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Philip Guston
Stationary Figure (1973)
The Met
In an image reflecting Guston’s egomania, his love of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, his felicitous touch and rosy-fingered color sense, a monstrous, one-eyed figure lies in bed, smoking and staring at a pulsating bare lightbulb. A clock reads 2:25. That’s a.m. In one cartoonish flourish, Guston sums up the dark nights of the soul, when artists wonder if they will ever produce something good.

Photo: © The Estate of Philip Guston, Courtesy Of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes
The Duchess of Alba (1797)
The Hispanic Society of America, New York
Goya, master of dashed hopes, daredevil brushwork, and the color black, gives us this voluptuous duchess in mourning dress—though she isn’t grieving so much as being mourned by Goya. Sixteen years her senior and stone deaf, he offers up a vision of imperious sensuality and unrequited love. The inscription at her feet translates to “Only Goya.” That’s how I often feel.

Photo: Courtesy Of The Hispanic Society Of America, New York

Florine Stettheimer
The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue (1931)
The Met
Paint as cake frosting; color as shimmering cellophane. This hallucination of a wedding procession on a red carpet spilling out of a department store raises shopping to a batty rite of passage.

Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jean-Auguste- Dominique Ingres
The Comtesse d’Haussonville (1845)
The Frick
A showstopper in any context, even at the Frick, which has one of the highest concentrations of masterpieces of any small museum in the world. The girlish 27-year-old countess, already a mother of three and destined to be a historian, scrutinizes us coyly, within a typically sumptuous Ingres setting. The amazing Delft-blue ensemble, her insanely creamy, curving arms—she’s a decadent dessert almost too rich to digest.

Photo: Courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York

Paul Cézanne
The Bather (1885)
Think of this enigmatic boy as stepping into a new optical dimension: He is simultaneously seen from above and below, left and right, surrounded by a subtly destabilized space that will fracture into Cubism. The Bather is the dawn of a new pictorial era. Matisse was right: Cézanne is “a sort of god.” He’s in my top four Western painters along with Velázquez, Goya, and Matisse himself.

Photo: The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by Scala/Art Resource, NY

Marsden Hartley
Evening Storm, Schoodic, Maine No. 2 (1942)
The Brooklyn Museum
I am so overwhelmed by the wounded otherness in Hartley’s art that I can’t write about it or him. He defeats me. This is the work that I would most want to live with.

Photo: Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn
Self-Portrait (1658)
The Frick
The artist as monumental Buddha, cloaked foremost in shadow but also in furs and embellished silks worthy of a magus—a poignant counterpoint to his careworn face, staring from beneath the brim of a nearly invisible hat. From that face, Shakespeare could have written King Lear. Rembrandt, Goya, and Velázquez were the painters who opened the door widest to the fullness of human emotion.

Photo: Courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York

Kazimir Malevich
Morning in the Village After Snowstorm (1912)
The Guggenheim
Like an explosion in an airplane factory, the Cubo-Futurist masterpiece depicts gleaming robot peasants in curved metallic shards. The composition of snowdrifts, houses, and people spirals energetically toward a distant sled-puller, and recalls the artist’s childhood—a way of life that predated the Industrial Revolution and outlasted the Russian one.

Photo: Courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY

Georgia O’Keeffe
Blue Lines X (1916)
The Met
The visionary painter was one of only about a dozen European and American artists attempting abstract paintings in 1916. The simplicity here is poetic, the blue lines reminding me at once of animal tracks, hieroglyphics, and Barnett Newman’s zips.

Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Édouard Manet
Young Lady in 1866
The Met
Isolated against a background of unbroken gray (containing Brice Marden’s entire career) is one of the greatest housecoats in the history of painting on one of the period’s greatest models, Victorine Meurent—the nude star of Manet’s once scandalous Olympia. This is what she looked like on her day off.

Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Thomas Chambers
Staten Island and the Narrows (1835–55)
The Brooklyn Museum
This bewitching picture of white-crested waves, wispy clouds, and gorgeous ships passing between Brooklyn and Staten Island jumps off the wall: How wondrous and magical New York was—and still is. I imagine Walt Whitman on the shore, in his usual state of multitudinous ecstasy.

Photo: Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Vincent Van Gogh
Mountains at Saint- Rémy (1889)
The Guggenheim
A progression of motion and emotion set off by brushwork, color, and Van Gogh’s turbulent sense of surface design. The road, trees, and house in the foreground are reasonably real. But the undulant mountains beyond—under a threatening sky of raw impasto—are haunted with figures, flames, and, in the middle of it all, a blue angel’s wing.

Photo: Courtesy Of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Joseph Mallord William Turner
Mortlake Terrace: Early Summer Morning (1826)
The Frick
Although I’m not a Turner fan, this painting speaks to me for its uncharacteristic calm. Instead of the painter’s usual bombast and histrionic portrayals of nature’s violent indifference, or just its special effects, we see the beneficent unity of man and nature. Nothing is forced, there is no drama, and for at least one painting, I love Turner.

Photo:Courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio
The Denial of Saint Peter (circa 1610)
The Met
Notice the dramatically gesturing figures, stark lighting, compact cropping, and complex moments of internal and external emotions. That is how Caravaggio essentially foreshadowed modern filmmaking.

Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Duccio di Buoninsegna
The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (1308–11)
The Frick
This powerful little canvas once appeared on the back of Duccio’s Maestà in Siena, one of the landmarks of Western painting. But it does quite well on its own. It depicts the moment that Christ rejects Satan’s offer of two marzipan-like cities (Italian hill towns, actually). Note cowering devil slinking off, stage left. (The equally fabulous landmark painting St. Francis in the Desert, by Giovanni Bellini, lives at the Frick as well.)

Photo: Courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York

The Journey of the Magi (1435)
The Met
In a crisscrossing, snow-covered landscape, the three magi follow the star of Bethlehem, fabulous entourage in tow. I am enchanted by the mix of opulence and tranquility and the whimsical pink walls of the city behind them. New York is filled with superb but easily missed sleeper paintings like this.

Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art