Timeless art

Is there such a thing as timeless beauty? I’m a fan of built-in

obsolescence in art, but at the same time many great artistic creations

can and have retained all their power and beauty for centuries. Look at Piero

della Francesca, say, or Johann Sebastian Bach, or, even further back, the pyramids

of Egypt.

When it comes to modern art, there are two very distinct strands, which take

very different views of timelessness. The first approach, increasingly popular

these days, is to follow the Tate Modern approach, and have exhibitions full

of superficially improbable juxtapositions, in an attempt to get people to see

new things in familiar pieces. The second approach is that found at Dia:Beacon,

a museum and foundation dedicated to permanent exhibitions and the proposition

that great art needs no curatorial interference, and should rather be left untouched

for posterity.

Personally, while I couldn’t live wholly on the high seriousness of Dia, I

love going up there and seeing some of the greatest art ever made in its optimal

surroundings. Wonderfully, since I was there last the Sol Lewitt area has been

improved immeasurably with a second enormous wall drawing, and it’s a magnificent

sight to behold. And if you need a reason to visit now, as opposed to any time

in the next couple of decades, here‘s

a really good one: a temporary Agnes Martin show, with some very rare early

works from the late 1950s.

Agnes Martin has always been a bit of a curious fish: the same generation as

the Abstract Expressionists, she emerged on the art scene in her late 40s, along

with artists a generation younger such as Ellsworth Kelly and Donald Judd. She’s

similar to both groups, but has never really been a part of either of them,

and indeed has lived a semi-mystical life in New Mexico for the past 35 years,

painting maybe 12 or 15 trademark square canvases per year, and sending them

off to Pace in New York to get sold.

In fact, Martin has a new show

up at 57th Street right now, of paintings dated 2002 and 2003 – in other

words, entirely since she turned 90. Some of them recall the early works at

Dia, with Martin finally jettisoning her lines and grids, and returning to more

geometric forms. But all of them are large squares: whether the sides are 60

inches or 70, Martin has found her medium and she is sticking to it.

For all her consistency, however, there’s no doubt that Martin was doing her

best work in the mid-60s. One of the problems with Dia:Beacon is that it’s necessarily

weighted towards the most recent work of artists like Martin and Robert Ryman

– Martin donated some paintings to the museum, but of course they’re not

the 60s paintings which she sold long ago.

This exhibition, then, is a very welcome opportunity to see the paintings which

Martin is most famous for, in a small show which nevertheless exhibits them

to their very best effect. Martin hasn’t had a retrospective in over a decade:

her paintings are often very fragile, and their owners are loath to lend them

out. Here, however, the 1964 masterpieces "The Beach" and "The

Peach" are proudly displayed, both now effectively part of the Dia permanent

collection. They’re shown as the culmination of a few years’ worth of experimentation,

during which Martin pared down her artistic vocabulary so as to emphasise only

the subtlest and most beautiful of lines, colours and grids.

Meanwhile, timeless painting of a very different nature is up at GBE (Modern),

Gavin Brown’s lovely new space in the West Village. He’s got a wonderful Elizabeth

Peyton show up now, and everybody should really make their way to Greenwich

and Leroy to check it out. Peyton is being shown alongside David Hockney at

the Whitney Biennial at the moment, and you can see why: her beautiful paintings

of youths recall Hockney’s own tenderest work. I can’t think of anybody who

can paint in such a heartbreaking manner, and I’m quite sure that she’s one

of the few artists you can guarantee will still be collected centuries from


On the other hand, fashions do change, and even the strongest artistic achievements

can fall foul of aesthetic winds blowing in the wrong direction. I had the great

good fortune to eat at La Caravelle today, just a week before it shutters

for good on May 22. I had never been before, and I’m extremely glad I went:

I doubt I’ll experience another meal like it ever again in North America. The

dining room was light and beautifully decorated, without any of the stuffiness

of many formal restaurants. The food was of the absolutely highest order: my

softshell crab starter simply melted in the mouth, and came with a pile of other

flavours. I have no idea what they were, but I could have eaten that dish all

day. I’m one of those people who generally says that only the Chinese really

know how to cook softshells, but La Caravelle had the best I’ve ever tasted.

But the fashion in restaurants these days, of course, is more towards trendiness:

people care less about the food and more about the crowd, the design, the cocktails.

The patrons of La Caravelle were definitely of a certain age: I’d say there

were more facelifts than there were people under 40. And it’s hard to see how

the restaurant could attract a younger crowd without betraying all its finest

principles of proper French haute cuisine. So it is destined to close, along

with Lutèce and La Côte Basque, evidence of how the very best art

can lose its cachet.

In France, at least, such cuisine lives on, and maybe La Tour D’Argent or some

other restaurant in Paris will serve as a kind of culinary equivalent of Dia:Beacon

– a place where you can always be sure to find the cleanest, purest expression

of its own kind of art. Meanwhile, the crowds will flock to Spice Market or

Tate Modern, picking and choosing whatever they desire that day. I just hope

there’s room for both approaches; in painting, food, or any other art form.

This entry was posted in Culture. Bookmark the permalink.