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 GARLAND OF ABSTRACTS

December 6, 2017

Tags: Darcy Gerbarg, Jacqueline Humphries, Louise P. Sloane, Theodoros Stamos, Lee Krasner, Kenneth Noland

Kenneth Noland, Fete, 1959. Oil on canvas, 69 x 68.5 inche. Courtesy Yares Art.
The moment all the big spenders depart for Miami-Basel, New York galleries seem to blossom forth with abstracts. Or anyway, that’s how it was two years ago, and how it is again in 2017. So I have six shows to report on, three by juniors and three by seniors. The juniors are “Darcy Gerbarg” at Real + Art Chelsea (closed December 5); “Jacqueline Humphries” at Greene Naftali (through December 16); and “Louise P. Sloane: Selected Paintings 1977-2017” at Sideshow (through December 17). The seniors are “Theodoros Stamos (1922-1997)” at ACA (through December 23); Lee Krasner: The Umber Paintings, 1959-1962” at Paul Kasmin (through January 13); and Kenneth Noland: Circles, Early and Late” at Yares Art (through December 30).

GERBARG: PAINTINGS MADE BY COMPUTERS

I have never been all that interested in computer-generated art, but I once (very briefly) met Darcy Gerbarg in the company of Clement Greenberg, and any artist whom I know associated with him (even briefly) generates a desire to be open-minded in me.

Whether or not he would have liked this show is a question that I won’t answer. I can only record my own response.

Gerbarg has been making computer-assisted art for decades and this show -- in a real estate office 3 blocks from the Flatiron Building – featured 8 “paintings” created in this way. They were all brightly colored but with the shrill colors one also sees online, totally without the subtlety one might see, for example, in a painting by Helen Frankenthaler or Kenneth Noland.

Also, although some of the sweeps of color attempted to imitate brushstrokes they looked heavy & artificial by comparison with brushstrokes created the usual way.

However, as with all art shows, some of these paintings worked better than others. All of them had a lot of small, individual shapes in them, and when the canvases were too small, the shapes became overly busy.With the biggest canvases, the shapes were too spread out and the overall effect was too empty.

I thought the best of the 8 canvases were the two medium-sized ones right at the entrance (behind the entry door and over the receptionist’s desk). The two medium-sized ones at the very back of the office, on either side of the little dining table, were the next best. All four of these are perfectly decent pictures.

HUMPHRIES: PAINTINGS IMITATING COMPUTERS

Jacqueline Humphries may be this season’s It girl, just as Keltie Ferris & Jackie Saccaccio were the It girls of the 2016-2017 season. Anyway, that’s the way it looks, upon the basis of the ecstatic reviews of this show – from Artforum, The New Yorker & The New York Times -- photocopied & available in the ground-level space of the Greene Naftali Gallery.

(Its entrance, by the way, is not through the main entrance of 508 West 26th Street, but through the courtyard just to the left of that main entrance.)

Instead of making work on computers, Humphries has created 11 paintings by more conventional methods that, if I understand it correctly, seek to remind viewers of computer-generated printouts of programs or other cybernetically-related materials. This effect has been achieved by applying oil paint on linen though stencils with thousands of tiny cutout holes.

At least I think that is what one is supposed to be reminded of, though to my technologically-challenged eye these granular surfaces, from a normal distance, anyway, look more like the window screens that country folk use in summertime to keep out insects. Just call me a hick from the sticks.

Humphries’ pale, grid-like surfaces, then, are mostly bi-chromatic, with two light shades of the same color covering the entire surface. Often other additions appear on top of these surfaces – large, loose gestural scrawls in some cases, and/or ASCII characters and/or those cute little cartoons known as emoticons or emoji.

Frankly, the paintings that worked best for me were those that omitted the scrawls and the cartoon embellishments.

I’m not a fancier of minimalism per se but for me the best paintings in this show were two of the most minimal, almost all grey and white ones, entitled “sysysyo/” (2017) and “i\Ω..” (2017). I also liked the smaller, brushy grey and green untitled one (2017).

I might add that with the canvases I liked I was very much reminded of the work of Agnes Martin. At all events, on the basis of this show I see Humphries as a sort of 21st century Agnes Martin.

LOUISE P. SLOANE: ILLUMINATING EVOLUTION

Although I have reviewed Sloane’s work five times since I first became acquainted with it in 2011, I had been having trouble in recent years finding something fresh to say about it. That is because Sloane is an artist who evolves very slowly, with the result that all of these recent shows have tended to look very much the same.

This show is different. As organized by Richard Timperio, proprietor of Sideshow in Williamsburg, it combines 17 works done from 1977 to 2017. Even better, they are not hung in a chronological order, but juxtaposed in such a manner as to create maximum contrasts. The result is a panorama of wildly contrasting colors and compositions. Bravo!

In a general sort of way, one might say that Sloane has evolved from minimalist canvases in drab colors that remind me of 60s work by Brice Marden to brilliantly-colored and intricate geometric abstraction.

But even the early work is not that minimal, being often enlivened by cryptic markings, and even the late work utilizes somewhat biomorphic “writings” within the geometric format.

I found three paintings that I liked very much and three more that I also liked (if not quite as much). They weren’t all earlier – or all later.

Three that I liked (but not as much) were “Fated 4” (2016), a classic in Sloane’s current style, with a pink square in the center, and yellow with blue in the surrounding squares; “Where Have We Been” (1994), a transitional number in grayish pinks, with a combo of bead-like and cryptic markings; and “Gyrus” (1977), with pale gray on green, painted in rows of diagonals.

Three that I liked best were “Abstract Realities” (1994), a two-part grayish green, with cryptic but irregular markings; “Symbols Before My Eyes” (1996), a two-part, misty green painting with little circles and stick figures incised in it; and for a grand finale, “Purple Haze” (2017), a very big and striking essay in the artist’s current style, with magenta center, surrounded by blue and purple squares.

THEODOROS STAMOS: GREENBERG WAS WRONG

In 1948, when Clement Greenberg was relatively young, and still very much given to hyperbole, he reviewed the Whitney Annual and wrote really nasty things about “Altar,” the painting by Theodoros Stamos that had been given a place of honor in the first room of the show.

“Stamos,” he concluded, “has borrowed most of his style from the lower registers of William Baziotes, a serious and vastly superior artist.”

But later Greenberg changed his mind. I’m not sure when, but in his old age, he would tell anybody who would listen that he had been wrong, wrong, wrong about Stamos. I myself heard him say this several times.

I don’t think he was talking about personal behavior, either. Stamos came in for a lot of criticism for the role he played as an executor of the Rothko Estate in selling a consignment of paintings from it to Marlborough at cut-rate prices in exchange for them agreeing to represent him, but even that sort of behavior wouldn’t have affected Greenberg’s evaluation of Stamos’s paintings.

For him, what people did with their lives was one thing, and the quality of the art they made, another (a position that I wish more people today would adopt). Thus what he meant when he said he’d been wrong was that he now thought that Stamos’s paintings were a lot better than he had originally said “Altar” was.

We don’t hear much about Baziotes anymore. Possibly because he died young (at only 50 in 1963), possibly because his work was always more firmly rooted in surrealism than other leaders of first-generation abstract expressionism, and possibly because whatever heirs he may have had didn’t promote his estate, he hasn’t had any shows in Manhattan in decades.

Stamos, on the other hand, lived to a ripe age (dying at 74 in 1997) and his work became more abstract as he aged. Possibly because of this, his work has been shown in Manhattan galleries pretty regularly ever since I’ve been sweating up the sheets with this column.

I’ve attended shows either entirely of his work or including his work at Kouros and also at Hollis Taggart, but too much of the work at these exhibitions has been late work, and this late work mostly tends to be weaker.

The current show, at ACA, has a lot this late work, too, but more than half of the 28 paintings on the checklist are from the 1940s or the 1950s – Stamos in peak form. (It seems they come not from his estate but from that of one of his earliest collectors.)

And they are very appealing pictures, too, with their subdued greys, blacks and tans, and quasi-abstract shapes that are either vaguely biomorphic or else suggestive of Native American stick figures and designs.

Facing the entrance to the gallery is a fine row of eight oil paintings from the 1940s and the 1950s, but with more of an accent on abstraction than on imagery.

Standouts here are “Non-Objective” (1956) in light blues and grays, on the far left; “The Green Taper” (1940-48), built around what could be an enormous candle, on the far right; and “Old Sparta” (1951-52), near the center, a dark cavernous memory of the country from which the artist’s parents came (though he himself was born in Manhattan).

The most historic part of the show is the row of seven paintings hung in the alcove nearest to the receptionist’s desk. None are very big, several are quite small, and most are in watercolor or gouache, but all are full of magic, mood and mystery.

“Farewell” (1946), has squiggly life forms; “Untitled (Study for Granite Shore, 1946)” (1946), seems to offer an ancient Indian gourd with little people carved in its base; and “What Nature Does” (1946) affords a vista of softly-waving, underwater plants which for many viewers in the 1940s were the essence of the artist’s undertaking.

LEE KRASNER: WRESTLING WITH A GHOST

Now that the Robert Miller gallery has closed, the Lee Krasner estate has moved on to Paul Kasmin, and that gallery has responded handsomely by presenting a group of just five large “umber paintings” done by the artist between 1959 and 1962.

All are composed of large, flower-like swoops and swirls of dark brown, cream, black and white paint, on the “all-over” model that had been pioneered between 1947 and 1950 by Krasner’s late husband, Jackson Pollock.

Nor is this coincidence, for they were painted in the same studio--the little barn out back of the Pollock-Krasner house in Springs on Long Island (today, the house is the headquarters of the Pollock-Krasner House & Study Center).

Prior to Pollock’s death in 1956, Krasner (1908 – 1984) had worked in one of the three upstairs bedrooms in the house, and that space had been much smaller. By no coincidence, I would say, her paintings were smaller, and during the 1940s, in particular, that much more individual.

The 1940s was the period of her “Little Image” paintings, which were a highlight of the Jewish Museum’s joint presentation of Krasner and Norman Lewis in 2014.

I have seen few if any of the much-admired “collage paintings” that she exhibited in 1955 at the Stable gallery, but from the little I know, they were smaller and more individual, too.

With the “Umber Paintings,” especially “Moontide” (1961), the 11-foot-wide horizontal painting facing the entrance in the first gallery at Kasmin, it is very difficult not to see in it echoes of Pollock.

The swoops and swirls, the all-overness and above all, the scale and subdued palette all summon up memories of earlier paintings made by Krasner’s husband in that same studio, especially “Autumn Rhythm” (1950), the Met’s great Pollock with a palette that similarly summons up memories of falling leaves.

That said, not only “Moontide” but also three of the other four paintings at Kasmin are notable accomplishments. Their close-valued palette lends them dignity, and their scale summons up memories of a more generous era when it was permissible to paint big.

Moreover, Krasner’s facture differs radically from that of Pollock. She didn’t attempt to imitate his pourings; instead, she relied primarily on vigorous brushwork.

“Moontide” has a frieze-like composition, with regularly repeated shell- or wave-like forms. They are notable for their regularity, even to the point of suggesting a row of dancing forms.

Good as it is, though, I found “Fecundity” (1960) more individual, not least because it’s a vertical, seven feet high. It has large, upward-sweeping arcs or ovals, and a brushy quality. Some viewers may want to perceive a standing figure in it, though I had more associations with large, palm-tree-like leaves.

The two other paintings that I thought came off really well are “Seeded” (1960), a darker painting with scattered ovals, and “Assault on the Solar Plexus” (1961), with more large, piled up palm-tree leaves.

NOLAND: KING OF THE CIRCLES

Back between 1959 and 1962, the paintings being made by Kenneth Noland (1924-2010) with concentric circles were colloquially known as “targets” (nor did it bother anybody that Jasper Johns made “targets” too). And what a jolly world Noland’s targets helped to create, along with the paintings by Morris Louis & Helen Frankenthaler!

Not long ago, I ran into a lady who used to work at the André Emmerich gallery between 1959 and 1962. In those days, it was on Madison in the 60s, and she told me how those three artists, all in peak form, were represented by Emmerich; moreover, they were his stars.

When the two boys were up visiting from Washington, this lady said, they used to go out with Frankenthaler for long gabby lunches at the elegant restaurants in the neighborhood.

Sometimes, they would be joined by David Smith, down visiting from Bolton Landing. When that happened, this lady (who was still very young) would be invited to join the group as Smith’s “date.”

Apparently, he took quite a shine to her, offered her a drawing, and invited her up to Bolton Landing, but she modestly said no.

On one occasion, she said, Smith went out to Washington State and shot a bear. He sent a steak back to Frankenthaler, asking that she cook it for the group.

Apparently it was pretty ripe by the time it got back east, but she steamed it or something to make it palatable—and served it to the group, dressed in a bear costume!

Can you visualize Helen Frankenthaler in a bear costume?

To return to the present admirable exhibition at Yares: Between 1999 and 2002, when a much older Noland revisited the target theme, these paintings mostly had titles that began with “Mysteries.”

So---to unite the two sequences, Yares Art has adopted a joint title for them both: “Circles.”

The larger main space of the gallery – when I visited the show, a few weeks ago--- is given over to 7 large vintage “targets,” plus “Time’s Motion” (1959), a marvelous color burst that I can only describe as a “splat!” painting. What a display they all make!

Anybody who wants to know what really inspired painting is all about should go to see this muscular display, with its super-subtle but still soaring colors and its savage facture – paint laid on with at most nothing more than a singularly precise but aggressive brush.

The smaller alcove, at the back of the gallery, hosts 8 smaller “Mysteries” circles. They are gentler, but bear witness to an ongoing commitment to experiment.

Most of the earlier paintings practically boast of the fact that the “target” sits proudly in the midst of raw canvas.

The circles in the later “mysteries,” however, are surrounded by paint that extends to the edges of their canvases, often with a softness in gradation that suggests that some or all of the paint was sprayed on.

Everybody will have their own favorites in this show, and I can’t promise that the ones that most ravished my senses will be view when you get there. They may have been sold, or migrated for a week or so to Miami Basel. But for what it’s worth here are a few of my selections, in ascending order:

Among the later paintings, first “Mysteries: Magic Theatre” (2000), with a very dark blue field at its extremities, a lighter cloudy blue field closer in, and hard-edged red & blue circles at the center;

Second, “Old Gold” (1999), the earliest in this later sequence, with a symphony of congenial colors, from brownish gold to blue to white and yet more blue.

Among the earlier paintings, three – all magnificent – but starting with “That” (1958-59), which was facing the reception desk when I was there, clearly visible all the way across the larger gallery space.

It has another of those brushy, handmade-looking outer circles—this one gray—and inside of it, progressively smaller and hard-edged circles of orangey red, yellow, black and blue – each separated from the others by narrower circles of raw canvas;

Next on this list is what the gallery clearly considers the superstar of this starry selection: it’s on the cover of the catalog and prominently featured in those emails to Noland lovers about the gallery’s booth at Miami Basel.

This is “Spring Call” (1961) a heavenly mix of mostly pale but all coruscating colors.

They start with an outer circle of pinkish mauve (or mauvish pink), then work in through orange and grayish green circles to a disc of acutely reddish purple at the center—all the brightly colored circles being separated from each other by lighter concentric circles, so as to give each brightly colored circle its chance to breathe, and finally

(Drumroll here) The painting that one sees in the gallery just as one is getting off the elevator, and that startles the viewer into a happy grin by its elemental force.

This is “Fete” (1959), another one of those lovably handmade-looking compositions. Its slightly wobbly concentric circles lead (from the outside in) through Atlantic blue and glistening white to mustard yellow, black, white and blue--with a couple of super-subtle circles of pale, pale pink along the way.

But this is not all that gives it its kick. It also had five straight black shafts of paint that drive from the perimeter of the canvas into the outermost blue circle, as though seeking to punch holes in it.

This creates the vaguely cartoon-like impression of a pitched battle taking place between the straights and the circles, both kicking up clouds of moon dust in the process – a brilliant conceit that positively leaks energy into the surrounding air.

Comments

  1. December 9, 2017 12:44 AM EST
    Thank You Piri for your insightful comments. Always appreciated.
    - Louise P. Sloane
  2. December 15, 2017 2:25 PM EST
    Helen Frankenthaler in a Bear Costume, what a sight to behold!
    Don't think you can find bear meat in New York.
    Will definitely get uptown to see David Smith.

    And thanks again for visiting Gallery Gaia in Brooklyn.
    Happy Holidays!
    - Neddi Heller