The English geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, though an incorrigible commie pinko, was a tart and brilliant observer of life’s panoply. “My own suspicion,” he wrote, “is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
Haldane was thinking primarily of the natural world, where oddity, like Falstaff’s dishonesty, is “gross as a mountain, open, palpable.” But irremediable oddity intrudes in the intellectual and cultural world as well. How strange, for example, that I should have been reading Irving Kristol’s 1983 essay “Reflections of a Neoconservative” the same day that I visited the Adelson Galleries to see the extraordinary exhibition of Jacob Collins’s new paintings and drawings.
Perhaps, Kristol wrote, we were living “in one of those historic conjunctures when inherited categories of thought, dominant for some two hundred years now, have lost their creative vitality.” A perception — or maybe it was only an assumption — of some such global loss stood behind the great modernist upsurge in culture. We had to have Picasso or Duchamp (say) because no one who was anyone still found anything worth looking at in Ingres (say) or Veronese. The curious thing, though, was the rapidity with which all those rebellions against “inherited categories of thought” became themselves dominant categories of thought, just as imperious and conventional as the conventions they had sought to replace.
A burgeoning perception of that development has begun to challenge the challengers and unsettle the unsettlers. The salubrious result has been a simultaneous erosion and recovery: an erosion of those angst-ridden challenges to tradition, and a recovery — at least, the beginnings of a recovery — of precisely those canons of thought, feeling, and practice that just yesterday had been consigned to the dustbin of cultural history. Many of us, I suspect, will find ourselves coming to the same conclusions Kristol did: “that Jane Austen is a greater novelist than Proust or Joyce; that Raphael is a greater painter than Picasso; that T. S. Eliot’s later, Christian poetry is much superior to his earlier; that C. S. Lewis is a finer literary and cultural critic than Edmund Wilson; that Aristotle is more worthy of careful study than Marx; that Adam Smith makes a lot more economic sense than any economist since; that . . .” Well, you get the picture.
I thought about Kristol’s observations as I made my way through the Adelson Galleries and savored the thirty-odd pictures Jacob Collins had assembled for this exhibition. I was enthusiastic about an earlier exhibition of Collins’s work: “Collins,” I wrote in Axess magasin in 2007, “is part of a small but growing band of artists who are revolutionizing art by reinvigorating, reinhabiting the aesthetic canons and plastic techniques pioneered in the Renaissance and promulgated in the studios of the Beaux Arts.” What we are witnessing here is the formation of a powerful aesthetic-moral current, one that promises to sweep away a great deal of quasi-artistic rubbish and transform large precincts of public taste.
The embryo transformation I discerned is still under way and, alas, it has a long way to go, as anyone who looks around at the contemporary art world will acknowledge. But as this exhibition demonstrates, Jacob Collins has gone from strength to strength. Now in his late 40s, Collins has long been a fructifying force in contemporary art, through both his pedagogy (he has founded and presided over at least two art schools) and his practice. The label that is usually pinned on artists like Collins is “Classical Realism,” which is accurate enough, as far as it goes, which, the closer you look at his work, isn’t very far. Throughout his career, Collins has displayed astonishing technical prowess — that’s the “realism” — and his immersion in the Beaux Arts masters and the masters they studied is patent, which accounts for “classical.”
But there is something ghettoizing about the term “Classical Realism,” and the force and maturity of his new work renders it a pointlessly diminishing epithet. “Classical Realism” was a name someone proposed to describe those (mostly) young artists who set out to reinhabit certain traditional forms of painting and sculpture. Often, their ambition exceeded their accomplishment: You could see what they were trying to do, but you couldn’t help but register the distance between effort and success.
There is none of that hesitation in Collins’s new work. Here is work in which technical achievement and consummate taste unite in art that transcends the taxonomic labels of art-speak. This exhibition comprises a wide range of work: nudes, portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. Collins brings equal mastery to all. One of my favorite works is a breathtaking still life called Glasses (2011). At first glance it looks like a grisaille study. But look again. Those eyeglasses glint and wink with gold. And that spot of light on the tablecloth to the right is a veritable rainbow of refracted light. This is the real thing.
Traditionally in the West, portraiture occupied the highest spot in the artistic hierarchy because capturing the humanity of the human face and figure presented the greatest challenges to the artist, challenges that were as much moral and psychological as technical. Here, too, Jacob Collins demonstrates his mastery. There are a dozen portraits, drawings as well as oils, on view in this exhibition. Those familiar with Collins’s earlier work will not be surprised at the technical facility they exhibit. What is new, I think, is the easy confidence and steady concentration on the sitter’s character. Consider Anna Nina, an oil from 2011. There are plenty of artist’s touches to savor — the visual rhyming of those climbing tree branches with the wrinkles on the woman’s cheek, for example. But what grabs hold of you instantly is the quiet if sorrowful dignity of this remarkable face.
There are probably more artists — that is, more people calling themselves artists — per square inch in Manhattan today than there have been anywhere at any time in history. But as this remarkable work by Jacob Collins reminds us, there are artists and then there are artists. He belongs to the smaller, more select category. In 2007, I ended by predicting that you would be hearing a lot more about Jacob Collins in years to come. I’ll end now by repeating and enhancing that prediction: We won’t be the only ones who will hear about him. Our children and their children’s children will as well. This is work for the ages.
– Mr. Kimball is publisher of Encounter Books, and co-publisher and co-editor of The New Criterion.