The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art 
Ducking into the Ringling Museum of Art  during the opening night outdoor festivities, I was refreshed by the blast of cold air and taken aback by a very large, very green, abstract painting vaguely reminiscent of Willem de Kooning’s slashed women. It hung between two portraits: on the left, a woman in an iridescently painted gown; on the right, Joshua Reynold’s John Manners, Marquis of Granby (1766), depicted standing with his arm draped over his horse’s ass.
My companion, there to review the Arts Festival and remembering some advance publicity, attempted an explanation. The contemporary works were supposed to relate to the historical works adjacent to them. We figured the key here was the color, relating it to that shimmering gown. Surprise! Surprise! It was Lord Manners and his horse.
Louise Fishman Among the Old Masters, curated by Virginia Brilliant (snippets of whose rationale I overheard on a subsequent visit as she guided three women around the museum), “interjects” the artist’s “lean abstract paintings with muscular blocks of color” into six of the museum’s galleries, engaging in a dialog with their selected twins. It seemed to me not so much a conversation as a major disagreement.
This juxtaposition of the old and the new underscores the amount of craft entailed in producing old masters’ works. Although much of the Ringling’s collection doesn’t reach greatness, even the B work required more refined technique than Ms. Fishman’s abstract musings. Full disclosure: I’m an artist working in the realist tradition who loves the Italian Baroque and my idea of truly accomplished abstract art looks like that of Gerhardt Richter, a man who knows what to do with paint.
The Ringling had two other special exhibitions through which I wandered. One was Dangerous Women, billed as an examination of the 16th and 17th centuries’ fascination with “the exotically (and oftentimes meagerly) clad Biblical [sic] temptresses, Judith and Salome” who sometimes merged into one sword-wielding or -commanding beheader (read castrator) of men. Two paintings come immediately to mind: Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598) and Artemisia Gentileschi’s work of the same subject, Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612-13). While I didn’t expect to find either of them in this modest show, I was disappointed there were no reproductions. On the other hand, I appreciated the inclusion of Fede Galizia’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1596), a painting I knew about but had never seen. Of the two versions that exist of this work, I’d want to see this one first, for here the artist has signed her name on the sword; on the other, her signature appears on the tray holding the severed head, a very different message.
I had more to choose from in Venice in the Age of Canaletto where I made other new acquaintances and renewed contact with old ones. I’ve never been a big fan of Caneletto, nee Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697-1768), whose work seems too studio bound, lacking the quality of Venice’s unique light. Francesco Guardi (1712-1793), on the other hand, and even the lesser known Bernardo Bellotto (1721-1780)–both following on the heels of Canaletto–display the animation, color and chiaroscuro missing in the older painter’s works. Two pieces by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), a fresco, Allegory: Glory and Magnanimity of Princes (1757-61), transferred onto canvas and an oil on canvas modello for a larger work, The Miracle of the Holy House of Loreto, showcased his draftsmanship and colorito. Several fine paintings by Sabastiano Ricci (1659-1734), active much earlier than Canaletto, introduced me to his work.
Completing my peregrinations around the museum, I noted with excitement work such as Peter Paul Rubens’s The Triumph of Divine Love (c.1625), a huge masterpiece just inside one of the museum entrances off the courtyard. Showing the figure of Charity in all her Rubenesque voluptuousness surrounded by and holding babies, this one looks autograph. The rest of the large paintings from the commission for which this was painted suggest a busy workshop, upon which Rubens surely depended.
Most of the permanent collection in the Ringling Museum of Art  reflects a collector lacking a Bernard Berenson to guide his selections but who nonetheless occasionally got lucky. Currently in the process of developing a fund for acquisitions and limited by a small conservation department with a long to-do list, the museum (owned by the state of Florida and managed by Florida State University) has great potential. Ms. Brilliant and company are working on bringing the museum into the 21st century for which I wish them the best in these difficult economic times. One can never have too many museums of art.
The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art