Graydon Parrish’s ’Cycle of Terror’

[Posted 4:23 PM by James Panero]

Over the weekend I visited the New Britain Museum of American Art in order to catch a glimpse of the big kahuna of all Classical-Realist painting: Graydon Parrish’s new Cycle of Terror, an allegory of September 11 commissioned as a memorial for the museum. I briefly mentioned Parrish in my essay on Jacob Collins and the rise of Classical Realism in the September issue (which I also wrote about here). Today, Karen Michel interviewed me about the work for NPR. She’s working up a show on Parrish and the Classical Realists for either Morning Edition or All Things Considered. (That I may appear on NPR is of course a special delight to my Upper-West-Side mom, who’s always complaining that I only appear in "conserrrvative" venues).

Gregory Hedberg, the former director of New York Academy of Art, now a director at the blue-chip Hirschl and Adler gallery, identifies the rise of Classical Realism as part of the art world’s cyclical movement. I agree with that. Over one hundred fifty years ago, English Aestheticism, the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and later Symbolism reacted in an artistically significant way against naturalism, and provided us with some great art. Many of the classical realists today are similarly motivated by a return to "arts for art sake," to beauty, to myth, and by a desire to escape from the ugliness of politics and the marketplace through pure art. This I applaud.

Now, in a matter of just ten to fifteen years, through youthful energy and aggressive organization, Classical Realism has positioned itself to become a serious player in the future of art.

But beyond a mere style or technique, Classical Realism is a value system. For many, it borders on an evangelical faith. A sort of beaux-arts radicalism, it can be reactionary and thuggish: a sociological phenomenon; a form of "identity aesthetics."

Classical realism is ready to explode onto the art scene, but my guess is that it is going to break for the wrong reasons: as another postmodern curiosity, as an attack on modernism, and as another form of ideologically driven conceptual art requiring extensive wall labels, meaningful only to the initiated.

In Graydon Parrish, here we see Classical Realism employed for political ends. When your work is about the international AIDS crisis, or the attacks of September 11, your interests are suddenly far from "art for art’s sake."

The New Britain museum of American Art is a great institution, a sort of alternative Whitney Museum presenting its own history of American art. It is interesting to note that when the Whitney dumped their large regionalist mural Arts of the South: Arts of Life in America by Thomas Hart Benton, in the middle of the twentieth century, The New Britain Museum happily snapped it up. In hindsight, that was a wise move.

The New Britain Museum’s new painting by Graydon Parrish allegorizes the attacks on the World Trade Center as two weeping men in loincloths. To my eyes, Parrish’s work is yet another tragedy of 9/11. It is literal if not didactic. It is a machine for illustrating technical skill, far more than it is a moving memorial to September 11. When you visit New Britain, the museum front desk hands you a four-page cheat sheet on the meaning of all the allegories Parrish has built into his canvas. This document says things like "just to the right of the two central male figures are three female figures representing the three fates, or three mourning women. These figures are not wearing blindfolds. They are no longer innocent but completely knowing. An unusual aspect of these three fates is that two of them are handcuffed together, like the wives or husbands of many of the victims of 9/11 who suddenly found themselves ’bound’ to one another, to a new community of victims, and to their fate" And: "Note: also near the old man is a skull, a traditional symbol of tragedy and death."

This explanation is so dense, you need a cheat sheet for the cheat sheet. Any work of art that requires a four page explanation to "get it" is going to leave you pretty cold. This one left me frozen. "The cycle of terror and tragedy: September 11, 2001," is a pretty good painting that manages to be monumentally terrible.

It doesn’t help that its promoters are writing so hyperbolically about it.

The New Britain Museum handout reads: "In 1907, Picasso’s large panting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, broke most of the rules of nineteenth-century painting. Now, in 2006, this huge allegory by Parrish breaks most of the rules of twentieth-century art... The nature of Graydon Parrish’s rebellion is fundamental, like Picasso’s, but his true predecessors are Giotto, Caravaggio, David, and others who returned to realism after a period of more mannered art."

Similarly a few years ago, in his magazine American Arts Quarterly, James F. Cooper, with whom I am generally sympathetic, linked realism, illustration, and beauty, and virtue all together in a strange and, I have to believe, unexamined way. He wrote that the exclusion of Classical realists from the canon "suggests a deeper, even sinister prejudice, a deliberate and calculated blindness to beauty." Also: "the taste for realist art is concomitant with an increased appreciation for public virtue and a resurgence in spirituality." Also: "the return to realism suggests a return to the ’unseen truths’ of William James--transcendence, truth, God, spirituality, beauty, natural law, justice, virtue, order, harmony--which modernism has stripped away."

Really? Modernism stripped all of that away? The stridency can be amusing, but by linking virtue with only a certain style of art, it also strikes me as dangerous.

Classical realism can be something to get excited about. It may indeed become a necessary corrective to contemporary taste.

But just as certain forms of modernism have become a perversion of taste, my hope is that Classical Realism does not become an ideological embrace of tradition, with similarly dire results. In 1949, Alfred Barr warned us against "the only funicular up Parnassus"

Cooper complains that modernism "no longer has the power or conviction to move us, no matter how many computer manuals attempt to justify them to us."

But can’t the same thing be said of Graydon Parrish’s new work?