The Boston Phoenix
February 3 - 10, 2000

[Art Reviews]

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The most dangerous game

Samuel Bak proves himself the grand master of chess

by Jeffrey Gantz

samuel bak1 "Chess is like life," has been a byword of champions from Paul Morphy to Bobby Fischer (for whom it was more like "Chess is life"), and that may explain why the Royal Game, which emerged out of India some 1500 years ago, is now the world's most popular game. It was always a war game, staged between two opposing armies on a field of battle, but its staggering complexity (consider that the number of possible games exceeds the number of particles in the known universe) makes it a microcosm of our existence. And the variety of its pieces, with their class structure (from king to pawn -- but the pawn can become a queen) and different characteristics (the king is the sine qua non, but the queen has all the power), makes it a mirror of society. Chess has been mirrored in the arts, from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There to the Tim Rice Broadway musical, but in the paintings of Samuel Bak it finds its most serious aesthetic proponent ever. In the show that will open at the Pucker Gallery this Saturday, the game doesn't just continue, it grows and multiplies.

This isn't Bak's first confrontation with chess -- back in the early '70s he did a number of paintings, some of which are recorded in the 1991 volume Chess As Metaphor in the Art of Samuel Bak. Those paintings depicted chess as struggle -- hardly surprising from a survivor of the Vilna Ghetto who lost not only his father to the Nazis but his people, his culture, his entire world. Yet his latest works, as recorded in the new volume The Game Continues: Chess in the Art of Samuel Bak and in the smaller exhibition catalogue of the same name (and if you can't afford a painting, these publications, with their superb reproductions, are treasurable substitutes), seem even more metaphorical, opening the game to the history of art and philosophy, creating novel-like characters, fashioning recurrent, Wagner-like motifs, posing theological and cosmological questions. His chess is every bit as holy, and horrifying, as the world we live in.

Bak sets out his playing surface in his 1998 painting Introduction to the Game (not part of the show -- some smart collector has already snapped it up -- but you'll find it in the Game Continues book), where three figures huddle in what might be a bomb shelter, with cloth-draped chessboards standing on end like paintings in an artist's studio. The bearded Jewish sage, familiar from Bak paintings like Symposium and From Generation to Generation, is hoodwinked. A soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder (familiar from Angels and Their Guardians and Nuremberg Elegie) holds up a pawn, as if to acquaint him with the pieces. And between them the camouflage-helmeted figure from Elegy II waves a banner (or is it a white flag?), as if to signal the start of play. It is, of course, preposterous that they should be playing a war game in the middle of a war zone. Or is Bak trying to tell us that chess somehow transcends war?

What's certain is that his chess paintings transcend chess. Never mind that you can't tell a King's Indian Saemisch from a Leningrad Dutch, or that you think "fianchetto" is some pasta dish Marianne Esposito whips up on Ciao Italia: "The Game Continues" is about the game of life. Bak's chessboards, like the board of our existence, are cracked and crumbling; the squares -- usually great blocks of sculptor's stone -- tilt and careen like Titanic. The pieces are often as not out of play (i.e., dead); even when they're in action, they're not pitted against each other so much as united against a common unseen foe (God?). They have the look of marble, or hardwood, but they've been chewed on, gnawed at; they're crumbling into dust. The pawns sometimes appear with hollowed-out heads, as if they were nothing but hazelnut shells, or they might be split vertically to look like pear halves (pears are to Bak what apples are to Genesis). Pawns and knights turn up as two-dimensional plywood, like the Warsaw Ghetto child in Bak's Exits series. There's a recurrent pulley that might be hoisting giant pieces into place, like the apparatus that lifted medieval knights onto their horses; but it also looks like a gibbet -- in this game pieces aren't just captured, they're put to a shameful death. The knights often appear on wheels, like the Trojan horse symbols of deceit. We see underground structures with arched openings, like the brick oven in the story of Hansel and Gretel -- or the Holocaust. The tin-winged messenger angels from so many Bak paintings (Music for the Rainbow Angel, The Eternal Return) turn up, but with no good news. The board squares sometimes appear as dice, as if to suggest it's all a crap shoot. Over everything fly those white banners recalling the white drapery that flutters about Christ in Renaissance crucifixions.

samuel bak2 In Group Power (1998, like all the paintings in the catalogue), the banner is green-tinged and fluttering over a midnight-blue sky; there's another, bluer banner below it. Everything's a mess, with fissured boards and pieces in the foreground. A surreal (Heavenly?) light illuminates the white pieces huddled at the left, but they exercise no power whatsoever. On the right, posed against ominously bright storm clouds, there are intimations of the black pieces; the knight seems to be laughing.

Study for Greatness suggests only the greatness of King Lear. A giant pawn is held in place by the pulley/gibbet, and most of the body has been eaten away. Behind loom other pawns, chipped, cracked, one a head atop a rubble of chessboards, all waiting their turn. In Passing Thoughts, pawns float atop stone clouds (fragments from the Tablets of the Law?) while once-sacred mountains loom in the distance and down below the tectonic chess board turns into cubes of dice, as rule gives way to chance. Second Revolution in the Middle Game finds the board opening up like the trapdoor in Don Giovanni and pawns beginning a hellish descent. To the left a group of captured pawns huddle; in the distance, against a blood-red sky, the smoke rises from crematorium fires.

Stormy Passing sees the banner turn into the ragged sail of a boat that's being tossed on a sea of wavelike chessboard squares in which pawns float helplessly. The pieces on board ship seem scarcely better off -- is Bak alluding to Rembrandt's Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee? Another sea painting, On the Edge, looks like the end of civilization. Here the chessboard is a pier, with a giant rook/castle at the corner, that's lashed by an dark, unforgiving sea. Two pawns stand forlorn in that rook corner, with no place to go. In the right foreground there's another rook/castle, this one with a pulley/gibbet, and on the rocks and in the water giant pawns have washed up -- or crashed from the gallows.

Arch of Triumph and Small Arch show a single pawn confronting a crumbling arch whose opening is a pawn/keyhole shape -- as if both commemorating dead pawns and suggesting that the pawn is some kind of key (Philidor's "Pawns are the soul of chess"). Sheltering Myths finds the stone chessboard crumbling and the pieces sheltering in its recesses, like the ghetto inhabitants of One of Many and The Eve of Sabbath and the Alone series. Dead pieces dot the landscape like the remnants of Caspar David Friedrich's Arctic Shipwreck; on the horizon, a king and queen approach. The four steeds of Horsepower, each with a pawn rider, charge into a lurid red light like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The Valley of the Kings is no royal Egyptian burial area but a kind of junkyard to which battered and broken kings have been consigned. Underneath the rickety table on which they sit, pawns cluster in what looks like a brick oven -- or worse. It's horrific, but the real nightmare here is the triptych Messengers of Lost Prophecies. The messenger in the left panel has metal wings and a strange sort of Roman helmet/oil lamp for a head, with a pawn where the tongue should be (Red Knight has a similar odd, Bosch-like figure). On the right there's giant broken pawn, also winged, that's been hoisted/hanged. In the middle the head of a large pawn can be seen inside what could be a confessional, or a bank window, or a crematorium. Outside, other pawns, some upright, some not, await their fate.

samuel bak3 Group Portrait holds the place that Return to Paradise did in Bak's 1998 Pucker show. Overhead the banner hangs from a mast, but there's no sign of water. The pieces, all different colors, look like Holocaust survivors: the queen appears only as a plywood cutout; one bishop is represented by a tin miter; a pawn travels on a wheeled cart; some shards of dice have infiltrated. These troops are beaten but they haven't quit -- they just don't know who they're fighting anymore.

Chess is, indeed, like life, and Group Portrait is Samuel Bak's family of humankind. Like Pieter Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch, he cuts the horror of his insight with the seductiveness of his colors (gorgeous warm reds and yellows and greens and blues); then he throws in a generous dollop of Botticelli's idealism. It's truth that sears and salves and sets us all free.