This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

THE COMPLETE JEAN VIGO: L’ATALANTE

Michel Simon has loads of fun as a somewhat decrepit first mate in Jean Vigo’s classic L’Atalante

Michel Simon has loads of fun as a somewhat decrepit first mate in Jean Vigo’s classic L’Atalante

L’ATALANTE (Jean Vigo, 1934)
Film Forum
209 West Houston St.
September 21 - October 2
212-727-8110
filmforum.org

French auteur Jean Vigo made only three shorts and one feature before his death from tuberculosis and leukemia in 1934 at the age of twenty-nine, but his wide-ranging legacy continues. Film Forum pays tribute to his lasting influence on cinema with “The Complete Jean Vigo,” new 4K restorations of all of his works in addition to a new bonus. In Vigo’s fourth and final film, L’Atalante, his only feature, Swiss actor Michel Simon is spectacularly hilarious as an aging, somewhat decrepit first mate with a peculiar lust for life and cats. After barge captain Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo) get married in her small, tight-knit country town, they head for the big city of Paris on the long boat, L’Atalante, that he captains as his job. First mate Père Jules (Simon) and his young cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre) come along for the would-be honeymoon, attempting to make sure it’s a smooth ride, which of course it’s not. Juliette wants to enjoy the Parisian nightlife, Jean is a jealous, overprotective stick-in-the-mud, and Père Jules — well, Père Jules is downright unpredictable, pretty much all id, living life footloose and fancy free even if he doesn’t have much money or many true friends. When a love-struck bicycle-riding peddler (Gilles Margaritis) tries to woo Juliette, Jean grows angry, and an emotional and psychological battle ensues. But through it all, Père Jules just keeps on keepin’ on, never getting too concerned, confident that everything will work out in the end, because that’s what happens in life.

Film Forum honors Jean Vigo with 4K restorations of all four of his works, along with a bonus

Film Forum honors Jean Vigo with 4K restorations of all four of his works, along with a bonus

The son of anarchist Miguel Almereyda, who chose his last name because it is an anagram of the French phrase for “there is shit,” Vigo had been labeled a subversive for his first film, the twenty-five-minute À propos de Nice, and his third, the forty-one-minute Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct), had been banned. So he went a little more conventional, at least for him, with L’Atalante, rewriting with Albert Riéra an original script by Jean Guinée. The film is an insightful tale of love and romance, of wealth and poverty, of hard social conditions, focusing on a wacky man who has experienced a lot in his life, even though he looks like a bum, reminiscent of Simon’s brilliant portrayal of Priape in Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning. Whether putting on a puppet show, displaying his tattoos, getting his fortune read, or walking around with cats on his shoulders, Père Jules is one of the most endearing and memorable characters in the history of cinema, a unique figure who surprises over and over again, and Simon’s portrayal is just amazing; it’s hard to believe that he was only thirty-nine when he made the picture.

The highly poetic film, featuring a lovely score by Maurice Jaubert, also echoes F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, only from a comic, often slapstick angle. After shooting was completed, Vigo’s already failing health took a turn for the worse, and a battle ensued over final cut involving the producers and editor Louis Chavance and cinematographer Boris Kaufman (Dziga Vertov’s brother, who went on to shoot such American classics as On the Waterfront and 12 Angry Men). Vigo died only a few weeks after L’Atalante was released. Film Forum is showing the restored director’s cut of L’Atalante from September 21 to October 2, along with “Vigo x 3,” consisting of À propos de Nice, the short documentary Jean Taris, and the restored director’s cut of Zéro de conduite. In addition, on September 30, Film Forum is screening Tournage d’hiver (Winter Shooting), a 2017 compilation of rushes and outtakes from L’Atalante and Zéro de conduite, narrated by film critic and historian Bernard Eisenschitz, who oversaw the restoration of L’Atalante.

THE TRUE

(photo by Monique Carboni)

Michael McKean, Edie Falco, and Peter Scolari star in New Group world premiere at the Signature Center (photo by Monique Carboni)

The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 28, $30-$125
www.thenewgroup.org
www.signaturetheatre.org

Obie-winning playwright Sharr White and director Scott Elliott manage to make a story about the 1977 mayoral election in Albany, New York, tense and exciting in The True, a world premiere from the New Group that opened tonight at the Pershing Square Signature Center. A fictionalized version of real events, the vastly entertaining play opens as Erastus Corning II (Michael McKean), who has been mayor of the capital of New York State since 1941, is facing a serious challenge to his long reign following the death of Democratic party leader Dan O’Connell. State senator Howard C. Nolan (Glenn Fitzgerald) is taking on Corning, with the support of Charlie Ryan (John Pankow), who wants to be the new party boss. But tough-talking fixer Dorothea “Polly” Noonan (Edie Falco) isn’t about to let that happen. Noonan, a foul-mouthed firebrand, pulls a lot of strings behind the scenes, and her down-and-dirty, no-holds-barred style gets things done as her calm, easygoing husband, Peter (Peter Scolari), stays out of it all. “I don't hate politics, by the way. I just want nothing to do with it,” he says, even when confronted with rumors that Erastus, who is married to the mysterious Betty (Tracy Shayne), and Polly are longtime lovers. Desperate for Erastus to beat Nolan, who is leading big in the polls, Polly taps young Bill McCormick (Austin Cauldwell) to be named committeeman and support Erastus within the party machine. “Fuck that fucking Charlie Ryan,” she says. But when Erastus starts questioning whether he still wants Polly on his team, she practically explodes, while also hurting inside, since she has devoted her life to him and the Democrats.

(photo by Monique Carboni)

Dorothea “Polly” Noonan (Edie Falco) has some harsh things to say to Howard C. Nolan (Glenn Fitzgerald) in The True (photo by Monique Carboni)

Falco (Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Side Man) is exceptional as Noonan, a kind of cross between Carmela Soprano from The Sopranos and Jackie Peyton from Nurse Jackie, two roles that earned her Emmys. (In fact, much of the cast and creative team have major television ties: Scolari starred on Bosom Buddies, The Bob Newhart Show, and Girls, McKean was on Laverne & Shirley and SNL and is currently on Better Call Saul, Pankow is a veteran of Mad About You and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, and White is a writer and producer for The Affair and Sweetbitter.) Falco plays Noonan with a brawling charm, whether she’s sitting at her sewing machine making a culotte or going face-to-face with her political enemies. Obie winner White (The Other Place, Annapurna) gets right to the heart of the matter, showing how politics has changed over the decades, implying why the Democrats have been losing power in recent years. “Regular people,” Noonan tells Erastus. “They don’t give a shit what you do behind closed doors so long as their lives are working. But their lives aren’t working anymore. Committeeman. Used to know every. Single. Voter. In his district. Every single one. That voter had a problem, they told the committeeman, the committeeman went to the ward leader, the ward leader either solved it? Or went to Dan. And you know what happened at the end of the day? . . . It got taken care of.” Brief but telling references to shifting demographics, race, and women in politics reveal much as Noonan also makes clear that women are not treated the same as men in the political arena. “What I do for Erastus is no different than what you did for Dan. And yet I’m ostracized for it,” she tells Ryan.

(photo by Monique Carboni)

Dorothea “Polly” Noonan (Edie Falco) has plans for Bill McCormick (Austin Cauldwell) as her husband (Peter Scolari) looks on (photo by Monique Carboni)

McKean (The Little Foxes, Accomplice) and Scolari (The Foreigner, Hairspray) are both terrific, portraying best friends who try to keep politics — and Polly — from tearing them apart. New Group artistic director Elliott (Evening at the Talk House, Mercury Fur) expertly balances the humor amid powerful dramatic moments, never letting things go awry on Derek McLane’s elegant set, where small changes make dramatic differences. And watch out for a surprise, hilarious late scene that brings the house down — something that does not appear in the script. Kudos are also due Falco’s hair stylist and costume designer Clint Ramos, who capture 1977 in fabulous ways. Noonan represents a different time in the treatment of women, both personally and professionally; she might cook and sew, but she also curses and never backs down from a challenge, particularly from a man. It’s fascinating to imagine what Noonan, who died in November 2003 at the age of eighty-eight, would think of what’s going on in the political arena today, in Albany and the country itself; she would certainly be proud of her granddaughter, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who calls her “my greatest political hero” and is keeping her grandmother’s legacy alive.

THE NATURALISTS

(photo by Richard Termine)

Billy Sloane (Tim Ruddy) and Josie Larmer (Sarah Street) wonder about life as Francis Xavier Sloane (John Keating) plays the piano in the background in The Naturalists (photo by Richard Termine)

Walkerspace
46 Walker St.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 23, $45
thepondtheatre.org

Irish playwright Jaki McCarrick makes her New York debut with the world premiere of The Naturalists, an intimate, involving drama that is having too short a run at Walkerspace, where it continues through September 23. It’s 2010, and brothers Francis Xavier (John Keating) and Billy Sloane (Tim Ruddy) are living together in a cluttered mobile home in a rural hamlet in County Monaghan. Francis is a tall, thin, calm man who engages with nature and tries to give people the benefit of the doubt. Billy is a paunchy, brooding brute who sits around watching soap operas and guzzling beer while spread over the couch, always leaving a mess behind. While Francis carefully takes off his boots and places them outside the door, Billy trudges into the house and kicks them off, spreading around whatever he stepped in. “Do ya not know how to live?” Francis asks. “Don’t do the easy thing. The drink, the telly. And couldn’t we leave the door open for a change and listen to the birds like we used ta? Oh, it’s a beautiful night — and so warm, Billy . . . and the tall trees, the darkness of them against the still bright sky. Aren’t we lucky in Ireland we have the long nights in May? We could be watchin’ somethin’ real, Billy, and not that oul shite.” To which a grumbling Billy replies, “What I want to be watchin’ the trees for? What am I? A bird? Haven’t we fecked our lives away on them long enough? I have anyway.”

Weary of the stasis and mess of two bachelors living together, Francis hires a part-time housekeeper, young Josie Larmer (Sarah Street), an airy, Honda 50-riding vegan who needs to make some money and doesn’t mind looking after the brothers, whose mother disappeared long ago. Francis is virtually obsessed with the natural world, and slowly it becomes clear why — a former IRA member, he spent twelve years in prison for having masterminded the 1979 Narrow Water bombing, which killed eighteen British soldiers. (Although the characters in the play are fictional, the bombing was real, but the perpetrators were never identified. Coincidentally, there was an attack on the Narrow Water memorial just this past weekend that is being treated by police as a hate crime.) Both Francis and Billy take a liking to Josie, who doesn’t mind the attention, but when an old IRA compatriot of Francis’s, John-Joe Doherty (Michael Mellamphy), aka Joey the Lip, unexpectedly shows up, the past threatens to overwhelm and destroy both Sloane brothers.

(photo by Richard Termine)

Francis Xavier Sloane (John Keating) and Josie Larmer (Sarah Street) share a love of nature as Billy Sloane (Tim Ruddy) looks on in world premiere play by Jaki McCarrick (photo by Richard Termine)

A presentation of the Pond Theatre Company, The Naturalists is warmly directed by Pond cofounders Colleen Clinton and Lily Dorment. (Street is the third cofounder; Clinton and Dorment have acted in the company’s previous shows, 2016’s Abigail’s Party and 2017’s Muswell Hill.) Chika Shimizu’s inviting set is wide open; a few scenes even take place on the floor, only a few feet away from the audience, as if everyone in the theater is taking part. It might be 2010, but the brothers seem trapped in time. They have an old TV console, a ratty record player with LPs strewn about, and no microwave. Cellphones are nowhere to be seen; it’s as if they are lost in Henry David Thoreau’s legacy. Music is integral to the show; while songs by Tom Waits play a major role, particularly “Martha,” Steely Dan’s “Josie” is a bit too obvious. All four actors are excellent, but Keating, whose long credits include many works at the Irish Rep, TFANA, and Irish Arts, is a standout; he gives a sweet, gentle humanity to Francis, who is essentially a mass murderer, yet we genuinely feel for him. There are minor structural issues, but those are mere quibbles; McCarrick’s (em>Belfast Girls, Leopoldville) play deals with ideas of atonement and solace in delicate, graceful ways, with a sly touch of trademark Irish black humor that seems as inescapable as that country’s troubled past.

GARRY WINOGRAND: ALL THINGS ARE PHOTOGRAPHABLE

Portrait of Garry Winogrand. Credit: Judy Teller

New documentary paints a fascinating portrait of street photographer Garry Winogrand (photo by Judy Teller)

GARRY WINOGRAND: ALL THINGS ARE PHOTOGRAPHABLE (Sasha Waters Freyer, 2018)
Film Forum
209 West Houston St.
Opens Wednesday, September 19
212-727-8110
www.winograndmovie.com
filmforum.org

There’s an intrinsic challenge about making a documentary about a photographer: How to portray the artist’s work, silent, still pictures of a moment in time, in a medium based on sound and movement. In Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable, producer, director, and editor Sasha Waters Freyer attacks that issue by delving deep into many of Winogrand’s photographs, lingering on them as friends, relatives, and colleagues rave about his glorious images. “Well, what is a photograph? I’ll tell you what a photograph is. It’s the illusion of a literal description of how a camera saw a piece of time in space,” Winogrand said in a 1975 lecture at the University of Texas Austin, later adding, “All it is is light on surface.” Of course, in Winogrand’s case, it is much more than that; the black-and-white pictures he took with his trusted Leica M4 inhale and exhale at the exciting pace of real life. “It’s this observation of human behavior, of human activity, human gesture, the relationships between people, whether they know each other or not, how we behave in the world,” curator Susan Kismaric says. Writer Geoff Dyer calls Winogrand’s work a “psychogestural ballet,” while photographer Matt Stuart looks at photo after photo, pointing out “the dance” in each one. “When things move, I get interested. I know that much,” Winogrand, who passed away in 1984 at the age of fifty-six, says in his gruff voice. “He had no ambition for fame or celebrity. He was totally obsessed and possessed by photography,” his good friend, photographer Tod Papageorge, says. “It was work work work work work.”

New York, 1968 [laughing woman with ice cream] Photographs by Garry Winogrand, Collection Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

“New York, 1968” [laughing woman with ice cream] (photographs by Garry Winogrand, Collection Center for Creative Photography, the University of Arizona. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

Freyer traces the life of “a city hick from the Bronx,” from his boyhood, when he had polio, through three marriages and three children, from his fear of nuclear war to his love of the female form, from the streets of New York City to California and Texas. She weaves in audio and video from lectures and interviews, filmed and taped conversations with photographer Jay Maisel, and photos and home movies of Winogrand and his family. Freyer speaks with photographers Thomas Roma, Jeffrey Henson Scales, Leo Rubinfien, Laurie Simmons, and Michael Ernest Sweet, curator Erin O’Toole, gallery owner Jeffrey Fraenkel (who compares Winogrand to Norman Mailer), Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, historian and critic Shelley Rice, and two of Winogrand’s ex-wives, Adrienne Lubeau and Judy Teller. There are also extensive quotes from legendary MoMA photography curator John Szarkowski. The film explores several turning points in his career, both good and bad, including the “New Documents” show with Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus; his seminal work in 1964; “The Animals,” a series shot at the Central Park Zoo, where he would go with his kids; his color work; Public Relations, in which he examined the role and effect of the mass media; and his controversial Women Are Beautiful book, which was labeled as sexist and misogynistic.

Influenced by such photographers as Robert Frank, Walker Evans, and Dan Weiner, Winogrand could not stop taking pictures. He took so many — the thought of his working in the digital age is both thrilling and frightening — that he didn’t even develop thousands of rolls, leaving behind a treasure trove of material that Roma explains was misinterpreted by critics. “I would like not to exist,” Winogrand said. It’s a good thing for the rest of us that he did, sharing his unique view of the world, incorporating the chaos of his personal life into his remarkable pictures. Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable, which features original music by Winogrand’s son, Ethan, and animation by Kelly Gallagher, opens September 19 at Film Forum, with Freyer participating in Q&As following the 7:00 shows on September 19 and 21. In her director’s statement, the Brooklyn-born Freyer writes, “In looking at Winogrand in all his multidimensional human complexity, I take aim at the ‘bad dad’ and ‘bad husband’ tropes in artist biography, seeking to undermine these as sources of triumph or artistic necessity. Winogrand was an artist whose rise and fall — from the 1950s to the mid-1980s — in acclaim mirrors not only that of American power and credibility in the second half of the twentieth century but also a vision of American masculinity whose limitations, toxicity, and inheritance we still struggle, culturally, to comprehend. The film ultimately invites a deeper consideration of Winogrand not only as a ‘man of his time,’ in the words of MoMA photography curator Susan Kismaric, but also as a man struggling to define himself simultaneously as an artist and a parent (as so many of us do).”

HIP HOP ON FILM 1979-1986: STATIONS OF THE ELEVATED

STATIONS OF THE ELEVATED

Cult subway graffiti film Stations of the Elevated is part of hip-hop series at Film Forum

STATIONS OF THE ELEVATED (Manfred Kirchheimer, 1981)
Film Forum
209 West Houston St.
Thursday, September 20, 8:50
Series runs through October 20
212-727-8110
filmforum.org

In October 2014, thirty-three years after screening at the New York Film Festival, Manfred Kirchheimer’s Stations of the Elevated finally got its official U.S. theatrical release, in a gorgeous restoration that was shown at BAMcinématek and will be presented this week at Film Forum. In 1977, Manfred Kirchheimer, whose family escaped Nazi Germany in 1936, went to the Bronx and filmed graffiti-covered subway cars at the train depot and rushing across the elevated tracks, kids playing in a burned-out housing project, and giant billboards advertising hamburgers, cigarettes, alcohol, and suntan lotion. Shot on 16mm reversal stock, Stations of the Elevated is more than just a captivating document of a bygone era; it is a deeply poetic socioeconomic journey into class, race, art, and freedom of expression, told without a single word of narration or onscreen text. Instead, producer, director, editor, and photographer Kirchheimer (Colossus on the River, Bridge High with Walter Hess) shifts from the natural sound of the environment to a superb jazz score by Charles Mingus while cutting between shots of trains covered in tags and illustrations (and such phrases as “Heaven Is Life,” “Invasion of the Earth,” “Never Die,” and “Earth Is Hell”) by such seminal figures as Blade, Daze, Lee, Pusher, Shadow, and Slave and views of colorful billboards filmed peeking through the geometric architecture of the elevated railways and set against bright blue skies. Most often, the camera focuses on the painted eyes in the ads, looking right back at the viewer as they dominate the scene, evoking the optician’s ad in that famous novel of American class, The Great Gatsby. (The concentration on the eyes also predicts how Madison Ave. was watching the graffiti movement, eventually coopting the imagery into mainstream advertising.) Through this dichotomy of meaning and execution, Kirchheimer reveals similarities in artistic styles and how the elements influenced each other; a particularly telling moment occurs when a man is shown hand painting a billboard who could have just as well been spray painting a subway car.

Kirchheimer remains outside during the course of the forty-five-minute documentary, never venturing into the tunnels, capturing the elevated train lines as if they’re just another part of New York City architecture, which of course they are. And it’s especially powerful because it was made at a time when the city was in the midst of a severe economic crisis and rampant crime epidemic, as Mayor Koch sought to eliminate the scourge of graffiti, while Kirchheimer celebrates its beauty (and New York-ness) in this glorious little film. Stations of the Elevated, which elevates the station of subway graffiti artistry with an entrancing calmness, is screening September 20 at 8:50 in the Film Forum series “Hip Hop on Film 1979-1986” and will be followed by a Q&A with Kirchheimer and a live graffiti presentation by David “CHINO” Villorente. The series continues through October 20 with such other hip hop gems as Beat Street, featuring DJ Jazzy Jay, Kool Herc, Grandmaster Melle Mel, and Rae Dawn Chong, and the genre classic Wild Style, with director Charlie Ahearn participating in a Q&A after the 8:15 show on September 27.

BARBARA POLLACK — BRAND NEW ART FROM CHINA: A GENERATION ON THE RISE

brand new art frmo china

Who: Barbara Pollack
What: Conversation, gallery talk, book signing in conjunction with publication of Brand New Art from China: A Generation on the Rise (Tauris, $25, September 2018)
Where: James Cohan Gallery, 291 Grand St., and Pace Gallery, 537 West Twenty-Fourth St.
When: Thursday, September 20, 6:00, and Tuesday, September 25, 6:00
Why: In 2010, when twi-ny interviewed art critic, curator, teacher, and writer Barbara Pollack about her book The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China, she said, “In New York, I am just another person trying to make a living by writing about art. But in China, I get treated like a star critic with a certain degree of power.” Pollack’s well-deserved prominence is evident in her follow-up, Brand New Art from China: A Generation on the Rise, which features a quote on the front from Ai Weiwei, who says, “Frank, honest, and full of passion. . . . a rare and precise insight.” A good friend of twi-ny’s, Pollack herself is certainly frank, honest, and full of passion. (Full disclosure: Pollack’s literary agent is also twi-ny’s business manager.) Pollack is indeed a superstar in China, where artists clamor for her to write about their work. The new book explores such Chinese artists as Cao Fei, Chen Tianzhuo, Chen Zhou, Gao Ling, Guan Xiao, Jin Shan, Li Liao, Liu Wei, Qiu Xiafoei, Zhang Xiaogang, and Xu Zhen, in such chapters as “The Last Chinese Artists,” “The Me Generation,” and “Post-Truth.” Here’s a brief excerpt about Xu:

There are many occasions when Xu Zhen has eschewed references to Chinese culture entirely or mixed up symbols so seamlessly that the only reaction could be total confusion. At one of MadeIn’s first exhibitions, the company produced an entire survey of “art from the Middle East,” combining aesthetic strategies from conceptual art practices with just enough stereotypes of the war-torn, Islamic-dominated region to evoke a Middle Eastern identity. There were mosques made of Styrofoam and Charlie Hebdo political cartoons woven into tapestries. There were sculptures made of barbed wire and a field of broken bricks set on an invisible waterbed, so the ground seemed to move like a silent earthquake. When these works were shown at James Cohan Gallery in New York in 2009—with the title “Lonely Miracle: Art from the Middle East”—most visitors had no choice but to assume these were products of a collective of Arab artists, which was exactly the point. In this globally driven art world, it is easy to fake ethnicity. All it takes is a bit of irony and just enough cultural references to add locality to the mix.

Barbara Pollack and Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei supplied a quote for Barbara Pollack’s latest book on Chinese art (photo by Joe Gaffney)

Pollack will be at James Cohan Gallery on September 20 at 6:00, in conversation with Xiaoyu Weng, the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation associate curator of Chinese art at the Guggenheim, followed by a book signing. On September 25 at 6:00, she will lead the gallery talk “Zhang Xiaogang & the Future of Chinese Art” at Pace in Chelsea, where “Zhang Xiaogang: Recent Works” is on view through October 20. To get a taste of Pollack’s thoughts on Zhang’s earlier work, here’s another excerpt from the book:

So, Zhang Xiaogang’s emphasis on a Chinese identity is not the result of isolation and ignorance of Western art practices but a reaction to his initial embrace of those trends. In Europe, he faced his crisis head-on by seeing the masterpieces of Western art history and feeling as if there was nothing more he could add to that legacy. Back in China, however, he was surrounded by a new cultural experience that could not be captured through Western iconography and symbols. His rejection of the West was not total. Instead, he embraced an approach that allowed for innovation in both Western and Chinese traditions for art.

WAYNE THIEBAUD, DRAFTSMAN

Nine Jelly Apples, 1964, watercolor and graphite. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of George Hopper Fitch, B.A. 1932. Photography by Tony De Camillo. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Wayne Thiebaud, “Nine Jelly Apples,” watercolor and graphite, 1964 (Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of George Hopper Fitch, B.A. 1932. Photography by Tony De Camillo. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Ave. at 36th St.
Tuesday – Sunday through September 23, $13-$20 (free Fridays 7:00 to 9:00)
212-685-0008
www.themorgan.org

You might be surprised to find out that from 2005 to 2015, Wayne Thiebaud was sixth on the list of top-selling living American artists at auction, totaling more than $163 million in aggregated sales (trailing Jeff Koons, Christopher Wool, Richard Prince, Ed Ruscha, and Jasper Johns and ahead of Robert Ryman, Frank Stella, Robert Indiana, and Cindy Sherman). Or maybe that’s not surprising at all, given how his oeuvre is so viscerally pleasing while also technically adroit, as revealed in the lovely exhibition “Wayne Thiebaud, Draftsman,” continuing at the Morgan through September 23. Now ninety-seven and still working, the Arizona-born, California-raised artist is best known for his luscious paintings of pies, jelly apples, ice-cream cones, and other tasty treats, but the show reveals him to be an expert draftsman through drawings and sketches not only of desserts but of cityscapes and landscapes. His influences range from Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Giorgio Morandi, Edgar Degas, and Pierre-Paul Prudh’hon to Krazy Kat cartoonist George Herriman and time spent in trade school and the military and as a commercial artist, window dresser, and graphic designer for Rexall Drugs and Universal Studios. “One day [printer] Kathan [Brown] brought down lunch, which was a cheese sandwich, a couple of olives, and a beer, and I said, ‘Before we eat this, I think I’ll draw it,’” Thiebaud is quoted as saying in the exhibition catalog.

Self Portrait, ca. 1970, graphite. From the artist’s studio. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Wayne Thiebaud, “Self Portrait,” graphite, ca. 1970 (From the artist’s studio. © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

The show, the first extensive museum survey of Thiebaud’s works on paper, is a panoply of delights, from the 1964 watercolor and graphite “Nine Jelly Apples,” in which the sweet jelly seems to be dripping down the wall, to the 1983 charcoal “Three Roads,” an imaginative rendering of San Francisco streets, from a circa-1970 graphite self-portrait of Thiebaud looking serious to the 1960s-1970s “Page of Sketches with Ties,” four rectangular depictions of numerous ties, from the 1964 brush and ink “Hamburgers,” three rows of the all-American food, to the fantastical 1967-68 “Ridge with Clouds.” Thiebaud is not making any grand statements about consumption or hunger; the self-effacing artist and teacher is merely using his impressive skill to explore various subjects and styles. He also seems to have a penchant for drawing items in multiples of three, although he claims that is not on purpose and has no secret meaning. “Learning to draw is just learning to see more clearly and more organized,” he told curator Isabelle Dervaux in an illustrated talk at the Morgan. “That’s another side benefit of learning to draw. You’re going to learn to see a lot better and a lot deeper.”

ayne Thiebaud, “Diagonal City,” graphite, 1978 (Collection of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson. © Wayne Thiebaud/ Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

Wayne Thiebaud, “Diagonal City,” graphite, 1978 (Collection of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson. © Wayne Thiebaud/ Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

Thiebaud’s works have a way of getting inside your head, offering up sweet memories. Walking through the exhibit, I was like, well, a kid in a candy store. I thought of the first hamburger I had at Wetson’s, of the candy store down the street from my elementary school, of how rarely I saw my father wearing a tie, of a cake my aunt used to make for my birthday, the first time I licked an ice-cream cone and the ice cream dripped onto my hand, of a childhood friend’s dog, and of getting lost while wandering through parts of San Francisco and New York City. Dervaux has done a marvelous job laying out the show, dividing it into such themes as “Foodstuff,” “Tradition,” “Early Drawings,” and “Cityscapes and Landscapes,” creating compelling juxtapositions that tell us yet more about Thiebaud and his methods. It’s a joy to experience these works, many of which have never before been shown publicly. “Most of these are private drawings — to find out something, to make notations, or just to experiment,” Thiebaud has said. “You want to feel that these are things that will never be seen.”

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