Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 5-7 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard-copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

A TALE OF TWO BOROUGHS

May 25, 2017

Tags: Dana Gordon, William Gropper, Fran Kornfeld, Willard Boepple, Eleanor Steinadler, Hofmann, Miró

Joan Miró, "Femmes au bord du lac à la surface irisée par le passage d’un cygne (Women at the Edge of the Lake Made Iridescent by the Passage of a Swan)," Palma de Mallorca, May 14, 1941. Gouache and oil wash on paper, 18 1/8 x 15 inches (46 x 38 cm). Private Collection. © 2017 Successió Miró / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.
I suffer from anti-snob snobbery. I fight it as some shows & venues have good art despite being chic. Brooklyn additionally irks me because our mayor, Bill de Blasio, boasts of being a Brooklynite and wouldn’t move into Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s elegant official residence in Manhattan, for donkey’s years. Here, however, I will report on five Brooklyn shows and two in Manhattan. What do they prove? We shall see.

DANA GORDON AT SIDESHOW: KENOPHOBIA

My quest began in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I first called on Sideshow, which has had many fine exhibitions in the past. This time, the show was “Dana Gordon, New Painting, 2015-2017” (through June 4).

A native of Boston, Gordon started out (according his website) working as a studio assistant to Tony Smith & George Sugarman, so perhaps it is no surprise that much of his recent work (as illustrated online) has been hard-edged geometric abstraction, intricately organized and brightly colored.

His name was familiar enough to me so that I’ve twice listed him in my reviews of Sideshow’s annual “Nation” shows – but only in my list of artists that (I said) were so well known that I didn’t need to discuss their work further.

And it is only because he is a well-established artist that I felt it incumbent to review his work, even if I might not like it. Although I've given negative reviews to a lot of well-known figures before now, I don't offer negative opinions of beginners or minor figures.

As I see it, such lesser artists have enough to worry about without me landing on them, nor is any other artist likely to try and follow in their footsteps. On the other hand, if it's a major figure who has had a lot of positive reviews, I may feel inclined to differ with popular taste and point out the problems I see.

So a negative review of mine can be read as a backhanded compliment.

Gordon, I have concluded, falls midway between the most popular abstract artists I've panned and those hardy perfectionists whose work I am normally inclined to like. He participated in the Triangle Artists’ Workshop in 1988 (when Anthony Caro was still associated with it) and was included in “What Only Paint Can Do,” a show organized by Karen Wilkin in 2012 and staged (if I remember correctly) in a Triangle gallery in Dumbo.

Still, when I saw this Wilkin show, nothing in it really grabbed me. One or two works by more familiar names were better than the rest, but there was also a lot of work by people I didn't relate to.

Wilkin has an enviable reputation as a champion for color-field painting and sculpture, but since Caro bowed out of Triangle, and especially after its annual workshop moved to Brooklyn, its open days began to contain a good deal of art that I felt no kinship with, and almost none that I really liked (though I must confess that I've kind of lost track of Triangle in recent years).

In preparation for Gordon's current show, he emailed me rapturous excerpts from reviews by other critics, including James Panero & Hilton Kramer, both of the New Criterion, and Helen A. Harrison, today best known as director of the Pollock-Krasner House & Study Center, but also a longtime reviewer for the Long Island edition of the Sunday New York Times (where her write-up of a Gordon show at Adelphi University appeared in 1994).

From what I've read, Panero tends to have better taste than, say, Peter Schjeldahl or Holland Cotter, and the same could have been said of Kramer (when he was alive), but I admit, I was still a tad turned off by these emails--just as I tend to be an anti-snob, I tend to be turned off by a hard sell.

I do respect Harrison, so -- largely on the strength of the quote by her -- I decided that I needed to see this latest show of Gordon's.

Sad to say, when I got there, I was disappointed. Returning to restudy Gordon online (including reproductions of earlier work and the entire Harrison review) I conclude that this artist’s work has varied widely over the years, so that what all these other critics have seen differs from what I saw. (The illustration that accompanies the Harrison review, for example, looks like nothing in the current show.)

The current exhibition is based on geometric abstraction, but it has apparently evolved a long way from the earlier images I found online, and in a seemingly less disciplined, and certainly more painterly direction.

Every canvas at Sideshow had quantities of frantic, overlaid and disorganized patchworks of squares, discs, smears and Pollockian drips. It was too much for me, since I tend to shy away from what the Romans called “horror vacui” and the Greeks called “kenophobia” (fear of empty spaces). Being painterly doesn't have to mean abandoning structure altogether.

I was particularly turned off by the Pollockian drips. Gordon’s color sense is pretty good but I am so sick of those Pollockian drips. Sure, they were radical and therefore exciting when Jackson himself employed them, but that was 70 years ago and so many artists have imitated him since that it’s become a cliché.

WILLIAM GROPPER AT FIGUREWORKS: BITE

Moseying on down Bedford Avenue, I stopped in on North 6th Street to Figureworks, which -- in an amazingly timely manner -- is featuring “William Gropper: The Senate” (through June 4). I’ve known about Gropper (1897 – 1977) since I worked on my dissertation, which dealt with paintings exhibited and discussed in New York in the 1940s.

Gropper, who had already attained fame in the ‘20s and ‘30s as a political cartoonist, lithographer and muralist, was known mainly in the ‘40s for his paintings, which he exhibited at ACA.

Like Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood and the rest of the so-called “social realists,” he was less radical and contentious in the ‘40s than he’d been in the ‘30s.

After all, we were at war, and the enemy abroad was more dangerous than our fellow Americans, venal as those Americans might be.

So, in the ‘40s, Gropper went in more for anti-Nazi propaganda and romantic historical subjects like Don Quixote, though in the ‘30s, he had famously castigated the capitalists in Washington with richly cutting caricatures, not least of those corrupt blowhards in the U.S. Senate.

Although the Gropper painting that I used for my dissertation was a flamboyant Don Quixote, his paintings of bloated figures & open mouths in the Senate from the ‘30s remained topmost in my memory, though I’d never seen any of them in the flesh. I hoped that I’d get this chance at Figureworks.

Once again, I was a tad disappointed. True, the show displays moderately-sized & handsomely colored lithographs of the U.S. Senate, but it’s the “Watergate Series” from the early 1970s.

Thus it shows senators primarily listening to Haldeman, Ehrlichman & Dean as opposed to spouting off themselves. And it’s very gentle, graceful work – too gentle for me.

Much better are the 6 black-and-white etchings, also on display though some are in a folder, not hung upon the walls. Each shows just a small number of senators, but with delicious grotesquerie.

Published by the venerable Associated American Artists, they are much smaller than the lithographs but were done earlier, in 1968. So they have a lot more bite – in fact, they are kind of wild.

Still, the oils from the 30s seem to have been even stronger, not because of the era’s politics but just because the artist himself was younger and stronger, still in his prime.

I guess I’ll have to wait for a Gropper museum retrospective to see some of those full-throated senators from the ‘30s. It may be asking too much of a small Brooklyn gallery to give us major historical art.

Still, considering the sights we see these days on Capitol Hill, such a retrospective might be timely. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as they say.

FRAN KORNFELD AT HOLLAND TUNNEL: PROBABLY VERY PRETTY.

On two separate days, I took in Williamsburg and Bushwick. Each was an all-day expedition from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where I live. Then and only then did I find in my mail an announcement for “Fran Kornfeld: Night Garden, an installation of handmade paper” at Holland Tunnel (through June 4).

Holland Tunnel is only a hop, skip & jump from Sideshow in Williamsburg, but it’s a long, long way from Tipperary, so I’m just going to say that, from the photo-collage on the announcement, it looks like Kornfeld is showing her attractive handmade-paper bouquets of color scattered over the inside walls of that neat white clapboard onetime plant shed which stands behind the residence of Paulien Lethen,the gallery's director.

As nearly as I can tell, this installation is similar to, and at least as, probably even prettier than the last Kornfeld installation I attended and reported upon, in my posting of March 26, 2013, so I hope you get to see it even if I don’t.

FROM BILLYBURG TO BUSHWICK

The Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, I have long known, is gentrified out of all recognition of its roots. Ken Craven, a friend of mine who died last year at the age of 90 or so, was raised there & recollected to me what a rough-and-tumble neighborhood it was when he was growing up in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Even as late as the 1990s, Williamsburg was still home to a lot of working-class Polish immigrants, and – from a real estate point of view – undervalued, which explains why Richard Timperio and other gallerist staked out territories there.

Now, of course, its main drag, Bedford Avenue, has been invaded by realtors advertising luxury apartments, and new condos themselves are springing up all over the place. This means that it is getting awfully pricey for the gallerists, and only a few relatively hardy ones are hanging in there.

Still, Williamsburg does have the feel of a village, and Bedford Avenue is like its main drag, with lots of eating places and boutiques and so on.

Five or six years ago, I began hearing that Bushwick, which is also in Brooklyn but further away from Manhattan on the L train, was the newest gallery hub (though more recently, I must admit, galleries in the more convenient Lower East Side of Manhattan seem to be getting more play).

However, in the last month or so, I received announcements of two shows in Bushwick, so I determined to check them out—not least because I had also heard that Bushwick too is undergoing gentrification, with artists and young professionals colonizing it -- turning lofts and warehouses into living spaces.

Well, you will never prove it by the route these two invitations led me to. Both required getting off at the Morgan Avenue station (which is technically in East Williamsburg but whose local gallerists prefer to advertise themselves as being in Bushwick).

STEINADLER AT FUCHS PROJECTS: EERIE CALM

One gallery, Fuchs Projects, was at 56 Bogart Street--right across the street from the subway station in what looked like a disused factory building. The gallery itself was in a relatively small space with paneled walls and looked like it had formerly been an office.

The show here was “Eleanor Steinadler: Constructive Engagement” (closed May 24). For a change, I was not disappointed (though conceivably because I was expecting less).

The show, by a Massachusetts painter-turned-photographer who originally received her art education in Berlin, consisted of two series of archival digital prints in color. One set measured 12 x 18 inches and the other, 24 x 36 inches.

Both portrayed building sites, abandoned ones in Truro MA and ones in the middle of construction in New York City.

The Truro series was the more subdued in color, with lots of grays and cream colors created by depicting sandy roads, dune grass, and pale blue skies. Their focal points were carefully and modestly centered.

Two of the best were “Abandoned Construction, Truro MA #3,” and “Abandoned Construction, Truro MA #22.” The former centered on three lonely gray trucks, seen from behind, and the latter, on an ancient wooden tugboat, perched high and dry.

The New York City images were brighter, with a lot of reds and yellows in carefully-placed hardhats and vests, together with rust-colored steel reinforcement bars to complement the grey cast concrete foundations. However, all these details ran right off the sides of the image, creating a cluttered & unfinished impression.

Both the Truro and the New York City pictures were pervaded by an eerie calm that put me a little in mind of Atget. But where in Truro, this calm seemed appropriate, it somehow just wasn’t in the New York pix.

In the latter, I wanted to see action, and bustling workmen, the sort of activity that makes life so interesting for sidewalk superintendents. But the only human figures were seen in the distance, so small that they became merely decorative accents.

The other gallery, Art 3, was at 109 Ingraham Street, which required walking down Bogart, making a right and then walking about three blocks along Ingraham – a journey that was in no way improved by the hot and humid weather.

The streets were lined mostly with boarded-up or closed warehouses and lofts, combined with junkyards, parking lots, an area housing giant concrete-mixers, and a few really cheap-looking residences. Really the back of beyond.

Nor did the scenery improve along the alternate route I took back to the subway. The only shop I saw a deli, while on the sidewalks were scattered the greatest quantities of broken and smashed glass I’ve seen.

I thought of how lucky I was to live in a neighborhood where the pavement litter was only likely to be bits of paper (plus cigarette butts outside bars catering to the young).

"ARTICULATE" AT ART 3: STAR TURN BY BOEPPLE

The show at Art 3 was “Articulate,” a group exhibition (closed May 21) and curated by David Cohen, editor of artcritical. The title was meant to suggest “at once fluency and separate parts,” and a full range of media was represented: sculpture, painting, drawing, printmaking, photomontage, video and so on.

The front part of the gallery was a medium-sized space, with an office for the gallerist and her furniture directly in back of this space, and a continuation of the show through a doorway at the back.

The “edgier” parts of the show were through this doorway at the back: work by Alain Kirili (b. 1946), Clytie Alexander (b. 1940) and Katherine Mangiardi (b. 1982).

The more “classic” work was in the front gallery, including work by Eve Aschheim (b. 1958), Diana Cooper (b.1964), Willard Boepple (b. 1945), James Hyde (b. 1958), Harriet Korman (b. 1947), and Jonathan Lasker (b.1948).

Everything worked together pretty well, I thought, and made a harmonious ensemble, but the star of the show was obviously Boepple. His contribution was “Red Tuxedo” (2016), a chest-high, red-painted sculpture made long bolts of bass wood that kind of reared back high and then plunged forward & down—or at least, that’s the impression it created for me.

Why it should have reminded me of Raymond Duchamp-Villon’s famous “Horse” (1914) I can’t say, but it did.

On my way back to the subway, I passed the only sign of gentrification that I saw in Bushwick (except for the two galleries). A woman with a chic little dog on a leash was greeting a tall, WASP-y man in Bermuda shorts (according to Wikipedia, most of the population in Bushwick is or was Latino).

From this exchange, one sentence floated out; “I saw it on your website!” Clearly, this was a pair of the computer-literate.

Thus endeth my report on the art scene in the borough of Brooklyn. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the borough itself, but I saw four shows of interesting & more or less contemporary art that I don’t think I could have seen in Manhattan.

ON TO MANHATTAN

Chelsea, to be sure, has all sorts of “new” art, but my journey for this column led to the Upper East Side, and those galleries where the dreaded DWM’s hold sway (“Dead White Males” to the uninitiated).

I say “dreaded” because these frequently sneered-at DWM’s can be so good that they make all the “edgy” art in Chelsea look not only second- but even third-rate by comparison.

How lucky I am that this is also my turf! Within walking distance of my pad are currently two magnificent exhibitions of first-class DWM’s.

HOFMANN AT YARES: RADIANCE

In the ominous (yes, ominous) shadow of Trump Tower, we have cascades of rich, harmonious color, combined with masterfully restrained composition, at Yares Art. The show is “Hans Hofmann – The Last Decade, Major Paintings: 1955-1965” (through July 1).

And it’s amazing – especially if you have never given yourself a chance to look at Hofmann’s paintings before.

Here 17 radiant canvases provide a road map through the evolution of this distinguished German-born abstract expressionist’s last ten years, when he was at the peak of his form (he died in New York in 1966 at the age of 85).

Earlier canvases like “The Ocean” (1957) and “Setting Sun” (1957) show the artist still working with free brush strokes that whip the shapes into loose free mélanges of color.

The latest canvases show a gradual trend toward those more disciplined, solid and straight-sided rectangles of paint that are known as Hofmann’s “slabs.” Indeed, “Proprie Moto” (1965), right by the entrance, is all slabs—and what a knockout it is!

In between are so many beauties that I despair of describing them all, but among those that I found especially ravishing was “The Golden Fleece” (1964), with a freely-daubed large area of thinned-out khaki in the center, enlivened by three small vertical “slabs” upon it –red, yellow and green—seemingly random but actually oh so carefully placed.

Also grand was “Pagliaccio” (1964) with monumentally thin and slightly thicker vertical fields of browns and deep reds, spiced by frisky little daubs and splats of green and yellow.

These are such happy pictures! All those brilliant colors come across like a full-throated cheer!

I can see why severely limited postmodernists have failed to credit Hofmann with the major role he so abundantly deserves. Because they themselves had such difficulty with abstraction, they have projected their anxiety onto artists like Pollock & Rothko, claiming for them all manner of existential anxiety– but there is no way that they can make Hofmann fit into this mindset.

This show has been made an homage to André Emmerich, who is said to have been an inspiration to his fellow gallerist, Reva Yares. She founded Yares’ parent gallery in Scottsdale AZ in 1964 while her son Dennis set up its primary offshoot in Santa Fe in 1991, which has been followed since last year by a further offshoot in New York.

True, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Emmerich’s first Hofmann show in 1967. And we can all be grateful that he continued to stage so many more Hofmann shows. But Emmerich was hardly Hofmann’s first gallerist.

In the 40s, he had been given shows by Peggy Guggenheim & Betty Parsons before he gravitated to Sam Kootz, another one of abstract expressionism’s early & daring dealers.

Kootz staged many Hofmann shows in the late 40s and the 1950s, when abstract expressionism was still considered the avant-garde. He closed his gallery in 1966. Although I imagine that Hofmann’s paintings were still selling at least reasonably well, Kootz also represented second-generation ab-exers like James Brooks, and – with the advent of pop – their sales were falling away to virtually nothing.

Kootz refused to go with the flow and take on pop-type artists – unlike Sidney Janis, for example. But he honored a promise he had made to Hofmann to keep his gallery open until Hofmann died.

MIRÓ AT ACQUAVELLA: MAGNIFIQUE

I have known for nearly five decades that Joan Miró (1893-1983) was great, ever since Bill Rubin featured him so prominently in “Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage” at MoMA in 1968. That summer, I did a whole “inside cover” on Miró for Time.

I have also known for three decades that Clement Greenberg admired Miró. When I wrote about Greenberg for Arts Magazine in 1983, I pointed out that in his first review for The Nation in 1941 he expressed the opinion that “the fate of our particular tradition of art depends on that into which abstract art develops.”

He cited three major artists whom, he indicated, were carrying on that tradition. The first was Miró, and although the others were Léger & Kandinsky, Miró got the best write-up.

Léger, said Greenberg, had become “an interior decorator,” and most of Kandinsky’s later works had become superficial, but Miró’s pictures “continue to excite. They may puzzle the layman, but they do not bore his eyes.”

The illustration I chose to illustrate this idea was Miró’s delicious “The Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers” (1941), a gouache and oil wash measuring only 18” x 15”, and owned by MoMA.

It’s a marvelous little painting, but not the only one of its kind. Rather, it is a “Constellation.” And this spring New Yorkers have been getting the opportunity to view both it and the rest of Miró’s unforgettable “Constellation” series -- 22 as they sprang from the artist’s brush, plus one in the form of a pochoir (sophisticated form of stencil print).

The show is at Acquavella, on deluxe East 79th Street (through May 26, alas – I feel terrible at not getting this posted sooner, but if you rush you can still make it). It is playing in tandem with a show at Pace on 57th Street of the “Constellations” sculptures created by Alexander Calder only a few years after Miró’s “Constellations (through June 30).

Neither series was initially known as “Constellations.” Neither artist was aware of the other’s work when they made theirs. True, they had been friends in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, but the two series were created on opposite sides of the Atlantic in the first half of the 1940s.

This was during World War II. Calder, as an American citizen, was snugly ensconced in a house in Connecticut where he had lived, off and on, since 1933. But Miró, a Spaniard who had been living in Paris, and was just as much opposed to the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, as he was to Adolf Hitler, was leading a hunted existence.

When Hitler invaded France, it seems, Miró was in Varengeville, a tiny town in northwest France on the English Channel. From there he fled to various places in Spain, winding up (for the most part) in Palma de Mallorca (on an island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain), and painting the “Constellations” as he went.

“I was very pessimistic,” he later wrote. “I felt that everything was lost. After the Nazi invasion of France and Franco’s victory, I was sure they wouldn’t let me go on painting, that I would only be able to go to the beach and draw in the sand or draw figures with the smoke from my cigarette.

“When I was painting the Constellations I had the genuine feeling that I was working in secret, but it was a liberation for me in that I stopped thinking about the tragedy all around me. While I was working, my suffering stopped….”

It’s a riveting story, but the pictures themselves underline his urgency with their savage, convulsive beauty. Some people think of Miró as a lightweight because of the sometimes whimsical nature of his little symbols and “personages,” but the intensity of the “Constellations” makes all these signs and symbols sing.

All the terse little black or brightly-colored gouache images are united by webs of black lines and repose gently on their paler fields of oil wash -- offering a dazzling display of dreamlike (surrealist) coherence mingled with inventiveness.

And this is so whether these image are of stars, moons, birds, mouths (with jagged teeth), cryptic symbols for female (and less often, male) genitalia, eyes (independently), concentric circles, spirals, shmoo-like animals with big, staring eyes in their heads….

…plus the occasional swan—as, for example, in the image that accompanies this review, and rejoices in the title of “Women at the Edge of the Lake Made Iridescent by the Passage of a Swan.” Question: Can you find the swan?

As for Manhattan vs. Brooklyn, when it comes to historical figures, there is just no competition (in this selection anyway). My hometown borough is the winner & still champ.