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."

THREE THAT MAKE A POINT

October 22, 2017

Tags: Sidney Tillim, Arlington Weithers, Ilya Bolotowsky

"The WPA" at the new Washburn Gallery in Chelsea (left to right: Pollock, Smith, Bolotowsky)
On view this month (and nearing the ends of their runs) are three newsworthy exhibitions that each make (or try to make) a point. They are: “ Deadeye Dick: Richard Bellamy and His Circle” at Peter Freeman, Inc. on Grand Street in SoHo (through October 28); “Liminal Space” at CCCADI on East 125th Street in Harlem (through October 26); and “The WPA” at Washburn on Tenth Avenue in Chelsea (through October 28).

“Deadeye Dick”

This is a prolonged homage to Richard Bellamy (1927—1998), who ran many different galleries, but is best known for his stewardship of the Green Gallery, which was located on 57th Street between 1960 and 1965.

It reminds me of those people who couldn’t stand pop in the early ‘60s, and used to say that it was all a plot on the part of Leo Castelli, who represented Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol & Roy Lichtenstein, while Bellamy gave initial uptown exposure to Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist & Tom Wesselman.

Bellamy may have matched or even exceeded Castelli in showcasing the minimal artists who came to the fore in the later ‘60s, like Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Donald Judd & Jo Baer, to say nothing of conceptualists like Bruce Nauman & Walter de Maria.

(As Bellamy seems to have taken a rather casual attitude toward sales, and closed the Green Gallery in1965, all of these artists had migrated elsewhere by the later ‘60s, when I was seeing their work for the first time -- not only to Castelli but also to Sidney Janis, Dwan and I think maybe also Bykert).

Anyway I think the point that this show is trying to make is that Bellamy was at least as important as, and maybe even more important than Castelli in putting on the map what was billed as “the new avant-garde” in the ‘60s and is now more generally known as the first (and/or second or third) waves of postmodernism.

I would say that if this is the kind of art you like, and Bellamy for this reason was a hero to you, this is an excellent show to see. As curated by Judith Stein, author of a biography of Bellamy, it is a huge show, with some 42 artists represented by 56 often-textbook works of art. Not least are the ten portraits of Bellamy and a couple of artworks that according to their titles are related to him.

Nor do I agree that postmodernism was a plot put over on an unsuspecting public by a dealer or even a cabal of dealers. Rather, I see it as symptom of the profound unease experienced by many artists and even more art lovers at their own inability to appreciate or respond to modernism as it existed in the 1950s in the form of abstract expressionism.

Dealers, being essentially businessmen and women (albeit with much more imagination and willingness to take risks than most businessmen and women) can only respond to the laws of supply and demand.

As to modernism as it existed in the ‘60s, there are practically no hints of it in this show. True, it does include work by Larry Poons & Dan Christensen, but before they became true modernists (Poons was still in his op-art phase and Christensen more of a minimalist). Neither example of their work is distinguished by its color.

Then there is a figure painting by Sidney Tillim (1925-2001) entitled “Who Among Us Really Knows? Or Greenberg’s Doubt” (1969). This is a relic of an era when it was still acceptable for postmodernists to refer to this distinguished critic with whimsy instead of a snarl.

“Liminal Space”

This group show features sixteen artists, most of whom might best be described as “postmodernist,” but the atmosphere here is a lot friendlier and warmer than it is at “Deadeye Dick.” That may be because it is an ode to creativity as it exists among both very senior and very junior artists in the larger Guyanese community, at home and abroad.

“CCCADI” stands for Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, and “Liminal Space” has as its official theme the sweeping narrative of migration.

Ever since the largely agricultural British colony of British Guiana gained its independence and became Guyana in 1966, a substantial number of its residents have been leaving in search of economic and/or educational opportunities.

Today, Guyana has a population of 750,000 at home and over 1,000,000 living in its diaspora. Here in New York, Guyanese are the fifth largest immigrant community, with a population of nearly 140,000, but not all the artists in this show were either born in Guyana or live in New York. .

Some were born in Guyana and now live abroad; some were born abroad, and now live in Guyana; some were born in Guyana and now live in Guyana, and some were born abroad to Guyanese parents and now live abroad.

(Evidently, “abroad” in this case means elsewhere in the Americas, as this show doesn’t include Frank Bowling. He is the most famous native of this country that I know of, but he is also more or less permanently ensconced in London at present. )

The real point of this show, it seems to me, is maybe more profound than its official topic of migration. I think it makes the point that wherever and whenever Guyanese artists have made art in this hemisphere, they are right in tune with popular & widespread international trends.

Of the sixteen artists represented, the eldest, Donald Locke, was born in 1930 and died in 2010 (he is represented by a semi-abstract mixed media collage done in 1998). The youngest is Dominique Hunter, born in 1987 (she is represented by a 24-piece semi-abstract digital photography collage, done in 2017).

Truth to tell, practically everything in this show could be described as “mixed-media” and/or photography, from “Demerara Song” (2017), the workmanlike wall piece contributed by Carl Hazlewood to Christie Neptune’s “Memories from Yonder” (2015), which combines still photography with a video.

What is in short supply is actual painting, except for “Bread Man” (2001), a hypnotic de-Chirico-like acrylic by Stanley Greaves, and “White Crossing” (2017), a huge (10’x17’) abstract by Arlington Weithers, in two registers (a row of cloudy white above, a row of luminous pale colors below).

With its pale and mystifying aura, “White Crossing” is one of my three favorite pieces in the show. It would have been far and away my one and only favorite if only it had been stretched instead of hung crumpled against the wall. Sam Gilliam has been hanging crumpled paintings for 50 years, and he can’t be the only one.

As it is, I give equal place to two essays in photography. One is “Devotion Point (Bushy Park, Parika, Essquibo, Guyana)” (2013), by Michael C. Lam, a crisp rendition of Hindu Jhandi flags flying on poles at a rocky point of land overlooking the sea. The other is a 10-minute video by Mason Richards entitled “The Sea Wall” (2015).

Not being a movie critic, I rarely try to evaluate videos, but this one was irresistible. As best I recall, its subject is a small boy being sent from Guyana to live with his mother elsewhere, but the plot didn’t matter so much to me as the sensitive handling of the every-day images on the screen -- life as it is lived in Guyana, with no pretentious attempts to titillate the viewer, just simple storytelling and reportage.

“The WPA”

Exhibiting Class A art from Jackson Pollock to David Smith and early Rothko, Joan Washburn has been the doyenne of 57th Street for longer than it’s possible to tell. But as gallery after gallery left that neighborhood for venues further downtown, her establishment had become increasingly isolated.

Finally, the coup de grâce came in the form of Donald Trump, whose election to the presidency, combined with the fact that he got nearly 3,000,000 fewer votes than his opponent, has made Trump Tower, at 57th and Fifth, a mecca for the chants of the un-enchanted.

Meanwhile, thanks to the adulation of the enchanted, teal estate values all around that area have soared, leading to yet more venerable buildings being torn down on 57th between 5th and the Avenue of the Americas, most likely to make way for yet more multi-story condos for billionaires to use as investment properties.

So – the Washburn gallery has moved, to 177 Tenth Avenue, between 20th and 21st Street. It may not have quite as many square feet as the uptown space, which consisted of two separate gallery spaces, but it is all one big space, which lends it a great deal of class.

And its inaugural show is equally classy – though indeed, it is a hymn to an exceedingly un-classy decade in American life, the 1930s and the Great Depression.

The point of the show, as its title indicates, is that government sponsorship of the arts is not necessarily bad – and indeed was exceedingly welcome during this period, when thousands of artists, writers, musicians and actors were facing severe economic hardship (along with millions of other Americans).

According to art historian Judith Zilczer, as quoted in the Washburn gallery catalogue to this show, “In August 1935, the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (FAP/WPA) was established under the aegis of Harry Hopkins…..the Federal Art Project employed more than five thousand American artists and craftsmen from 1935 until 1943.”

Of course, when government gets in the act, and the work being created is for the masses, not the classes, sometimes over-eager administrators with conservative notions about subject matter can get in the way. But, to judge from the works on view in this show, they didn’t succeed in stamping out avant-garde attitudes altogether.

To be sure, not all of the works on display in this show – while created by artists who were affiliated WITH the WPA – were necessarily created FOR the WPA. There is a delicious pink-and-brown David Smith oil from 1934, showing two (or three?) ultra-cubist nude women, that I suspect would never have been considered suitable for plebian consumption (one woman is pregnant and another is nude from the waist down).

The same may be said for the very curious 5-foot tall mosaic plaque created by Jackson Pollock sometime between 1938 and 1941, with cryptic monster-like humans embedded in its tesserae, to say nothing of the enchantingly abstract little “Untitled (Gouache No. 2)” (1941), by Lee Krasner, all neat & narrow up-and-down black lines mixed with curious but rectilinear shapes of color. But who’s counting?

To be sure, some of the other work in this show, by Reuben Kadish & Philip Guston, is closer to the "Mussolini Modern" style that dominated mural painting in the 1930s, in the U.S. no less than Italy (or the Soviet Union).

But even there, the elvish head of modernism intruded, as for example in the Ilya Bolotowsky "Mural for Williamsburg Housing Project." Originally conceived around 1936, its dancing forms dominate the present exhibition in the form of a full-scale reconstruction done in 1980, and measuring 6'10" x 17'. It all makes for a very handsome -- and truly esthetic -- ensemble.

Incidentally, this show is also dedicated to saving the NEA from the axe of our philistine POTUS, but I understand it has already been saved -- at least, as far as Congress is concerned.

This doesn't surprise me overly much, since buying art and getting tax breaks by donating it to museums, to say nothing of serving as museum trustees, all tend to be hobbies of the 1 percent anyway....but who knows whether that salvation will stick? Anything's possible these days....