Thursday, November 18, 2010

Goya's Reality, and Ours: "Asses Masquerading" and Other Drawings at the Frick

With the Whitney moving downtown, maybe it's time to talk about the Frick taking over its soon-to-be-abandoned building.

The Frick's organized some stellar shows, but its special-exhibitions space consists of two teeny-tiny rooms in the basement -- where the restrooms are -- that you reach by slowly making your way down a narrow circular staircase.  It's just not big enough for the Frick's ambitions and bouts of curatorial brilliance.

The current show of Spanish drawings is a case in point.  One room exhibits just 32 drawings by Spaniards other than Goya -- hardly enough to draw any generalizations about Spanish drawing.  The other room is given over to Goya, with barely more drawings than you can count on your fingers and toes and spanning the last 30 years of the artist's life.  Not fair.

As a draftsman, Goya was hugely prolific.  He made eight albums of drawings beginning when he was in his 50s.  More than 500 of these drawings are extant.

What makes them so special is that they aren't your usual artist's sketchbook -- no preparatory drawing for something else, no exercises of drawing from the model, no working out of ideas.  Each is an independent work of art by an artist with an accessible modern sensibility.  In his drawings, Goya is witness both to the world around him and to the interior life, not mediated by mythology or religion or grandiosity.

That the world around him was a time of turmoil is an understatement (he lived from 1746 to 1828): the aftermath of the French Revolution, Napoleon's 1808 invasion of Spain, the collapse of the monarchy in 1812 and two years later its reestablishment, and then in 1820 a revival of the constitution.  Goya himself was a mass of contradictions, both court painter and exile.

What the Frick shows is tantalizing and wonderful:  asses masquerading as grandees, a peepshow in which a woman looks down a man's crack, a catfight -- between women -- being enjoyed by a man.  Torture, mutilation, imprisonment.  Here we have that too-rare clarity of conception and execution that needs no explanation.

What we do need are more of his 500-some drawings.  One can never see enough Goya.

"The Spanish Manner:  Drawings from Ribera to Goya,"  The Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, through January 9