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The Relevance of Irrelevance

Georges Braque’s Studio IX, as ravishingly enigmatic a vision as has ever been committed to canvas, is at the Acquavella Galleries in New York until the end of November. It is among more than three dozen works in a remarkable salute to this man who revolutionized art in the years leading up to World War I, and by the time of his death, in 1963, found himself among the supreme poets of Western painting, right up there with Giorgione and Corot. Painted over a period of five years in the 1950s, Studio IX is the climax of a cycle of compositions in which the ordinary objects of the artist’s work space—paints, brushes, palettes, easels, canvases—become the stuff of alchemy and allegory. The quotidian is undone. Braque moves from fact to philosophy. The world simultaneously dissolves and resolves. Gray paint becomes the supplest of substances, suggesting pewter, silver, lead, slate, granite, platinum, and crystal. Platonic shades give way, if not quite to Platonic essences, than at least to intimations of the ideal.

No modern artist was more of a dreamer than Braque. This helps to explain why in New York, the city that never sleeps, his reputation has always been somewhat ambiguous. Braque can strike museumgoers and gallerygoers as marginal, if not irrelevant, at least when compared with Picasso, his partner in the invention of Cubism, and an artist whose work is rarely out of the public eye. There is a Picasso exhibition up in New York right now, a magnificent show of drawings from the early decades of his career at the Frick Collection, but then hardly a season goes by in New York when Picasso is not in the news. Picasso’s restlessness, so richly reflected in his moves from style to style at the Frick, matches the restlessness of New York; his work can seem to change as quickly as opinions shift in the metropolis. Picasso, as Octavio Paz once wrote, “is what is going to happen and what is happening, he is posterity and archaic time, the distant ancestor and our next-door neighbor. Speed permits him to be two places at once, to belong to all the centuries without letting go of the here and now.” Picasso’s greatness has everything to do with his ceaseless craving for relevance; he makes everything relevant, whether his fascination with Archaic Greece or his infatuation with the woman he met a few weeks earlier. Braque’s greatness is of an entirely different variety. He argues for the relevance of irrelevance, for the importance of the meditative, the inward, the ineffable. Picasso’s essential subject is the woman who currently shares his bed. Braque’s essential subject is the ordinary objects he has known practically forever. Picasso celebrates animation. Braque celebrates contemplation.

Braque and Picasso—who were like mountain climbers, so Braque later recalled, bound together in the development of Cubism—represent divergent attitudes toward modernity. Picasso is the athlete in the stadium. Braque is the poet in the tower. Although there are many painters in New York who care much more for Braque than Picasso, nobody can wonder why the city’s curators, critics, and collectors have more often than not embraced the mercurial Spaniard. But right now, at the Acquavella Galleries, Braque is having a moment. Perhaps there is a paradox here. Can an artist with a taste for the timeless ever strike us as timely? Braque, at least so I imagine, would find the question absurd. For him, the avant-gardist is not ahead of his time so much as he is outside of his time. With Studio IX, Braque invites us into the poet’s tower, where the gray light, penetrating without being especially strong, illuminates a palette, a jar, an easel, a bird’s wings. Studio IX is heraldic, emblematic, inscrutable. Braque’s great subject is the insatiable imagination. He invites us to feast with him.

Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.

Studio IX, 1952-53/56, Oil on canvas, 57 1/2 x 57 1/2 inches (146 x 146 cm)
Musée national d'art moderne - Centre de création industrielle, Centre Pompidou, Paris Dation 1982. AM 1982-99

Photo Credit : CNAC/MNAM/Dist. Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY

© 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris