James Beck, Gadfly
James Beck, the art historian and longtime Columbia University professor, died at the age of 77 over the Memorial Day weekend. He was the art world’s professional irritant, best remembered for his protracted campaign during the 1980s to halt the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, a cause to which he rallied not only fellow Renaissance specialists but a roster of contemporary art stars as well.
I felt at the time, and still do, that Beck was flat-out wrong, that his stance ignored Michelangelo’s entrenched belief in buon fresco technique (which allowed for a bare minimum of a secco overpainting—the very thing that Beck claimed was being erased by the cleaning), and that his attitude toward the Italian restoration team was more than a little condescending. Beck lost that one but was never out of the game. He soon came back swinging over the restoration of Jacopo della Quercia’s Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto (later conceded to be the disaster that Beck tried to prevent), Leonardo’s Last Supper and Michelangelo’s David, to name three of his more high-profile targets.
There are those who will remember Beck as a passionate advocate of unpopular causes, and just as many who will continue to regard him as a publicity-hungry hothead. These views are beside the point. He had the erudition, persuasiveness and guts to blow the whistle on our impulse to burnish our cultural heritage until it’s clean, shiny and odor-free. Refurbish a monument, so the thinking goes, and tourist dollars will follow—a concept no different from real estate development. Beck, however stridently, raised our awareness of how ruinous this path can be. We didn’t need him to be right; we just needed him to be there.
Exposé·esBy Norman L Kleeblatt
MAY 2023 | ArtSeen
While recently in Paris, I saw a curious, complex, and riveting exhibition titled Exposé·es at the Palais de Tokyo. It was inspired by and named after art historian, critic, and activist Elisabeth Lebovicis highly personal book What AIDS Did to Me (Exposées: Dapres Ce que le sida ma fait dElisabeth Lebovici).
Robert C. Morgan: The Loggia Paintings: Early and Recent WorkBy Jonathan Goodman
NOV 2022 | ArtSeen
Intellectual, critic, and art historian Robert C. Morgan also makes paintings, and has been doing so for most of his long career. The current show, on view in the large, high-ceilinged main space of the Scully Tomasko Foundation, consists of a series of drawings called Living Smoke and Clear Water: small, mostly black-and-white works, of both an abstract expressionist and calligraphic nature (early on in life, Morgan studied with a Japanese calligrapher).
Sig Olson: This Has HappenedBy Christopher T. Richards
DEC 22–JAN 23 | ArtSeen
Sig Olsons first solo exhibition This Has Happened, curated by art historian Ksenia M. Soboleva, leads with an ambitious thesis. Per Sobolevas introduction to the exhibitions zine, Olsons current work is a trauma response. These artworks, on view in the second room at the Tappeto Volante gallery in Gowanus, might be described in general terms as abstractioncolor-field paintings on paper.
Graham Nickson with Jack Flam and Phong H. Bui
SEPT 2022 | Art
On the occasion of Graham Nicksons solo exhibition In Black and White at Betty Cuningham Gallery, art historian Jack Flam and Rail Publisher and Artistic Director Phong H. Bui engaged in two extended conversations with the artist about his long career as a painter and an educator. In addition to a distinguished career as an artist, Graham has been the legendary and deeply committed faculty member and Dean of the New York Studio School for thirty-four years. The following is an edited version for your reading pleasure.