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."

THIRD, CLIMAX TO AN EVOLUTION: CARO & OLITSKI

September 29, 2017

Tags: Anthony Caro, Jules Olitski

Installation view of "Caro & Olitski: 1965-1968, Painted Sculptures and the Bennington Sprays," Paul Kasmin Gallery, 515 West 27th Street, through October 25. Photo by: Christopher Stach/Paul Kasmin Gallery.
Paul Kasmin, son of the Englishman John (aka “Kas”), is nothing if not ambitious. According to the Wikipedia “stub” dedicated to his gallery, he opened first in SoHo in 1989, but really only in the last few years has he become a major player in Chelsea, with three venues & a stimulating mix of historic & contemporary artists.

This fall, all three of his venues opened the season with what can be read as a progression tracing the history of modernism in America, and thereby hopefully serving to nail down color-field painting and sculpture as its logical apogee.

EARLIEST IN THE PROGRESSION

At 297 Tenth Avenue, the first show in the progression, as curated by Priscilla Vail Caldwell, is called “The Enormity of the Possible” (through October 28).

It features late work by seminal modernists of the early 20th century (including John Marin, Stuart Davis, Oscar Bluemner, & Arthur Dove) as well as earlier (in fact, very early) work by abstract expressionists (Lee Krasner, Pollock & Rothko).

According to the press release, there’s much documentation of how the juniors in this grouping experienced “direct engagement” with their seniors.

Silly me! I was brought up to believe that the abstract expressionists were much more interested in learning from Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Mondrian, Matta and other Europeans, and measured themselves against them, not their fellow Americans.

Also I’m so old-fashioned that I am more interested in early work by the early moderns and mature work by the abstract expressionists, not vice versa.

That said, I hasten to add that the works chosen by Curator Caldwell go together very nicely and make a most harmonious ensemble. In it, landscape (as practiced additionally by Charles Burchfield & Milton Avery) and still life (as practiced by Charles Demuth & Helen Torr) share the honors with modest abstraction and semi-abstracts.

Both “M. Rothkowitz’ & Pollock are seen with bucolic landscapes from the 1930s. The latter contributes a wizard little vista of Martha’s Vineyard, a happy souvenir of summer holidays with Tom & Rita Benton.

His future bride (whose estate is represented by Kasmin) is seen in lively form with a cubist abstraction dating from when she was studying with Hofmann, “”Seated Figure” (1938-39).

MIDDLE DISTANCE: MOTHERWELL

Moving right along, the second show in this progression, at Kasmin’s 293 Tenth Avenue space, is “Robert Motherwell: Early Paintings” (through October 28).

I was eager to see this show, having previously learned what an exciting painter Motherwell could be before he started his “Elegies to the Spanish Republic” from “Robert Motherwell: The East Hampton Years, 1947-52.”

This marvelous exhibition was staged in 2014 at the Guild Hall in East Hampton by Phyllis Tuchman. At Kasmin I was looking forward to more of the same, but (as I am learning the hard way) one can only expect so much in the way of historical shows from galleries as opposed to museums.

For one thing, the point of most gallery shows is to put on view works that viewers can buy as opposed to loans from museums (Tuchman’s show had a number of loans).

Furthermore, if I had to hazard a guess, it would be that Tuchman’s show set off a feeding frenzy among all those art-world speculators we now have instead of collectors.

Motherwell (along with Hofmann & Gottlieb) are, from what I can tell, still what a securities analyst might call “undervalued” (by comparison with Pollock or de Kooning, for example).

And early Motherwells must have been even more spectacularly undervalued, but now – at any rate, to judge from the Kasmin show – top-quality early Motherwells are a lot harder to come by.

This, at any rate, was what hit me over the head at the opening reception. I strolled into the gallery and came away with a violently negative impression.

HOWEVER….

When I went back, to look more carefully & take notes, I decided the show was better than I had at first thought. At any rate, it has at least five paintings that I’d want to hang on my wall if a) I had the money b) I was a Motherwell collector.

Still, two of them are really small and two of them are only a little bit larger. Anyway, here they are:

First, in the front gallery, I saw a lovely but little “Line Figure in Green” (1945), 16 x 12, oil and sand on canvas board. This is a geometric abstraction but with ovals as well as triangles – overtones of surrealist biomorphism blended with rectilinear cubism…and showing Motherwell’s early gift for colors, with purple ovals and brown triangles.

Second, and hanging quite close to the first, was another small but appealing 1945 “Untitled, “with the same media and ground and measuring 12 x 9. This one employs mauve, yellow, black and white, with geometric forms but whirling in a circle.

Third, again quite near to my second choice, was the most prepossessing in this gallery, a medium-sized “Untitled” (ca. 1950), oil on Masonite, 30 x 38. This one has vertical bars and claw-like figures, with a Matissean palette: brown, white, black and blue.

In the back gallery are two more. The most striking one is “Orange Personage” (1947), a tall and large one (53½ x 35½), done with oil and sand on canvas and with its golden-orange field given an additional glow by its gold-painted frame.

The tall “personage” streaking up the center of the canvas seems to be composed of several egg-like segments but also enjoying stick-like hands, everything outlined but with a tiny “head” up top. The picture itself is beguiling though maybe the golden frame over-dramatizes its color scheme a bit???

And finally, another “Untitled” (1951), with oil and charcoal on Masonite – reasonably sized (30 x 24), with a squiggly orange shape on an ochre field with white accents –also very appealing…

AND FINALLY…THE CLIMAX

We get to the most consistently excellent show of the three (in my admittedly biased opinion). On view in the Kasmin space at 515 West 27th Street, it is “Caro & Olitski: 1965-1968, Painted Sculptures and the Bennington Sprays” (through October 25th).

It is also a great advertisement for being a little adventurous & investing in (relatively) recent art, as opposed to going back to the firmly-established first 2/3 of the 20th century.

Admittedly, the work Caro & Olitski work on view is about half-a-century old, but it is still controversial, to judge from both the printed and oral responses to the John Hoyland show (to be discussed in a separate entry).

To me, these responses were evidence (if such evidence were needed) that (to a small degree) Caro in the ‘60s, and (more especially) color-field painting during this same decade, were more genuinely radical than any of the contemporary work that was already getting so much more publicity in the 60s, and has continued to get it since – pop, op, kinetic, minimal, conceptual, process, and the rest of the pomonian bag.

The ‘60s was a period when a lot of new lookers and new spenders were flocking into the art market, and people like that mostly do seem to like to latch onto the fundamentally familiar. What all but the most inspired members of this flock had difficulty with was responding to the unfamiliar.

I like to think that this may be changing, for certainly this show is extraordinarily beautiful, and deserves all the attention that those with eyes to see can bestow on it. It begins with three good-sized, commanding and wondrously colored steel sculptures by Anthony Caro commanding the central open space of the gallery.

The lean and hungry, ground-hugging dark “Green Sleeper” (1965), is closest to the entrance, and the most modestly scaled sculpture (only 2 feet high). Next, in the middle distance, stands the quirky, mustard-colored “Trefoil” (1968). At its tallest (narrow) point it stands 7 feet tall, but it really centers around a lower series of thin sprout-like forms.

At the back of the principal gallery space stands the most massive and radically-tinted “Prima Luce” (1966), with heavy steel beams towering upward on an angle to another and more persuasive peak of 7 feet. Its color, radiant chartreuse, contrasts vividly but also harmonizes with the delicate but equally domineering pink cloudlike hues of the large and magnificent Jules Olitski spray painting hung just behind it.

Facing the entrance and surrounded by five of its companions, this canvas has an appropriately kingly title, “Tut Pink” (1965). But it would be hard for me, if not impossible, to choose any one of these six as being more accomplished than the others.

All have at first one dominant color, but on closer inspection, all have traces of other, almost hidden colors to complement that original one.

“Revery” (1965), for example, which hangs to the left of “Tut Pink” and at right angles to it, is mostly distinguished by clouds of lime and olive green, but it has very narrow strips of blue and red paint around its edges.

“Tranquil Anatomy” (1965), which hangs to the right of “Tut Pink” and facing “Revery,” is overwhelmingly deep blue, but barely visible underneath this sea of blue is underpainting, maddeningly difficult to characterize.

And so it goes, as well, with the other three awesome paintings in this space, “Pink Hoodoo”(1965), “Wisteria” (1966), and “Flame Out” (1965). But another surprise awaits at the very back of the gallery, for hidden away behind the partition upon which “Pink Tut” hangs is another slice of gallery space.

Here is where “Bem One” (1968), hangs -- the only horizontal painting in the show, and a conservative medium tart orange clear across its startling11-foot width.

At the opening, I chanced across a veteran gallery-goer (who is also a master in his own right) admiring “Bem One.”. He was exulting over how radical it must have seemed when it was first displayed – “Who could believe that this was really a painting!” he exclaimed (or words to that effect).