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Art: A look back at the art criticism of Edward J. Sozanski

Edward J. Sozanski, The Inquirer's art critic, who died Monday at 77, spent more than 30 years documenting Philadelphia's cultural transformation. His 6-foot-5 frame was easy to spot as he loped through the region's galleries and museums.

On Albert C. Barnes' collection: ". . . it's also a 'Gesamtkunstwerk,' a comprehensive artwork in itself."
On Albert C. Barnes' collection: ". . . it's also a 'Gesamtkunstwerk,' a comprehensive artwork in itself."Read more

Edward J. Sozanski, The Inquirer's art critic, who died Monday at 77, spent more than 30 years documenting Philadelphia's cultural transformation. His 6-foot-5 frame was easy to spot as he loped through the region's galleries and museums.

A Rhode Island native, he had worked in journalism all over the country before coming to The Inquirer in 1982. Assessing his first year in Philadelphia, he wrote, "I have not been startled here as often as I would like to have been nor have I felt the energy that is generated by a city where art is important and in ferment."

But he stayed, and over three decades observed ever-increasing energy, plenty of artistic ferment, and some startling developments. He was both a part of all that, and apart from it. As he once told Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, "I come here to look at the show, form my own thoughts, and share them with the reader." Period.

From a Sept. 26, 1982, review of a William Rush retrospective at the Pennsylvanian Academy of the Fine Arts:

If William Rush had worked in marble instead of wood, the history of American sculpture might have been set down somewhat differently. He might have been recognized earlier as the first American sculptor, and the Rush retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts might not seem like such a revelation.

It's unfortunate that the medium should influence how art should be evaluated, but the attitude persists: Sculptors who work in clay, a traditional craft material, are still likely to be seated by the critics with the potters and the weavers.

In Rush's time - the late 18th and early 19th centuries - marble and bronze were the noble sculptural media. Wood suggested craft and ornament, and Rush had made his reputation as a carver of ships' figureheads (the Greeks had sculpted in wood, but people seem to have forgotten that). So although his talent was recognized by his contemporaries, Charles Willson Peale among them, Rush was overshadowed after his death by the neoclassicists who had gone to Rome for inspiration.

It was 1937, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, before anyone attempted a survey of Rush's work, and the current exhibition at the academy is only his second retrospective. . . .

One of the wonderful things about the exhibition is that it recalls a time when art and life were less at odds with each other, when artists were more often celebrated for their achievements, and their audience was less ambivalent about the product of the artist's labor.

From an April 07, 2002, review of "Milk and Eggs" at the Brandywine River Museum.

Start with a fresh hen's egg - white or brown, it doesn't matter. Crack the egg gently, and carefully separate the yolk from the white, which you discard.

Holding the yolk gingerly by its fragile membrane, pierce it with a sharp implement and drain the contents into a cup. Add a like amount of distilled water and mix well.

No, you haven't stumbled into the Wednesday Food section. You're learning how to mix egg tempera pigments, used by famous artists since the Middle Ages, from Cimabue and Sandro Botticelli to Thomas Hart Benton and, most famously in our time, Andrew Wyeth.

You create classic tempera paints by combining the diluted egg yolk with powdered colors derived from minerals such as azurite (blue) or organic materials such as madder root (red). The yolk, rich in albumin, acts as a binder for the colors. When the tempera pigments dry, and they dry quickly, the painting's surface is like armor plate.

. . . Tempera is not an improvisational medium. It requires considerable conceptual planning and materials preparation, as well as methodical execution.

This is precisely why Wyeth prefers it to oil painting. Tempera connects him tangibly to his subjects.

"If you have a deep feeling for an object, there's no end to it," he explained during an interview. "You can go into the finest detail. It's not like [oil] paint, it becomes the texture of the grass, the soil and the rocks beneath."

. . . The tempera renaissance lost steam in the early 1950s, and although the medium hasn't died out, it never regained the popularity of the revival decades. But artistic fashion tends to be cyclical, so it's possible that artisanal fever will break out again some day as a protest against the proliferation of more ephemeral media art.

From a May 22, 2011, piece on the closing of the Barnes Foundation galleries in Merion to prepare for the 2012 move to the Parkway.

[The closing of the galleries on] July 3 won't initiate a simple geographical transition, a brief hiatus in operations as the fabled art collection is trucked eight miles across the city line.

The closing of Merion not only marks the end of an era, it also represents a radical transformation in the nature of the institution. In the process, the essential spirit of the place - its genius loci - and a good deal of Albert C. Barnes as well, will be left behind.

Barnes Parkway will resemble Barnes Merion in some respects. The 23 galleries are being replicated, so if you were led in blindfolded you wouldn't immediately notice a difference, except perhaps for ambient traffic noise.

. . . But the Replica (or, if you prefer, the Faux Barnes) will be a different institution, a museum with members instead of a school. No more strolls through the Merion arboretum . . . and, most important, no more historical context.

Why is this important? Because Barnes Merion is not only one of the world's greatest private art collections, it's also a Gesamtkunstwerk, a comprehensive artwork in itself.

Besides painting, sculpture, and decorative arts galore, Merion also embodies and evokes architecture, horticulture, educational philosophy, American social history, and the personality and taste of the founder.

It can't be relocated organically any more than a giant redwood can be cut off at the knees and stuck in a giant tub on the sidewalk.

From a March 1, 2009, review of "Cezanne and Beyond" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Paul Cezanne is back in town, sort of.

The Cezanne exhibition that set an attendance record at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1996 offered an elegantly straightforward history lesson.

. . . "Cezanne and Beyond," which opened at the Art Museum on Thursday, is not only a more complex and provocative exhibition, but also edifying in a different way. While Cezanne remains the focal point, the show is not really about his career, but about the reverberations of his aesthetic innovations through the 20th century.

The organizing concept is simple: Cezanne not only established a firm foundation for modern art (if such a foundation can be credited to one person), he also profoundly influenced several generations of artists, primarily painters, down to the present day.

Influence in this context doesn't mean only stylistic imitation but also fundamental thinking about how artists see, what art might be, and how it can be made.

. . . At its heart, the show reminds us that truly original art is the exception, that most artists through history have built on the work of predecessors. In some Asian and African cultures, that's considered to be a virtue. So Picasso, Braque, Matisse et al. hardly seem diminished by their debt to Cezanne.

He, on the other hand, emerges as the last Old Master, like Rembrandt and Raphael before him a prodigious creative force who continues to grow in stature with each passing generation.


Excerpts from Mr. Sozanski's columns appear on H6.