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."

PORTRAIT OF AN EXHIBITION ON 57TH STREET

July 10, 2018

Tags: Gene Davis, Hans Hofmann, Cleve Gray

Hans Hofmann ( German, 1880-1966), The Climb, 1960. Oil on board, 84 x 48 inches.
Beginning all over again, I am going to review a most remarkable & welcome exhibition at the Manhattan venue of Cavalier at 3 West 57th Street. The show is entitled “57th Street: America’s Artistic Legacy – Part I.” As nearly as I can tell, both its sculpture and more importantly its paintings were selected and hung by Ron Cavalier, co-founder and president of the gallery. This show opened on June 15th, and I am going to review what I saw when I visited it on Saturday, July 20th.

THE OVERALL PICTURE

I have been advised (by telephone) that as of August 1, this show is still up and will remain on view indefinitely, but as we all know, many and maybe most long-term exhibitions evolve with the passage of time.

In all probability, then, this show will not always look exactly as it was when I saw it. Not to worry, though; for whenever you see it may well still be worthy of your study.

Picture, then, the high wide open space of Cavalier’s ground-level, temporary exhibition space at 3 West 57th Street, just west of Fifth Avenue. It is maybe 20 or 30 feet square.

At the back -- facing the entrance from the street -- is a shallower & narrower area, reached by ascending a few steps, and creating an ambience not unlike the choir of a Gothic cathedral, with the presence of an altar implied.

Not only in this altar-like area, but also all around the rest of the perimeter of this great space are ranged 50 mostly abstract, mostly colorful, and mostly hard-edged paintings, mostly medium- to large-sized, but also with some small.

In a general sort of way, a heavy majority might be described as “60s-color-field-type” paintings – that is, if one can accept the notion that “60s-color-field-type” paintings were being made not only in the 60s, but also in the 70s, 80s and even the 90s by painters who at best had only a nodding acquaintance with Clement Greenberg and/or the best-known practitioners of this school.

THE GREENBERGERS

Some of the artists here can (or could have) claimed close friendships with CG: Darby Bannard, Robert Goodnough, Friedel Dzubas & Hans Hofmann were most assuredly among the critic’s good friends, and they are responsible for several great or at least good contributions here.

Specifically, Goodnough’s “Vari-Color Gold (1976) is a lovely example of his showers of delicate little triangles, and Hofmann’s bouncingly majestic, red-white-and-blue “The Climb” (1960) richly deserves the place of honor it has been given.

Here I mean not only in the literature accompanying the show but also in its placement: hung just to the right of that choir-like alcove at the back of the gallery, and facing the front door. (In case you haven't yet figured this out yet, gentle reader, this Hofmann is the image I reproduce.)

Dan Christensen, Larry Zox & Esteban Vicente would most likely have been on an amiable if perhaps a less intimate basis with Greenberg.

Their claims to distinction and possible intimacy are perhaps best demonstrated here by Christensen’s “Atom Princess” (1970), a lively concatenation of rectangles, and Vicente’s graciously stunning untitled canvas from 1987, with its sweeps of rust and pale blue.

THE WASHINGTON COLOR SCHOOL: GENE DAVIS

Gene Davis, too, is a well-known quantity, as a founder and leader of the Washington Color School—those DC-based geometric abstractionists who never did quite make it into New York’s major leagues.

His “Trafalgar” (1984), the large, bold and aggressive painting with which I formerly illustrated my allusions to this exhibition, is better than any of his 1960s works with which I was more familiar.

All the work by him that I’d previously seen (mostly, I would assume, from the 1960s or maybe the 1970s) consisted of narrow vertical stripes, made in bright and very familiar colors.

I never could shake the feeling that he was just imitating Kenneth Noland but with less imaginative colors & trying to look “original” by standing his stripes on end, as opposed to laying them horizontally, side by side.

”Trafalgar” is different, and not only because the stripes are a lot broader. Also, the color scheme is much deeper & more sophisticated, incorporating a deep mint green, grey, deep and pale blues, black, khaki and copper.

Even without having recourse to iridescent paints, “Trafalgar” still somehow glows….

THE UNCLASSIFIED—AND HOW THEY WERE ASSEMBLED

But what are we to make of the paintings here by

1) Yvonne Thomas (1913-2009). Perle Fine (1905-1988), Mercedes Matter (1913-2001), and Ann Purcell (b.1941)??
2) Wolf Kahn (b. 1927), Vaclav Vytlacil (1892-1984), George McNeil (1908-1985), and Paul Jenkins (1923-2012)??
3) John Opper (1908-1994), Syd Solomon (1917-2004), Albert Stadler (1923-2000), and Cleve Gray (1918-2004)???

Well, first of all we can concede that the show’s organizer, Ron Cavalier, has cast a wide net in assembling all these paintings.

To the best of my knowledge, the present assembly was put together by his having visited the storage facilities of several other Manhattan art dealers and selecting paintings from these dealers’ holdings that they themselves did not currently want to have on view.

To judge from the work on view, some of the galleries he visited may have been Hollis Taggart, Miles McEnery, Loretta Howard & Berry Campbell (though this is only a guess, and I may be wide of the mark).

Anyway, as I get it, he arrived at these facilities with a shopping list of artists who’d exhibited in galleries on Fifty-Seventh Street.

He was trying (more or less) to reassemble some of the previous glories of this stretch of Manhattan real estate and to show both New Yorkers and any out-of-towners who might stroll in how 57th Street’s galleries might have looked when those three blocks between Park Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas were still the Art Capital of the World—when?

Well, from my knowledge of when SoHo first began to rear its ugly head, I would guess that the sun began to set on 57th Street sometime in the early 1970s.

To recapture its past glories was no mean ambition, given the fact that the block of 57th Street that lies between Fifth Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas was – on the day I saw this exhibition -- an all-but-deserted canyon dominated by older buildings being demolished to make way for yet more billionaires’ skyscraper hideaways, and hoardings concealing the work being done on such new buildings..

On Fifth Avenue, between 56th and 57th, we had Trump Tower, another billionaire’s hideaway currently infested with a massive police presence – if only to require all those tourists who were insisting on entering it to pass through metal detectors….but the area is only rarely bereft of barricades to keep demonstrators at bay and/or police vehicles of various sorts and in various locations.

The general hubbub created by these diversions, and augmented by the heavy surge of vehicular and pedestrian traffic up and down Fifth Avenue, forced this observer to nervously seek (& find) comparisons with street scenes in Damascus, Aleppo or those other Syrian cities & towns where jets and missiles commanded by Russia’sVladimir Putin, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and occasionally our own Donald Trump have done their damndest to wipe out civilization.

I daresay Ron Cavalier is probably less bothered by this than I am, as one of the few pieces of information to be gleaned by googling him is that he has a coffee mug decorated with the name of Trump. Still, who among us is perfect? I use artificial sweetener in my coffee, and many people disapprove of that, too.

ORIGINS OF CAVALIER GALLERY

As I furthermore understand it, from an article by Eleanor Charles in the New York Times for September 22, 1985, Ron Cavalier’s main interest in art is really less painting than sculpture. The gallery was originally an offshoot of The Renaissance Art Foundry of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

As founded by the current director’s father, Ronald J. Cavalier, Senior, this casting facility had (prior to the establishment of the gallery) served many distinguished artists and collectors.

Most notably, it did the restoration and preservation of the dozens of sculptures in the extraordinary collection of Joseph Hirshhorn before their move from Connecticut to Washington in the 1970s to become the basis of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

When Cavalier Galleries opened, in 1986, it was intended to provide an outlet for artists who utilized the foundry to realize their works, and this is still one of its prime functions, if not the only one.

The exhibition of 60s-color-field-type painting under discussion provides a fine backdrop for two solid rows facing the entrance of small-to-medium-sized & mostly black-patinated bronze sculptures in the center space, surrounding the generously-proportioned 12-foot-high black-patinated bronze figure of a man in a business suit looking at his wrist watch.

Most of these bronze sculptures struck me as overly sentimental and obvious, but I did relate strongly to one smaller sculpture by the Italian artist, Bruno Lucchesi (b. 1926).

Made of tinted terracotta, and about a yard wide, it is entitled “Saint Mark’s Theater” (1984-85), and depicts a row of people waiting to buy their tickets to a show in this venerable Village landmark, as well as a couple actually buying tickets and a few more hangers-on.

The whole composition reminded me vividly of those genre paintings done in New York in the 1930s by the so-called “14th Street School,” and of those hilarious ones done by Reginald Marsh in particular.

I also decided that I wasn’t as turned off as I had previously been by the towering figure of the standing “timer.” Entitled “Timing (monumental)” and by Jim Rennert (American, b. 1958), it is at least of massive simplicity and shows its subject glancing rather impatiently at his watch.

This impatience is a feeling I can relate to myself (how long, I ask myself not infrequently, how long will it be before so many third-generation modernist artists whose paintings and sculpture I admire get their crack at fame??)

In this case, it was an antecedent of Rennert’s figure that I was reminded of and that at least partially redeems its lack of daring. Big doesn’t automatically equate to daring in my book, but the very simplicity of Rennert’s composition meant that it sprang to mind the other day when I was cruising through the Mesopotamian galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There, my eye fell on its small but celebrated alabaster Sumerian “Standing Male Worshipper” (ca.2900 – 2600 BC).

With its two staring eyes and its black-striped beard, its monumentality puts it in a class with “Timing,” and “Timing” in its class – particularly since I even have a photograph of it to remind me of its virtues -- facing the week of August 12 to 18 in my Metropolitan Museum of Art engagement calendar!

But I digress—at any rate, from my account of this remarkable display of 60s-color-field-type paintings at Cavalier. It is obvious that this was a very personal selection, and that the “eye” behind it was pretty good.

Still, to an observer who has seen many shows hung by Greenbergian selectors, it’s not quite a Greenbergian eye – not yet anyway. If one considers Greenberg’s eye (even 23 years after his death) the gold standard for selection, the selection here feels somehow a little off-beat or even odd.

(Possibly the lighting had something to do with my impression??? As I recall it, it was on the cold or blueish side, which might have been best for the sculpture. But a week or so later, I was in a gallery in Chelsea, looking at some very similar work, and I noticed how the light was warmer, with more yellow in it, and that this was kinder to the paintings on view.)

THE FOUR WOMEN

To return to the choice of pictures. How about these four women? We must have women in every show these days, it seems as this is The Year of the Woman. Personally, I think the Woman Business has been a bit overdone, and I speak as a cliché buster myself when I was young.

The cliché I had to bust was that women couldn’t write for Time magazine. I busted the cliché by lasting six years as a woman writer on Time, but I never asked for any favors.

All I asked for was a level playing field, an equal opportunity to show what I could do – and I was able to prove that my writing was at least as good at that of the men due to the curious fact that in those days none of the articles in the magazine were signed.

As long as I was writing small sections, with only one writer, everybody knew which stories I’d written, and could condition their comments accordingly. However, in 1965 I was assigned to the World section. This meant that my stories appeared side by side with those of the four or five men who were also in the section.

While I was doing this, I went to an office drinks party and encountered a former managing editor of Time who had never allowed women to write for it while he was m.e.

Our encounter at the party came after he’d been kicked upstairs (as we used to say) to a make-work job on the corporate executive floors but still got free copies of Time every week (his successor as m. e. was the man who had given me my chance to write).

This former m. e. (and certified woman-doubter) confessed to me that he couldn’t tell which stories in the World section I’d written! He’d been forced to get his secretary to obtain the records from the record-keeping department in order to find out.

As I say, all I asked for was a level playing field, and I got it. I wasn’t interested in any special favors and to the extent that I might have enjoyed any, I would have rejected them.

(For instance, there was at one point a powerful current of emotion passing between me and my senior editor of that moment, but I knew that if this man asked to date me, I would have had to ask him to get me shifted to another section of the magazine before we got seriously involved, as otherwise I would have had opportunities to advance my career that none of my male colleagues had….but that’s another story).

I felt then as I feel now that by asking for and/or getting special treatment, I would not have been doing my own sex any favors. I would merely have been lowering the bar on what was acceptable for a woman but not for a man.

All of which is by way of saying that --- on the basis of what I saw in this show – the paintings by these four women just weren’t that great. They weren’t worse than the least appealing works by the men in this show, but with one exception they weren’t any better, either.

The one exception was one of the two paintings on view by Perle Fine, “Cool Series #18, Deceptive Beat” (ca. 1961-63). A geometric abstraction, its vivid reds & blues were pleasant. At the same time, its late date did nothing to further any claims that Fine might have had to be considered a member of the first generation of abstract expressionists.

In fact, I get particularly irked by the online blather about Thomas & Fine which implies that (because of their early birth dates) they would have been counted as first-generation abstract expressionists, had they only been men. Not so!

I’m sure they encountered some difficulties in getting shows because they were women, but on the basis of their work that I’ve seen so far, they were never more than abstract expressionists of the second rank anyway.

Not within a country mile would they in my opinion qualify as the equals of Still, Rothko, Newman, Gottlieb, Motherwell, or Hofmann, let alone Pollock or de Kooning.

Unless, of course, you are so hopelessly biased on behalf of womanhood that anything made by a woman looks simply great. ....

Which doesn't mean, I hasten to add, that I am opposed to women artists. Offhand, I can think of at least three whose work would (to put it mildly) hold up very well by comparison with the work currently on view in this show...Jill Nathanson we all know about anyway, but how about -- also -- Ann Walsh and Randy Bloom?

SEVEN OF THE EIGHT REMAINING MALE ARTISTS

As to seven of the remaining eight male artists on view, they are also of the second rank and constitute a decidedly mixed bag. Wolf Kahn (b. 1927) is an abstract landscapist with lovely colors who (like Ronnie Landfield) gets a lot of mileage from being semi-representational but fewer Brownie points from me.

Vaclav Vytlacil (1892-1984) is a holdover from the 1920s and 1930s, an early modernist. However modest his work, it is still cheerfully jaunty, and I admire him for having been avant-garde between the two world wars, when modernism wasn’t yet chic in Middle America.

George McNeil (1908-1985). A figurative expressionist -- possibly included for the sake of touching all the bases…..??? Yet his sole contribution had decided vigor to it, too.

Paul Jenkins (1923-2012), a so-so picture from a personally-charming imitator of the stain technique of Helen Frankenthaler, who even got credit for inventing that technique by one art historian (Horst W. Janson—God forbid he should have given credit to a mere woman).

Finally, we have four painters who have never to my knowledge really distinguished themselves, but whose work now somehow seems relevant for reasons I shall shortly disclose. They are John Opper (1908-1994), Syd Solomon (1917-2004), Albert Stadler (1923-2000), and Cleve Gray (1918-2004)

Looking over my notes, I find that nothing by Opper or Solomon appealed to me in this show. Though I reviewed a solo exhibition of Opper at Berry Campbell relatively favorably this past March, here only one of the Stadlers, “Red in the Morning” (1980) stood out at akk among the works by these three artists. According to my notes, it looked “surprisingly good.”

AND AT LONG LAST, AN UNLIKELY STAR

To my astonishment, two paintings by Cleve Gray turned out to be absolute winners. Who would have thunk it?

By me, he was always just a member of a flamboyant family responsible for one of the liveliest star-studded “salons” of the Sixties. Specifically, he was hubby to Author Francine du Plessix Gray, who was in turn a pal to Helen Frankenthaler, and the daughter of Tatiana du Plessix Liberman, for decades a high-rent hat designer. Francine was additionally stepdaughter to Tatiana's second husband, Alexander Liberman, famed for his editorial genius at Vogue but only a dilettante in sculpture.

A couple of years ago, I guess it was, Loretta Howard, who represents Gray’s estate, had a show of his work from the 1970s. I do believe I saw that show, but it didn’t move me to write about it.

Still, one of the few knockout pix here is Gray’s “Silver Song” (1967). It hangs just to the left of the little choir area at the back of the ground floor gallery, balancing off Hofmann’s “The Climb” on the right. Its floating shapes composed with silver paint and bronze, “Silver Song” somehow looks like an angel about to lift off.

But maybe even more socko is the Cleve Gray up on the Fourth Floor of the adjoining building. This is Cavalier’s permanent space and on this occasion it has been used to showcase an assortment of its other artists. Most of them are traditionally representational, but there are also a few left-over semi-abstracts by Wolf Kahn, and two abstractions by Francine Tint, who got a solo exhibition in this same space a few months ago.

The Gray, entitled “Clash 14” (2001), hangs next to one of the Tints. I hate to say it but the Gray knocks the socks off the Tint, which is entitled “Electric Sunrise” (2018), and looks fussy and overdone by comparison with the stunning simplicity of “Clash 14 “

Tint’s other painting, “Tiger” (2017), which gets a whole partition to itself, looks a whole lot better, but really “Clash” belongs in a class by itself. On a stark black field, a couple of whites snake in from its top and its left side, plus some electric blue snaking up from below – so that they all meet and EXPLODE in the center of the canvas.

Maybe it is only by comparison with what else is on view but anyway the effect I get is like wow!

COMPARISONS

So – what are we to make of this wondrously extended display of the great, the good and the not-so-spectacular? Well, to me (with my mercantile mind) it suggests that there must be a market for all these sometimes almost generic 60s-color-field-type paintings.

Most likely it is not among the hippy-dippy trendies who burrow into the New York Times art reviews on Fridays and beat feet to the sort of art that is Getting Talked About.

But you knew that anyway, didn’t you?

Nor is it to be found among those purists who insist on top-quality work, unless of course they are very, very rich.

I mean to say, has anybody priced the stars of the 60s lately? I have just looked up the latest entries on the top three color-field painters, and here is what I found – preceding all by pointing out that there rarely seems to be more than one work by any of these artists to come up for sale in a single auction.

First, we have Frankenthaler. She hasn’t had any really major works on the block recently, but when even a relatively minor – though charming – 1958 oil, ”Las Mayas,” came up for sale at Christie’s on November 10, 2015, it brought $2,405,000.

More recently, a larger though later acrylic, “Blue Reach” (1978) brought $3,015,000 when it came up for sale at Sotheby’s on May 17, 2018.

Second, we have Noland, with two less recent sales to report – both for “target” paintings. On May 13, 2015, Christie’s auctioned off “Circle” (1958) for $2,139,750.

And on November 13, 2015, Sotheby’s set an auction price record for the artist by selling “Heat” (1958) for $3,370,000.

Third, we have Morris Louis, whose prices seem to vary – possibly depending on how many paintings he made of a given image (?). There may be a relatively large number of “unfurled” paintings (?), because one of them, “Gamma Epsilon” (1960-61) went for only $1,695,000 at Sotheby’s on November 17, 2017.

On the other hand, Louis’s “Devolving” (1959-1960), which (from its online reproduction) looks as though it could be classified either as a “floral” or a “transitional” painting, went for $5,712,500 at Christie's on May 17, 2018. That’s a pretty piece of change!

CONCLUSIONS When I go to review a show, I often ask for a checklist to make my notes on. This saves me the trouble of having to copy down artists’ names, titles of works, dates, media & measurements. I usually specify that I don’t want the prices included. Most galleries won’t give them to me anyway, but the receptionist at Cavalier tried to press them on me, even when I insisted that I didn’t want them. (Speaking from my four years’ experience as a researcher in the business news section of Time, I know that prices as a rule have less to do with quality and more to do with quantity -- aka supply & demand – so as a rule I try to ignore them) As this receptionist burbled on, though, one word rose out of her monologue – the prices for the paintings at Cavalier were “reasonable.” Later on, I went back and asked what “reasonable” meant. I learned that the price range for the paintings in the show was from $10,000 to $850,000 (for the sculpture, the range was $450 to $475,000). True, that might still seem a lot to the sort of people who hang posters in their homes, but it’s very reasonable by comparison with what one> would have to pay to get a genuine painting by Noland, Frankenthaler, or Morris Louis…

.....and my mind was irresistibly transported back, back to sometime fifteen or twenty years ago, when I was in the Chelsea gallery of Gary Snyder.

There he was lecturing me about supply and demand because I’d been carping about all the second-rate, second-generation “gestural” paintings he had on his walls. These were paintings by lesser artists who had clearly admired de Kooningand/or Joan Mitchell
The gist of Snyder’s lecture was there were collectors out there who loved deKooning & Pollock and would have loved to hang pictures by these great artists in their homes. However, as they couldn’t afford them they would settle for the lesser masters whom he (Gary Snyder) was providing in shows like the one I had been complaining about.

This, then, is the moral of the show at Cavalier. It tells me that popular taste – or at least a part of it – has moved on. It has even improved to the extent that the 60s-color-field-type style – especially as propounded by Hofmann, Davis & Gray -- is at least something of an improvement over the gestural miasma of late de Kooning and muddy Mitchell. For that, let us be truly grateful – and look for further improvement yet to come.

POSTSCRIPT – Although the “comments” section of this post doesn’t relate directly to its subject, I hope readers will take a look at it nonetheless. One of my subscribers, Cara London, would really like some guidance on the subject of whether or not it’s a good idea to work in many different media…PH

Comments

  1. July 27, 2018 9:44 AM EDT
    I am so sorry that I missed this show! I await to hear more from you. I enjoy the deliciousness of your words: "Greenbergiana" (and in the Fall 2017 edition of your newsletter, "Pollockian"). I understand you are now a storyteller. I hope I can make it to your next performance (is that the right word)? Maybe you will be at the Moth soon!
    - Cara London
  2. July 27, 2018 4:01 PM EDT
    Thank you so much for all the nice compliments. I don't know what "story telling" is or what or where is "the Moth." Would you care to enlighten me & spare me the trouble of looking these things up via google?

    I hope it's a long time before I have to stand up and talk again. It was all very good for my ego to have people applauding what I'd said but I got paid zilch for this last talk -- the only money I made was selling 5 copies of "A Memoir of Creativity" at $20 a pop.

    If you know anybody who would like me to talk & is willing to pay me for it, by all means tell that person to get in touch with me.

    On another subject, I understand that you are currently working in many different media. I have no immediate reaction to this information, but maybe if you post something about it here, other people would weigh in and offer opinions based on far more experience than I have....
    - Piri Halasz
  3. July 31, 2018 5:55 PM EDT
    Dear Cara, I am still waiting for you to tell my readers why you want to work in many different media and ask their opinion of your desires. My own feeling that all artists should do what they want to do, and if that means working in a variety of media, they should by all means do it. However, I should add that my own specialties are painting, sculpture, drawing, photography & sometimes graphics. I am so afraid of being categorized as a Jack of all trades, master of none.... therefore, if you want to express yourself (for example) in tapestries, furniture, jewelry or ceramics, the likelihood that I will be reviewing your work diminishes substantially...but that should be no bar to your desires....
    - Piri Halasz
  4. August 1, 2018 10:42 AM EDT
    Dar Piri,
    As for working in different media, I think about the jack of all trades issue, too. Ultimately, I believe that exploration in pursuit of the highest aesthetic ideals is a worthy endeavor. I'm a painter but I started out as a sculptor. In the last few years, I've spent a lot of time exploring monoprints, then etching, lithography and silkscreen. For me, the tactile and experimental qualities go hand in hand. I’ve mostly stayed within the “fine art” framework. I see it as connected, akin to branches on a tree. Personally, so much comes down to drawing: it's just how I choose to make the marks, be it in two- or three-dimensions, with ink and a press or with oil and acrylic. Abstract or representational, the pendulum swings back and forth. I can’t say that there is one thing or method that defines me, except that the pursuit is to make art that is honest and deep, an expression of our highest ideals. I'm just curious how other artists feel and how critics and gallerists view what may seem like a diverse body of work.
    - Cara