A few months ago, when I was working on a writing project, I discovered that many 19th century art history texts were available, in their totality and for free, on Google Book Search. I had a good bit of fun poking around, reading Vasari here, Baedeker’s descriptions of art there.
When I started thinking about Puryear and perspective I thought I’d let Google Book Search help me go back in time…. which brings us to Paolo Uccello, described thusly in [Michael] Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravers, Biographical and Critical: Uccello “painted landscapes, with ruins and figures, which, from his knowledge of perspective, were designed with a correctness and intelligence unknown to his contemporaries.”
EH Gombrich shared Bryan’s assessment, writing that Uccello was so impressed by his own perspective-related discoveries that he stayed up night after night, trying to make his studies all the more realistic. Gombrich says Uccello’s work was substantially successful, that his efforts were not in vain. (Giorgio Vasari did not agree, writing in his Lives of the Artists: “It is certain, that the man who has not the needful endowments, let him labour as he may, can never effect those things to which another, having received the gift from nature, has attained without difficulty; and of this we have an example among the old masters in Paolo Uccello, who struggling against the natural bent of his faculties to make progress on a given path, went ever backwards instead.”)
Which brings us to Martin Puryear, who was fascinated by the Renaissance painters who developed perspective — and by the 20th century artists who abolished it. (I’ve been writing about this all week, see the bottom of this posts for links to background, previous posts.) One of the artists Puryear has cited as an influence is Uccello, who was brilliant, driven to madness, both, or, given Vasari’s reliability, neither. I think that his 1999 installation at Getty Center, That Profile, is straight out of Uccello.
The painting above, from 1450 and in the Met’s collection, has been variably determined to be by Uccello, the circle of Uccello, another unknown painter entirely, and my favorite art historical dodge: “attributed to Uccello,” with its implied parenthetical ‘but also maybe not.’ (At the moment the Met doesn’t consider it a Uccello.) While I don’t mean to suggest that Puryear cribbed directly from this painting, the shape of That Profile and the form of the woman’s head, presented in profile, is unmistakable. (If I knew how to use Photoshop better I’d overlay the two images, but I’m just a dumb writer.)
Several days ago I talked about how Puryear often mixed flatness and depth in individual works; this is one of them. As we can see from this sideview of the Getty sculpture, that’s pretty much what This Profile is all about: It presents a flat ‘face’ to Richard Meier’s Getty Center, but when viewed from the side it also recedes into space, toward the hills north of the Getty.