Obsession is a loaded word that smacks of some hypocritical voyeurism. It implies a pathology, which implies a wickedness. As if the Met, which is such a reactionary institution anyway, with its David Koch black granite fountains pouring out the waters in front of its main building, were hacking its wares among the philistines.
This is a museum which at first rejected Picasso. And its current fumbling over contemporary art in its main building has a long precedent. The Met seems schizoid on the subject, as if it both wants/does not want contemporary art in the building.
Many of the drawings presented at this show are wonderfully delicate and light sensitive. But have we waited over 30 years since the Thayer bequest to see them?
The catalog on the Thayer collection: “Until now, its great diversity (and unevenness) have precluded a publication, let alone an exhibition.” Nonsense. I know a snow job when I hear one. I can’t help wondering how the more repressive era of the 80’s would have reacted to these works if they had been exhibited at the time of the bequest.
Viewing the drawings of Klimt, Schiele and Picasso was a renewal of my love for these artists, and we need to repeatedly review what we love, the human attention span seeming not much longer than a mayfly’s. We’re in love with forgetfulness despite our best efforts. That’s where an imposing building like the Met, or its annex, the Met Breuer, can help us, and why it’s so disappointing if it gets things wrong.
Scofield Thayer was a discovery for me, especially in James Dempsey’s fine essay on him subtitled “Art, Literature and Passion”. Yes, “passion” not “obsession”. Dempsey got it right. I’m going to want to read his full biography of Thayer.
Genius and mental disorder are first cousins and Scofield Thayer was both a genius and later, in a state of cognitive collapse. But before his mind was broken he had the most brilliant run of years as an archetype of an editor at the Dial, and as a prescient art collector.
My gosh, what a man. That’s what I want to say about him. It’s because he held off his demons long enough to have a brilliant run that I love him. And because he didn’t fit in but did an agile job of pretending with people that did fit in-those who euphemistically claim that they’re the world. It’s outsiders like Thayer who make the world, which more conventional people then get to live in.
From the Dempsey essay: “Scofield Thayer was a Jekyll-and-Hyde paradox-millionaire socialist, romantic connoisseur of prostitutes, penny-pinching philanthropist”.
Thayer started working for the Dial in 1918 and leveraged his wealth to buy the magazine with a partner, James Watson, in 1919. Thayer and Watson steered the Dial away from an emphasis on politics and published Eliot, Pound, Cummings, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Virginia Woolf, Hart Crane, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Maxim Gorky and Bertram Russell, among others. The Dial introduced modern art through its illustrations, and a modern angle of vision in literature, doing its best to annihilate parochial taste. Many Americans would have read Eliot’s The Wasteland for the first time in the Dial, as well a Pound’s Cantos and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.
By 1926, Thayer was too psychologically ill to continue at the magazine, which folded in 1929, the same year that the Museum of Modern Art opened. I know he had a dark side. In that respect, he reminds me of Baudelaire, as an example of a personality who needed to explore his appetites and troubled imagination with less restriction than is ordinarily expected. Thayer was a patient of Sigmund Freud’s, who apparently couldn’t do much for him.
As an art collector he was original and brilliant, often mentioning that the work he was buying would pay for itself ten times over in a generation-a conservative estimate. When he got it right, his eye could see 30 years or more into the future-could see what we would love.
In the catalog Klimt, and Schiele, who was mentored by Klimt, hang in solidarity as German expressionists while Picasso seems to stand for a sensibility and an intellect apart. Picasso has always been in a category that consists only of himself.
The catalog and exhibit offer a balanced presentation of the moral and ethical issues involved with these drawings, and of the women who made their bodies available for most of them. Female masturbation and lesbian sex are made available to the male gaze of the artists. There’s an early painting by Picasso, apparently not a very good one, which is said to represent his first adolescent sexual encounter wherein a prostitute pleasures him.
I’ve been looking at paintings and drawings, including those by these artists, since I was 19 and for many decades past that. For me it is art, value-creating art, no matter what the subject matter may be. The subject matter, whatever it is, is justified because it trips an uncanny creative switch in the imagination of the artist. It’s been a source of joy and sets an exemplary standard of seriousness to be able to see these works and read the catalog.