Spotlight: An Interview with Professor Dennis Geronimus

March 4, 2019
by Reshma Persaud

We are delighted to kick off a new season of The Grey Area with an exciting interview with Dennis Geronimus, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Art History at NYU. In addition to serving as professor and mentor to many students, including myself, he has authored numerous publications including Piero di Cosimo: Visions Beautiful and Strange (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2006) and the upcoming Jacopo da Pontormo: Overcoming Nature, Yale University Press.

Dennis has curated a number of shows, including the blockbuster, Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence [2015] which premiered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Uffizi in Florence. Dennis recently collaborated with our very own Lynn Gumpert, Director of the Grey Art Gallery, to curate Metamorphoses: Ovid According to Wally Reinhardt now on view at the Grey from January 9  April 6, 2019.

In this interview, Dennis reflects on the experience of curating the show with the artist present, his favorite works, and Renaissance artists inspired by Ovid. He also shares advice for the next generation of art historians and curators and a glimpse into his upcoming literary and curatorial projects.

-Reshma Persaud, Grey Art Gallery Intern

Behind the scenes of Metamaorphoses: Ovid According to Wally Reinhardt. From left to right: Dennis Geronimus, Lynn Gumpert, and Hannah Kate Simon, (June 2018)

Reshma Persaud: Can you walk us through how this show came to be, how you became involved?

Dennis Geronimus: Well, it was all a wonderful surprise. I entered the picture as recently as last winter, in January 2018. It was then that Lynn Gumpert, the Director of the Grey, got in touch with me and invited me to collaborate on the show. She knew that I was very interested in all things Ovidian – and she was certainly right! Needless to say, the two of us had a blast partnering on this exhibition, as it’s been an engrossing experience seeing the Metamorphoses reimagined and transformed through the eyes of a living, local artist. The exhibition is all the more gratifying as it is Wally Reinhardt’s first monographic show. It wasn’t until last May that I had the opportunity to meet Wally himself, at which time Lynn and I sat down with him for a wide-ranging conversation. This interview became part of the show’s accompanying catalogue, which I think is an excellent thing. Now, readers may not only admire Wally’s distinctive imagery but also hear his voice.

RP: What is/are your favorite work/s in the exhibition and what do you find most compelling about it/them?

DG: It’s almost impossible to pick a favorite. I have many. In any event, what I suspect will draw the public to Wally’s art is precisely its variety. Our exhibition features forty-nine works, drawn from all fifteen books of Ovid’s epic poem. The Pages span twenty-seven years of Wally’s career and it is important to note that the project is ongoing – it has become a constantly evolving project, without a definite end. Within this flow, Wally has experimented with different technical approaches, his media of choice changing from Prismacolor pencil, with some gouache, to predominantly gouache on Arches paper. Silver and gold gouache begin to make an appearance as well. The dimensions have grown, the Pages multiplying in number for each story. The smaller-scale Prismacolor Pages are riveting for their fine-grained detail and mosaic-like surfaces. I have a soft spot for the Polyphemus series, displayed on the final wall: a tale of a lovestruck and, here, lovable monster, told with particular tenderness by Wally. In other instances, we see Wally playing with formats in striking ways, as is the case with his Pluto and Proserpina and Orpheus and Eurydice pairings. Since both myths transport the reader (or, now, viewer) into the underworld, Wally’s shift to a vertical format is especially appropriate – also endowing Orpheus’s loss and longing with a mirroring effect. Eurydice becomes something of the bard’s spiritual “other half,” both so achingly close and so distant, forever out of reach. Perseus’s decapitation of the Minotaur, drawn from Book VIII of the Metamorphoses and arriving near the mid-point of our exhibition, is, to me, very characteristic of Wally’s artistic vision as a whole, as it combines violence with a touch of humor. And, finally, the ambitious Dionysus and Silenus “polyptychs,” one of which, with its signature red sail, begins the viewer’s entire odyssey on the title wall, are works of which I know Wally himself is very proud – and it’s a theme to which he’s returned time and again. In fact, if I had to choose a tutelary deity for Wally – if dogs and rabbits are his spirit animals – under whose sign he dreams and creates, it would be Dionysus!

Wally Reinhardt, Acis and Polyphemus, 1986. Prismacolor colored pencil and gouache on prepared Arches paper, 11 x 15 in. New York University Art Collection. Gift of the artist, 2018.2.7

RP: For those of us who are lucky enough to take a Renaissance survey with you, we recognize some of the familiar motifs and themes used in the show. Can you elaborate on Renaissance artists who also took inspiration from Ovid’s Metamorpheses, giving their own creative spin on the narrative?

DG: There are far too many to mention here – and this is, in fact, one of the topics that Lynn, Wally and I discussed in our interview, published in the catalogue. Certainly, Piero di Cosimo, the subject of my first book and subsequent show at the National Gallery of Art, is one! But there is a host of other masters who were engaged in a very lively dialogue with Ovid: in Italy alone, the Pollaiuolo brothers, Botticelli, Mantegna, Leonardo in his fascination with the myth of Leda and the Swan, Michelangelo in his exquisite presentation drawings, Jacopo Pontormo (the subject of my current book project) and his student Agnolo Bronzino, as well as of course Giovanni Bellini, Dosso Dossi, Giorgione, and Titian in the Veneto. The designs adorning all sorts of household objects ranging from wedding chests and tapestries to ivory combs and maiolica ware spring to mind as well. The common thread—and this very much extends to Wally, too—is that all of the artists I’ve mentioned did not merely illustrate ancient legends. They interpreted them in their own idiom, refashioning the fables in their own personal ways – putting their idiosyncratic spin on the visual telling and so making them their own. The Metamorphoses is a poem that strikes so many emotional chords, by turns brutal and lyrical, cacophonous and meditative. Listen, I wish I could assign it for every course that I teach, no matter the subject matter, because its content is universal. It is also a text of great generosity, openness – inviting a great many readings. The possibilities are as rich and varied as the stories and their protagonists themselves.

Piero di Cosimo, The Forest Fire, c.1495-1505. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Wally Reinhardt, Diana & Aceton, 2005. Watercolor, gouache, Prismacolor colored pencil, graphite, and tape on prepared Arches paper, 18 x 44 in. New York University Art Collection. Gift of the artist, 2018.2.43

RP: You’ve dedicated your career to studying the lives and oeuvre of artists, many of whom, lived centuries before us. Now in this show, the artist is present–what was that experience like for you?

DG: It was a special experience. As I mentioned earlier, this is an exhibition that has arrived late in Wally’s career. It is a recognition that was long due. Unlike Lynn, I don’t often have a chance to work with active artists. Most of my subjects have been dead for over five centuries! They live on through their visual legacy – and the words that we leave on the page about them. This often feels like a big and important responsibility. Working with – instead of just on – a living artist brings with it a different kind of responsibility, as I had the opportunity to hear from Wally directly about this working process, his inspiration, be it music, comics, everyday life in New York, his first visit to Rome and so on. In both cases, whether writing about Pontormo or Wally, you want to get it right! I’ve now had a chance to work with two contemporary artists in one year, something I’ve found very invigorating, as I’ve also written an introduction to the exhibition catalogue celebrating the work of a very interesting, gifted Danish artist, working in Tuscany, named Signe Kongsgaard Morgesen, whom I’ve known for many years. Both she and Wally privilege drawing, albeit it takes dramatically divergent forms in their works.

Wally Reinhardt and Dennis Geronimus (January 2019)

As it happens, my own experience in the visual arts began with making things rather than writing about them. From a very early age, as the son of two artists, all I did was draw and draw, if not from the imagination then illustrating whatever it was that I was reading or looking at, from Saint-Exupéry and Tolkien to novels by Alexandre Dumas … to Japanese ukiyo-e prints. So, having worked as often in the studio as I did in the library, before I began teaching, I felt like I could relate to Wally and, to some degree, communicate with him on the same wavelength – not only as an art historian, in other words, which can bring with it a certain distance or remove. I can only hope that Wally may have felt the same way!

RP: What advice do you have to offer for budding curators and art historians? What issues/topics do you wish to shed a light on through exhibitions?

DG: I suppose this goes back directly to my previous answer. I would say that the most important thing is to gain at least some experience in image-making. To experiment and wrestle with the trial-and-error process, to work with different kinds of supports, priming and painting or drawing media so as to better understand the potential and the limitations of each. What are the effects of black chalk as opposed to red, for example – of working on one particular type of paper in weight and grain versus another? The challenges and frustrations inherent in making an intaglio print. Failure is no less formative than the successes.

Wally Reinhardt, Drawing of Battle of Giants & Statues, 2009. Prismacolor colored pencil on prepared Arches paper, 18 x 55 in. New York University Art Collection. Gift of the artist, 2018.2.52

In the case of Wally’s production, the opacity of gouache as opposed to standard watercolor creates a particular visual effect, for instance, and I think it’s important for anyone looking at or writing about his Pages to be sensitive to these kinds of technical choices – certainly, his decision to begin working with the grid was another pivotal moment of transition in his creative process. My other piece of advice would be to read – and to read voraciously. And by this I don’t mean art history so much as fiction and poetry. All sorts of connections and symmetries begin to emerge, leading to new understandings – to say nothing of that all-important and all-too-often rare thing, empathy.

RP: Speaking of the future, what literary or curatorial contributions can we expect from you?

DG: Who knows? I have so many projects I’m interested in, both in progress and longer in the works. Chances are, though, it will be on something uncanny and strange! As you know from having taken a couple of courses with me, I’m a big believer that there is a great deal to be learned from what the exceptions, rather than the rule, can tell us about the art of any period or place. In my own work, I’ve always been drawn to the unusual. I would like to think that it’s this – and our shared love of storytelling and animals – that brought Wally and me together.

Reshma D. Persaud is a Masters Degree Candidate in Visual Arts Administration at NYU Steinhardt, and an intern at the Grey Art Gallery. She currently works for NYU Development and Alumni Relations. It is her ultimate goal to direct a non-profit organization in support of the study of women artists and exhibition of their works, combining her passion for art history and accumulated work experience.