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Monet's Late Paintings

I took a much needed lunch break yesterday and traveled to the Gogosian Gallery on 21st Street to see Monet’s “late” paintings. I had read an article about the exhibition in the New York Times. The accompanying image was very different than the restrained, atmospheric paintings that have become a mainstay of so many museum collections. The pastel palette and soft focus haystacks, cathedrals and gardens always draw a crowd; they are pleasing and accessible. These late paintings are provocative and have rarely been seen by Monet’s admiring public. He had changed course; he was experimenting.

How does an artist (or writer), successful in his own lifetime, restore his creative energy without risking sales? This is the question that surfaced as I entered the well-appointed gallery with its capacious rooms. The paintings were not for sale, they were displayed to be seen, a receptionist explained, disingenuously, as every exhibition (especially one so generously reviewed) increases the value of the work.

A few of the paintings were familiar but most were not. Monet had transformed both his palette and his brushstroke. Both were looser, more layered, and expressive. Monet had become what we would call today an “abstract expressionist.” True, he was older, his eyesight was failing, and he was financially secure. But he was also contemplating the end of his life, the vertiginous unknown beyond. And this was brave and compelling.

The lily ponds, benign in earlier renderings, had become dark protected whirlpools spanned by a bridge in the near distance, then swirling away into an ominous tunnel under a bridge before exploding again into color and light. A dapple of sparkle in a lily head here, another there. These paintings are sublime.

It is my observation that the subject of most art is impermanence, that in the art we attempt to capture the present moment and hold it, knowing full well that before we have done so, it has disappeared. Out of this keen realization, which can give both pleasure and pain, we make our work.
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