Tone Poems

The Still Lifes of Evaristo Baschenis: The Music of Silence is about as far from a blockbuster as you can get. The artist is virtually unknown outside Italy, and his main claim to fame, as the inventor of the subgenre of still-life paintings of musical instruments, is probably not going to drive the public mad with desire. While this first U.S. exhibition of Baschenis, at the Met, may do wonders for his market and elevate the prices of paintings by other Bergamese Baroque artists, its promo ops are limited: With just eighteen works on display, it does not exactly lend itself to a museum shop stocked with Baschenis ties and mugs. The Met should be applauded for putting its imprimatur on this low-carat gem of an exhibition.

Baschenis (1617-1677) was a painter, musician, priest, and “a great, mad gardener,” in the words of Met curator Andrea Bayer, who organized this exhibition with the Accademia Carrara of Bergamo and the Superintendency of Milan. He lived in Bergamo, in the region of Lombardy, the cradle of Italian still-life painting. Bergamo was also a music center. In the accompanying publication, art historian Enrico De Pascale remarks that “among the cultivated noble and bourgeois classes, knowledge of instruments and musical performance was considered indispensable.”

Baschenis had his own workshop and was well-known during his lifetime. He fell into oblivion around 1800 and was rediscovered when the Cubist still lifes of Braque and Picasso, many with musical instruments, were helping to transform the way art was made and seen.

Baschenis worked with just two motifs. One was the kitchen scene, often with dead fowls or utensils spread out on a table. The other was the still life with musical instruments; alongside the paintings, the Met has installed some fifteen of its beautiful Baroque instruments. Baschenis liked to place his own beloved lutes and violins facedown, which makes their rounded backs look like shells or gourds, or like natural creatures resting in someone’s care. In the great central panel of the Agliardi triptych, a guitar lies strings-down on a spinet and knife and, with a bowl of fruit deposited on top of it, becomes an impromptu piece of furniture. All of Baschenis’s work combines abandonment and order, abundance and restraint, informality and respect.

The exhibition includes a painting by Caravaggio (1571-1610), like Baschenis from Lombardy, whose still lifes Baschenis probably saw in Rome. In Caravaggio’s The Lute Player, a young man is playing a lute, his musical score on a table. He is the focus of attention; the lute is his instrument. Baschenis’s paintings have the spareness and dramatic lighting of Caravaggio’s, but in his still lifes, the lutes, archlutes, violins, guitars, and cellos usually appear without human accompaniment. It is often hard to tell if they were ever played, and they don’t appear to be waiting to be played or even used; they seem rather to be self-contained, instruments of a reality beyond human hands.

That reality is suggested by Baschenis’s background walls, reminiscent of Caravaggio’s but even more ethereal and indeterminate. In Still Life of Musical Instruments With a Globe and Cabinet, the drapery behind the table on which the instruments, ebony cabinet, and globe have been gathered seems to rise and reveal a wall that is not matter but space. Its porous field of shadow and light applies a gentle pressure to the objects and seems to be holding them in some way, or watching them, even granting them permission to remain in the light.

For all their stillness and silence, Baschenis’s paintings have a mysterious urgency. Those backgrounds suggest powerfully that no one can own one of these instruments – that even though they are on display, we viewers are ultimately inconsequential. They also help explain why we feel we have to pay attention now – because what we see could be called back at any moment. For Baschenis, painting was a way of remaining attuned to a sacred presence.

For the past twenty years, Tony Cragg has maintained a deep and moving belief that making and viewing sculpture offer essential ways of knowing. The quirky, playful, and yet disconcerting hybrids at the Marian Goodman Gallery are manifestations of his feverish curiosity and searching and his patient, hands-on sculptural investigation of many different materials. At 51, Cragg has never been more determined, through his work, to take the measure of a world moving so fast, in so many directions, that any attempt to grasp it seems increasingly hopeless.

In the company of Cragg’s familiar yet strange and insistently tactile creations, it is only by distrusting appearances and investigating materials and processes that we have a chance to know what we see. Formulation (Stance) looks like a weird black rubber chair pieced together with five bulbous parts that resemble giant electric-typewriter balls. The sculpture evolved through many materials – including plaster, clay, latex, and polyurethane – and multiple stages of casting and firing, all of which clarify the look of the final bronze. I’m Alive is a horizontal sculpture that is almost Henry Moore-like in its part-human, part-landscape form, but it has a sinister-looking tail or stinger, and it is made of carbon. It lies near One Way or Another, an upright Jurassic-stone sculpture whose profile keeps shifting as we move around it. The stone seems infinitely stronger than the synthetic carbon, though one strand of the carbon is, in fact, stronger than a steel beam. The two works look as if they weigh roughly the same, but the carbon sculpture can be picked up by a teenager and the stone weighs 1,200 pounds. What you see does not reveal what is real.

It is hard to single out one sculpture in this remarkable show, but Secretion (Urge) will do. More than nine feet tall, its polystyrene body is coated with thousands of dice. It looks like something out of Jurassic Park, or like a freaky pal of Jeff Koons’s Puppy. But it is disturbing as well as goofy. Every part of its body, starting with its two paws, seems to be moving in a different direction. The big, cocked-boxing-glove-shaped head seems malformed, and, without eyes, it appears to be growing without consciousness. Pretty much everything about this creature looks random and unmanageable and thus endowed with enormous power. Cragg’s sculptures are as infectiously confident and upbeat as ever, but they are also spinning out of control. They exclude nothing, not even delirium and madness.

Tone Poems