Donald Kuspit On The Horns Of A Dilemma: Beatrice Caracciolo’s Agitated Drawings at Paula Cooper Gallery

Francesco Trevisani, Massacre of the Innocents, 1726. Oil on canvas, 29.5 x 53.5 in.


Carl Andre, Beatrice Caracciolo, Jan Schoonhoven, Robert Wilson

Paula Cooper Gallery

September 12 through October 17, 2020

By DONALD KUSPIT, November 2020

The difference between Beatrice Caracciolo’s remarkable series of abstract drawings, all titled Innocenti, 2020, and all somewhat agitated not to say manic—extravagantly expressive—and their point of departure, the somewhat more structured, however equally dramatic Massacre of the Innocents, 1726 by Francesco Trevisania, a Baroque painter, seems unbridgeable, aesthetically and conceptually.  Trevisani’s painting is opulent, theatrical, colorful, figurative, biblical—standing in the center of the painting, and as grandiose as it, one of the soldiers holds up one of the infants he has been ordered to slaughter by King Herod (the occasion is the birth of Jesus Christ, a future “King of the Jews,” and as such a threat to Herod).  Trevisania is a representational artist, Caracciolo is an abstract artist.  Trevisania keeps at a distance from the scene, Caracciolo gestures draw us into its vast space.  It is more empty than full, while every inch of Trevisania’s space is filled to the brink, as though in a horror vacui.  Trevisania paints with richly colored pigments, Caracciolo draws with colorless graphite and water soluble chalk, the added pigment giving her lines haptic presence.  Trevisania’s figures are framed by classical architecture, Caracciolo’s lines are chaotically entangled.  Violence is rendered with sober clarity by Trevisani, so that the scene comes into instant focus—we are not drawn into it, but remain at a safe distance from, detached observers rather than participants.  In sharp contrast, Caracciolo’s seemingly reckless, unfocused gestures distill the violence in Trevisani’s scene while throwing us into their violence and stripping the scene of meaning—not just the biblical meaning, but the contemporary meaning she accords it.  “In the present day, children continue to be the powerless victims of political hubris,” she writes, “sacrificed to fulfill the megalomaniacal whims of autocratic leaders around the world.”  

Installation view, Beatrice Caracciolo: Innocenti, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, NY, September 12 - October 17, 2020. Photo: Steven Probert. © Beatrice Caracciolo. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Thus her drawings are meant to be a political statement, socially activist (not just aesthetically convincing); one wouldn’t know it if she didn’t say so.  Like so many abstract artists, Caracciolo resorts to words to explain and rationalize her seemingly irrational and inexplicable works, give them social sense rather than trust in the emotional sense they make—the emotional power implicit in their vigorous gestures.  It’s why Innocenti 1 and Innocenti 2, both 2020 seem to me more artistically credible than Trevisani 1 and Trevisani 2, both 2018.  The latter dissect Trevisani’s colorful painting, turning it into  colorless drawings.  The figures are reduced to linear outlines, they seem to move rather than remain fixed in place, and move closer to the picture plane, as though about to break through it, enter our space.  We are still looking at a picture—a realistic representation--however much the figures seem more abstract than real, more ghostly form than solid substance, anonymous presences rather than distinctive individuals, flourishes of immediate line rather than mediated by paint and color.  There is nothing left of Trevisani’s figures in Caracciolo’s drawings—the scene has been reduced to a scramble of gestures, and without disappeared—evaporated into atmospheric line.  Expressive gesture has replaced—and destroyed—all too human figures, be they weak helpless victim or strong aggressive warrior.  

Installation view, Beatrice Caracciolo: Innocenti, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, NY, September 12 - October 17, 2020. Photo: Steven Probert. © Beatrice Caracciolo. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

I think the central masculine figure in Trevisani’s epic painting is the key to the inner meaning of Caracciolo’s eccentrically lyrical drawings, in constant process rather than finished products:  I suggest that Caracciolo, a female artist, attacks and destroys a pretentious painting made by a male artist, undermining it to the extent that it becomes unrecognizable, a historical artifact rather than a living presence, like her drawings, unpredetermined—spontaneous, ahistorical, unpretentious (not pretending to be anything more than themselves), not to say self-expressions—rather than necessitated by history.  Caracciolo’s drawings are a woman’s revenge on man—the revenge of the mothers on the men who murdered their children—and the revenge of a woman artist on a male artist more socially privileged than she is, an artist who was commissioned by the Catholic Church to make grand paintings rather than who worked for herself, who was expressing herself in intimate drawings rather than serving the dominant institution of his time.       

Installation view, Beatrice Caracciolo: Innocenti, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, NY, September 12 - October 17, 2020. Photo: Steven Probert. © Beatrice Caracciolo. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

But Caracciolo is drawn to Trevisani’s art, which has the prestige and power of the Church—and of the old “grand tradition,” as Baudelaire called it—behind it, that gives it its important, impersonal meaning, while her drawings have only personal meaning, and from the perspective of the religious meaning Trevisani’s painting has unimportant meaning, however much important social meaning Caracciolo claims they have, seems to force on them, as though fitting them into a procrustean bed of universal meaning, like the story of the Massacre of the Innocents.  I suggest that Caracciolo is caught on the horns of a dilemma, one horn being traditional art, the other modern art.  I suggest her agitation—dare one say anxiety—signals her uncertainty, more pointedly, her profound, unconscious ambivalence:  she finds Trevisani’s art attractive, seriously interesting as art—perhaps because he was an Italian artist, as she is, and his work is part of her heritage—even as she engrosses herself in making abstract expressionist art, an important modern art, for many art historians the major art of what the critic Harold Rosenberg called “the tradition of the new,” the living art of today.  Caracciolo is a living artist making living art rather than a dead artist who has made dead art, however much what seems dead has life in it, may inspire a living artist.  Caracciolo is tied to the past, dependent on it as every  artist is however much she proclaims their independence from it—as Caracciolo’s drawings do.  To be indifferent to the past is to make an art that makes no difference. WM



Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

view all articles from this author