Two Artists at the American University Museum at the Katzen Art Center, Washington, DC
By DONALD KUSPIT, Feb. 2019
Jack Rasmussen, the Director and Chief Curator of the American University Museum at the Katzen Art Center, Washington has a way of finding golden needles in the haystack of contemporary art: two of his finds, the Czech Jiri Kolar (1914-2002) and the American Michael B. Platt (1948-2019), are major masters. Kolar lived in Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia, and Platt lived in Washington, DC the capital of the United States—this is relevant to the ideological and aesthetic importance of their art, for Prague and Washington, DC are cultural as well as political centers. Kolar and Platt are quite different, but peculiarly the same: they’re both outsiders in their society, because they are both critics of it: Kolar of Communist Czechoslovakia and the African-American Platt of American racism. Their manners and methods are quite different. Kolar made witty picture-poems, variously called chiasmages, collages, confrontages, crumplages, intercollages, prollages, rapportages, and rollages, using found images and designs ironically transformed and absurdly connected, to perverse aesthetic effect. Platt identified with the Australian aborigines he saw in 2012 and 2014, making exquisite, visionary paintings of them, all pigment prints on canvas, based on photographs, their details often enriched by color, usually subtly nuanced although sometimes also forcefully blatant, but the over-all atmosphere oddly melancholy, for the figures in them seem to be living in another time as well as place. It is as though they are Platt’s ancestral ghosts, as their often haunting appearance suggests—sometimes enigmatically transparent, their bodies convey absence as well as presence, remoteness as well as nearness at once—but also contemporary cousins, for like Platt they are outsiders in their society.
How Freedom Is Born, a 1959 crumplage and O Liberty, Sense of All, a 1961 crumplage show Kolar at his socially critical, mocking, despairing best. At the time Czechoslovakia was a satellite of Soviet Russia—a Communist state. In a country in which Communist ideology “militated” against any “artistic independence,” as Hilton Kramer wrote after a 1970 visit to the “two tiny, impossibly overcrowded attic rooms” that served as Kolar’s studio, Kolar was an outspoken dissident. Jailed for his writings—poems and essays—in 1953, he began making what he called the “silent” or “evident” poems of collage, which he defined in a 1961 manifesto as “poetry that excludes the written word as the bearing structure” of meaning. To me Kolar’s most powerful, outstanding works—works of true genius--are the 12 crumplages of the Passion of Christ he made in 1963 in the manner of Albrecht Durer’s rendering of it. Kolar’s Passion crumplages are masterpieces of traditional art in a modern manner—a collection of scenic details crushed and compressed together to form an intensely expressive composition, at once eccentrically abstract and surreally distorted—a sort of Procrustes bed in which every detail is forced to fit. Socially resonant poignantly aesthetic masterpieces—all the more so because they are inspired by the work of a great traditional master, and as such clairvoyantly anticipate the current turn to traditional art as a creative model made by the many artists I call the “new Old Masters”—they are Kolar’s most devastating criticism of Communism, for they suggest that it killed Christ, reminding us that Czechoslovakia was Christian before it was forced to become Communist.
When the liberal Communist leader Alexander Dubcek’s vision of “Socialism with a human face” was announced in 1966, initiating the so-called “Prague Spring,” Soviet troops marched into Czechoslovakia, returning it to “Communism with an inhuman face,” so to speak. Kolar marked the return of repression and authoritarianism with a series of ironically sad works, collected in Diary 1968, among them the intercollage Bird Sensing Death, 1967, and, telling with respect to Kolar’s admiration of traditional art—why not use all the resources of art history?--the prollage Abduction, 1968, which uses a cutout of Rubens’ Rape of the Sabines as it centerpiece. But it is the extraordinary Passion series, a tour de force—especially because it brilliantly synthesizes traditional and modern ideas of art, and with that creates a refreshing new kind of visionary and aesthetic art in the act of refurbishing them--that shows what Hilton Kramer called Kolar’s “range of invention, immense energy, and sheer poetic reach” at their ingenious best.
All of Platt’s works are aesthetic masterpieces, ingeniously integrating figuration and abstraction, light and shadow, planes of color and incisive line, Brisbane Tree Festival, 2018, being a fine example. They are all narratives, typically depicting aboriginal rituals, usually performed by naked young women, as in Evening Ritual, 2014, but also clothed as well as naked, as in Spirit Dance of One Mob, 2018. In that work their brown bodies are marked with bright white paint, repeatedly applied in broad strokes, suggesting they are ghostly spirits—materialized spirits, for the work is about their bodies as well as high spirits. They are all brown beauties, holding their own with the white beauties adulated in Western art—I am suggesting that Platt’s works have a critical edge. I think he means to imply that the bodies of young brown native women—and implicitly young black native women, for Australia is Platt’s Africa--are inherently more beautiful than the bodies of young white civilized women. Their beauty is idealized and invented, as the perfected body of Venus in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, ca. 1486 makes clear, while the beauty of the female aboriginal body is inborn and natural.
Platt was an astute social observer as well as master of the full-length figure, as his paintings of a male Musician and male Tour Guide, both 2018, as well as of his female dancers, indicate. He is also a master of decorative abstraction, as the intricate patterns—enigmatic codifications of aboriginal beliefs --that occur again and again in his paintings suggest, most conspicuously in Four Shells and the Storyteller and Game Board, and with insidious brilliance in Waterhole in Plain View, all 2018—most of the green water ironically blackened, polluted, undrinkable. And above all on the bodies of his female dancers, suggesting that their dancing is a religious practice, and with that their sacredness. Dare one say they are equivalent to the vestal virgins of ancient Greece and Rome? Every last one of them is a particular person—a unique individual with a distinctive personality, as their different expressions make clear. Platt was an extraordinary portraitist: his “living likenesses” have an intense, deep inner life, as the symbolic portrait of One Mob, 2014 makes clear. Her insistent face, murkily white, its eyes shaded in shadow, as though prepared for a ceremonial ritual, rises like a defiant phoenix out of a fire. Mounted on what must be the black ruin of a great tree of life, or the charred gestural remnants of a burntout funeral pyre, as the poem that accompanies the painting suggests, epitomizes the glory and despair—determination and desperation--of aboriginal culture and spirituality. Carol A. Beane writes—every one of Platt’s paintings is accompanied by a poem in which she addresses and elaborates its meaning--
We are One Mob,
dancing on the stones of the
sacred places of spirits;
our songs echoing the wind
and the smells of the earth; here, where the dirt is blood red
with old blood.
In the cities we are One Mob;
taking our place beneath our great tree,
claiming our lands and
each minimal patch of shade… WM
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