The Unbroken Line: Old and New Masters
NEW YORK—An exquisite conversation has started between the past and the present in “The Unbroken Line: Old and New Masters” exhibition at the Robert Simon Fine Art gallery. Curators often hope that the works they display will “talk to each other.” The drawings and paintings Robert Simon has curated with Grand Central Atelier artists and faculty Colleen Barry and Anthony Baus are definitely talking with each other in endless ways—ranging from gentle whispers and unexpected conviviality to bold statements.
This unprecedented conversation opened to a packed crowd of both young and old, artists, collectors, museum curators, and art lovers alike, on May 10 and will remain open until June 1.
It is the first time the art historian and art dealer Robert Simon has presented works by living artists alongside old master drawings and paintings in his gallery, located half a block from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s not the kind of art show you would find in other historical art galleries on the Upper East Side, in contemporary galleries in Chelsea, in the edgier galleries on the Lower East Side, or in museums like the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Whitney, the Guggenheim, or The Met.
Just a day before the opening, the founder of Grand Central Atelier (GCA), Jacob Collins, was still touching up a portrait and brought it to the gallery unvarnished. “Usually my paintings are done and dried a long time ago, 500 years or so,” said Simon, amused, in his gallery.
Simon was one of the art experts who discovered Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” the most expensive painting ever sold at auction. With similar foresight, he has discovered new treasure in the works by GCA artists—art that has yet to find its fully embraced place in the art market. Echoing his own milestone in discovering the Leonardo, he paired Collins’s portrait with the Salvator Mundi painting “Christ Blessing” by Vittore Carpaccio (born circa 1465–70).
“I got the imprimatur from the world’s Salvator Mundi expert. I feel very honored!” Collins said on the phone on May 9. “I wouldn’t want to have my painting called a ‘Salvator Mundi’ by some second-stringer,” he added, joking.
That’s one of the more direct pairings in the exhibition. Another is a profile self-portrait by Edward Minoff displayed next to “Portrait of Leonora Jane Rooke” by Thomas Matthews Rooke (1842–1942). That pairing came as a complete surprise to Minoff, who created the self-portrait long before Simon curated the exhibition. The portraits resonate so well with each other that it feels rather uncanny.
Other paintings seem to continue the same topic of the conversation, across centuries, as they have similar color palettes. An untitled portrait of a young woman by Will St. John is flanked by another portrait of a young woman by Rachel Li, and a portrait of a boy by a 17th-century painter of the Bolognese School. The portraits coalesce, as if in a family reunion.
The still life painting “Sea Bass” by Justin Wood is displayed next to a still life by the Flemish old master Joris van Son (1623–1667), which also includes a fish. These two are having a conversation about fugal simplicity and rich abundance, among other things. A nude figure painting titled “Ruby” by Rachel Li, although not a religious painting like the one displayed next to it, the “Penitent Magdalene” by Guido Reni (1575–1642), also has a subtle halo around the head. The nude radiates a beautiful serenity showing the kind of spiritual transmutation that the “Magdalene” next to it acts out overtly.
A few paintings were displayed as single pieces, including a couple of stunning portraits by Colleen Barry and an autumnal seascape, emanating a gentle light through the fog, by Edward Minoff.
“The idea of the exhibition is to show things that are not necessarily comparable, but things that are sympathetically similar—whether it’s technique or subject mater—and there’s no real rule about it,” Simon said.
While Simon selected the old master pieces, Anthony Baus and Colleen Barry selected the new works. These pieces are by GCA founder Jacob Collins and five other faculty members of the atelier—Colleen Barry, Will St. John, Anthony Baus, Edward Minoff, and Justin Wood—as well as four recent graduates: Savannah Tate Cuff, Rachel Li, Dale Zinkowski, and Mackenzie Swenson. The result is a layering of sublime juxtapositions, elegantly balanced and harmonized with each other. The conversation is endless, and each person who sees the exhibition will glean something different from it.
Baus pointed out that old master paintings in museums feel rather removed, but when he saw some of them in “The Unbroken Line” exhibition, he said, a day after the opening: “It felt like those older works came to life again. There is still something in there that maybe the newer works are tapping into.” His own self-portrait is nestled next to a drawing by Donato Creti (1671–1749). Both heads are facing the same direction and reveal a similar countenance. The study of a young man by Creti, facing Baus’s self-portrait, seems to be looking at a future reincarnation of himself. Even the frames for the two drawings fit together like two puzzle pieces.
A Narrative of Sincerity
Simon discovered the Grand Central Atelier over a year ago when he took a color theory workshop at this world-renowned atelier, which trains artists in the classical traditions of drawing, painting, and sculpture. Later, he became a board member and suggested launching “The Unbroken Line” exhibition.
Upon entering his gallery, on first glance, you might not be sure how to distinguish the old works from the new. But if you contemplate them, in a short while, you find distinctions, the most obvious being the signs of age on the canvas or paper. In terms of quality, Simon pointed out that there are not so good, good, the best, and the best of the best old masters. The really bad ones, Simon said, art dealers jokingly call “old monsters,” which he obviously avoids buying. But in many respects, these living artists can be said to have matched, and some have even surpassed the old masters, depending on which old master they are being compared with, Simon said. It also depends on the artist. Time will tell how they will fare in the world and how their works will be regarded 200 or more years from now.
“Our connection with the old masters begins with our affection for them—our deep love and respect,” Colleen Barry said a day before the opening. “In my experience of maintaining a dialogue with them, not only has it been a long road of trying to understand painting, but also in trying to be as good as, and as technically proficient as, those old masters. Now that is hard! Because any amateur or any modern artist can love Velázquez. They can claim to be influenced by him, but to really try to paint on the level of Velázquez, that is going to separate the boys from the men,” Barry said.
Technique and quality aside, perhaps the biggest challenge these living artists face is that they have to create under the circumstance of not yet having been comfortably embraced by their own culture. The contemporary art establishment seems obsessed with the general idea of repudiation and with denying the past. It is basically stuck with the more than 100-year-old idea of constantly having to come up with something new. The 1913 Armory Show, the first large-scale modern art show in America, was the springboard to this cultural fissure.
The living artists in “The Unbroken Line,” instead, are embracing continuity. In a sense, they are leapfrogging over the fissure that started to become apparent with impressionism and later more overtly with dadaism, futurism, cubism, and subsequent “-isms.” The established art history narrative taught at universities is a false narrative presupposing an evolutionary progression, starting with the prehistoric Lascaux cave paintings, revolutionizing with Picasso, and ending with, for example, Jeff Koons today.
“I love this idea of ’The Unbroken Line,” Collins said. ”If you hadn’t been reading reviews in the last 60 years in the art magazines, and you were just looking at art from a perch in the future, you could see how unbroken it is,” he added.
“We are trying to reconstitute an art tradition. There is nothing in our official contemporary art world that we would really want to use very much,” Collins said. By contemporary art, he was not referring to contemporary artists, he said, but to what he called the institutional avant-garde: “the purveyors of high culture, the museums, the art magazines, the universities.”
Some people might fault these artists of antiquarianism, similar to how the neoclassicists hearkened back to ancient Greece and Rome. Perhaps for these critics, it’s a matter of taste, or lack of interest. But it would be unfair and inaccurate to accuse these artists of being inauthentic or cliché, especially in a world today where “anything goes” is seen as a virtue.
When Picasso painted his copy of Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas,” it was a show of grandstanding, “sort of trying to get benefit from the association [with Velázquez’s masterpiece] without being deeply engaged,” Collins said. In contrast, when you look at Colleen Barry’s portrait of her mother in “The Unbroken Line,” you can recognize a reverence for and a nod to Velázquez that is awe-inspiring virtuosity. In terms of the subject matter, you can connect with it because you also have a mother, and whatever that relationship might mean to you, it will entice you to contemplate your role in all of humanity.
“I’m trying to tap into a timelessness,” Barry said. “I wish to honestly represent subject matter from my own life and, at the same time, not completely forget the beautiful gifts that have been passed down from the past, from Renaissance and Baroque masters.”
Everything about “The Unbroken Line” speaks of a longed-for narrative for understanding how to consider representational art created by highly skilled artists today. Many art lovers and art collectors, who learned the standard 20th-century art history narrative and its underlying premises, know the contemporary art they are “supposed to like,” but deep down, they probably don’t really like it, Collins explained. “Nor do they want to be a philistine and be accused of ‘not getting it,'” he said.
Collins is interested in changing neither the art world nor the minds of people who genuinely enjoy modern or contemporary art. But there are many interesting, bright, and serious people who are very sensitive and thoughtful about culture, and they could very easily be inspired to engage with art such as that presented in “The Unbroken Line.”
Simon goes to The Met every other day and notices what people look at: The hordes of tourists and New Yorkers go to The Met to look at things that were created a very long time ago. “I do not believe that the antipathy [within the contemporary art establishment] for these traditional modes is mirrored by a large part of the art-looking public,” Simon said. Other art forms—opera, theater, period films, and TV series, classical music, design, and fashion—that hearken back to the past are readily accepted by the public as well.
There is a way to marvel at and deeply appreciate art created by living artists in a sincere, non-ironic way. “What artists are touching upon in our circle is this bejeweled beauty that you see in old master painting. It is in the paint handling, in the layering, in the glazing, in the scumbling, and I think it is going to be very obvious for people to see that,” Barry said.
The art in “The Unbroken Line” invites us to engage with it in a much more sophisticated way. There is a difference between art buyers who simply want to decorate their homes to fit their decor and those who want to be patrons of the arts and connoisseurs who would contribute to shaping the cultural fabric. “Very smart patrons will prove to be quick studies and, along with the artists, they will start driving this conversation forward,” Collins said.
“A lot of people are looking for a way out of the puzzle, out of the box of contemporary art,” Collins said. A good start would be to consider “The Unbroken Line.”
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By Milene Fernandez