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."

FILLING IN SOME BLANKS

May 28, 2012

Tags: Motherwell, Ed Cohen, William Tillyer, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Robert Goodnough, James Little, Jill Nathanson, de Kooning, Esteban Vicente

"Nostalgia (For a While It Was Good to Have Been the Word 'Man')". Poem by Peter Viereck. Etchings by Esteban Vicente. Courtesy Woodward Gallery.
Over the winter, I also got around to a handful of gallery shows that I'd been notified about, and found something -- though not necessarily an awful lot ---to recommend them. One was the relatively new gallery of Bernard Jacobson, the Brit who also has a London gallery. So far, its New York outpost has concerned itself largely with British artists who don’t do an awful lot for me, but this winter’s group show, “Discursive Abstraction” (closed February 25) had several pieces which, though comparatively small in scale, rated a second look. Jacobson shares my passion for Motherwell, and this show had a knockout “Study in Watercolor #1 (in Green and Blue)” (1968), monumental despite measuring only 30½ x 22 in. I also responded positively to “Like When God Unwinds his Whirlwind” (2011), the largest of three fluid acrylics by Ed Cohen, a New Yorker who, after a varied career as lawyer, public servant and businessman, took up painting in the 1990s and recently had his second show at Winston Wächter. The third piece which took my fancy was “Metamorphosis” (2010), an attractive watercolor with sweeps of green, yellow and blue by William Tillyer, a senior Yorkshireman better known in the UK than in the US.

Not far away from Jacobson is Leslie Feely, in whose gallery I usually find high-class work, but who turns it over so fast that it’s impossible to review. Whatever I respond to will in all probability no longer be there by the time I am able to tell my readers about it. However, just for the record, the last time I was there, she was showing “Recent Acquisitions: Winter 2012,” which included first-class work by Olitski, Noland, and Goodnough, as well as contributions from people like Richard Diebenkorn and Frank Gehry, who concern me less.

In memory of the inspiring visits to Pine Plains that I made in the 1980s and early 90s, I responded to an email invitation for “What Only Paint Can Do: an erratic selection of Triangle alumni curated by Karen Wilkin,” in Dumbo’s 111 Front Street Galleries (closed February 23). Nobody could agree more strongly with Wilkin than I do that there are some things that only paint can do, and that far more attention should be paid to the art of painting, but alas this show didn't demonstrate that potential for me. Most of the Triangle alumni with whom I’m familiar were either absent, or else not represented by their best work. The only three pieces that I could even begin to relate to were two 2011 vertical stripe paintings by James Little, and “Pensive” (2011) by Jill Nathanson, a combination of synthetic resin and acrylic on panel. Still, it was a promising idea, and perhaps at some time in the future, it can be more satisfactorily realized.

Having been re-introduced to illustration by “Exquisite Poop,” I went on to a historical look at it in “21 Etchings and Poems,” at Woodward (closed April 29). This is another gallery that has me on its mailing list, and, while I always read its communications, I am rarely in a position to write up its shows. This one earned a writeup. The subject was 21 black-and-white pages, all 20 x 17 inches, and each with a poem and its appropriate illustration, realized as an etching, aquatint or combination of several such graphic techniques.. The entire 1960 limited edition was conceived by Peter Grippe in 1951, when he took over the directorship of the American incarnation of Atelier 17, a graphic workshop founded by Stanley William Hayter in Paris before World War II, then re-established in Manhattan during the war itself. Both in Paris and New York, the old Atelier 17 served many stars of the School of Paris; in New York, it became a place where budding abstract expressionists could glimpse such stars, now emigres. The portfolio at the Woodward had plenty of star power, too, though in its heyday, it would have had more. Among poets were Richard Wilbur, Harold Rosenberg, Frank O’Hara, Sir Herbert Read, William Carlos Williams, Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, Peter Viereck, and Thomas Merton, plus others less well remembered. Artists included Hayter, Jacques Lipchitz, Esteban Vicente, de Kooning, Franz Kline, Ben Nicholson, and Pierre Alechinsky, as well as lesser-known figures like Kurt Roesch, Louis Shanker and Ben-Zion, three artists whom I chanced across while doing a dissertation largely devoted to long-forgotten figures of the 40s; Adja Yunkers, a second-generation abstract expressionist perhaps best known as the mate of the critic Dore Ashton; and André Racz and Ezio Martinelli, whose names I recognized because they were teaching in the1950s at Columbia University’s School of Painting & Sculpture when I was a Barnard undergraduate and had a part-time job as night-school secretary there.

It should surprise no one to learn that the Rosenberg poem was illustrated by de Kooning, and that the entire undertaking was more in sync with that axis of talent than, say, the Greenberg/Pollock axis. There was always something a bit literary about Rosenberg’s existentialist take on abstract expressionism, and also de Kooning’s version of it, with its incorporated bits of newspapers and return to figuration in the mid-50s. None of these prints attempted to reproduce de Kooning’s gestural brushwork, recognizing that it can only be used in painting, but most of them did have a strangely furry, elaborate, even baroque quality (one of the few relative exceptions was Vicente's illustration to Viereck's poem, which had a somewhat atypical but appealing lean and hungry look). In some ways, however, this baroque sensibility was a good thing, as it lent a comprehensive presence to the entire set. In another sense, it allied them more to New York in the 1950s than to anything that has gone on elsewhere or since. Still, the show was worth seeing, just as long as you aren't put off by quantities of writing in an image. For conceptualists, it must have been a blast.