated a lovely bilingual slipcase catalogue, In the Light of the Garden is an attempt to revitalize its name for a new generation.
Completing the exhibition is a gallery entitled Other Artists/Other Gardens, featuring landscape and nature paintings from Parrish’s own collection, including works by William Merritt Chase, Michelle Stuart, Billy Sullivan, Saul Steinberg and Jennifer Bartlett.
It’s not too late to take a stroll through these idyllic places (unfortunately partly lit by fluorescent lights) before this tribute to summer disappears.
-Mister. Woodward is an art critic based in New York.
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