(An Appropriate Distance)


FROM THE MAYOR'S DOORSTEP

By Piri Halasz

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Art criticism, art comment, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 5-7 times a year. For new shows, see "events;" for hard-copy rates and ways to support the online edition, see "works."

ALONG THE ABSTRACT TRAIL IN MANHATTAN

November 18, 2012

Tags: Peter Halley, John Zinsser, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, Hofmann, Ronnie Landfield

Ronnie Landfield. Bluebird, 2ooo. Acrylic on canvas, 89 x 76 in. Photo courtesy the artist.
Despite the depredations of Hurricane Sandy, a number of abstract shows have been rearing their curly heads this fall. The biggest and most prestigious (at least, until MoMA opens its big historical “Inventing Abstraction” in December) was “Conceptual Abstraction” at Hunter College’s huge but curiously arid West 41st Street Times Square Gallery (closed November 10). As organized by two “name” curators, Pepe Karmel and Joachim Pissarro, it reunited 20 painters who appeared together in 1991 in an exhibition of the same name staged at the Sidney Janis Gallery.

CONCEPTUAL? ABSTRACTION

A number of these painters were fairly famous already in 1991; most of the others have become fairly famous since. Thus what we had, in effect, was a blue-chip roster of successful abstractionists. They were: Ross Bleckner, David Diao, Lydia Dona, Christian Eckhart, Stephen Ellis, Peter Halley, Mary Heilmann, Valery Jaudon, Richard Kalina, Shirley Kaneda, Bill Komoski, Jonathan Lasker, Sherrie Levine, Thomas Nozkowski, David Reed, David Row, Peter Schuyff, Philip Taafe, Stephen Westfall and John Zinsser

Each was represented by two paintings, one done around the time of the original exhibition, the other done as close to the present as possible. This, according to the official announcement, expressed “the experience of American life at the beginning of the twenty-first century: sometimes brutal, sometimes lyrical, sometimes gleamingly industrial, sometimes delicately handmade.” As a whole, the exhibition showed “how and why abstraction has, once again, become the most exciting current in contemporary art.”

I wish I could have been more enthusiastic about this show. After all, as a card-carrying Greenbergian, I am supposed to be committed to abstraction and privilege it over representation, but actually, I don’t automatically salivate at the sight of an abstract painting (nor, for that matter, rear back in horror at the sight of a figurative one—Greenberg having resembled myself in both respects). There is good (and, occasionally, great) abstraction, but there is also less good abstraction, and even (much less occasionally) terrible abstraction.

I wouldn’t say that this show had much, if indeed any, really terrible abstraction. All the practitioners here were competent at their jobs, but the capacity to inspire joy in me was, for the most part, missing. There was nothing that sent me over the rainbow – a figure of speech that pinpoints a cardinal problem with the show: a pervasive and depressing lack of color either attractive or creative.

On those rare occasions when the color was appealing, irritating compositions and/or lackluster painting surfaces canceled it out – as, for example, with the more recent shaped painting with brightly-colored drooling on it by Mary Heilmann. One rare case when color & composition combined to really good effect was “After Nature”(2007), an orange-and-black painting by John Zinsser. It hung near the entrance, and I didn’t realize how much better it was than other paintings in this show until I’d seen the others.

In this context, even the flower forms of Phillip Taafe looked good, and the electronic circuit boards of Peter Halley looked even better. Strange to relate, I found myself admiring the Day-Glo colored, terrycloth-textured chartreuse, pink, orange, white, emerald green, ocher & lime of Halley’s “Sylvester” (1991). Ritualistic as it was.

Halley’s work can be described, I suppose, as “conceptual,” to the extent that he had a whole written shtick out of Baudrillard to explain it when it premiered back around 1987, but it wasn’t called “conceptual” at first. Instead the buzz word was “neo-geo,” which somehow combined Halley ‘s Day-Glo with the kitsch of Jeff Koons and the shiny-new assemblages of Ashley Bickerton to blow the previous fad of neo-expressionism out of the water.

Besides Halley, I don’t know how many of the other artists in “Conceptual Abstraction” had ideologies packaged with their artwork to justify the term “conceptual,” but in terms of what was to be seen, only the canvases of David Diao with writing and/or reproductions of magazine articles on them could qualify as “conceptual” in execution.

All of which leads me to believe that in titling his original show, Janis was simply using “conceptual” as a less-overworked substitute for “postmodernist,” or to be more accurate, “anti-modernist.” I say this because the harsh colors, routine surfaces and awkward compositions here all testify to a desire upon the part of many, if not all, of the artists involved to react against and/or discard such modernist values as beauty, inventiveness & grace.

WHAT THEY WERE REACTING AGAINST

“This has to be the most beautiful room in Chelsea. I’m just blown away,” said a gentleman I’d never met to me at Mitchell-Innes & Nash (I suppose because I was standing there, taking notes). The show in question is “Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella” (through November 24). It has just 6 pictures in it, but what mellowness and magnificence they display!

To be sure, the larger of the two paintings by Frankenthaler, “Moveable Blue,” is from 1973, & this is not one of that artist’s peak periods, but its two long, horizontal seas of soft, malleable blue are so deep-souled, and harmonize so mellifluously with its accompanying soft browns, yellows, greens, mauve & deep purple, that I am inclined to overlook that narrow little horizontal line in the lower middle (it is these liney aspects of the 70s work that normally turn me off).

The other Frankenthaler, a tall vertical named “Cape Orange,” comes from 1964, a wonderful period for Frankenthaler. However, with a series of very different reds piled up in its center and framed by a reddish orange, it reminds me of other paintings from this period, like “Buddha’s Court,” that similarly pile color up the center and then frame it with a band of more color, and I’m not positive that “Cape Orange” works quite as well as “Buddha’s Court.” I would need to live with “Cape Orange” longer to figure out whether it’s lesser or just different. Regardless, its color is rich and tender, not harsh.

The two paintings by Morris Louis are uniformly staggering, making it appear as though he never painted anything but masterpieces As we all know, from some of the works which have surfaced since Greenberg’s death, he had off periods as well as on ones, but one of the two canvases here, “Theta Alpha” (1960), is an atypical Louis, and a lovely one. It has four rising streaks on the center left rising to meet four descending streaks on the center right (both sets black, peach, darker peach & yellow). It looks like a segment one of the famous “unfurleds” blown up under a magnifying glass & with its two halves swum together.

The other Louis is a classic “unfurled,” and just as lovely as they all are. This one is called “Beta Psi” (1960-61), and although its 12 descending streaks on the lower left appear to balance the 12 descending streaks on the lower right, if you parse them more closely, their wonderful colors are subtly different.

The Noland is “Red Divide” (1965), a huge and glorious chevron painting (all of these paintings range from large to huge). “Red Divide” uses red, green, blue and magenta bands of color, separated by strips of raw canvas that both gentle and magnify their color.

The Stella actually looks at home here (as none of his later work would, not even the “Protractor” series of the later 60s). This one is “Perfect Day for Banana Fish,” named for a famous short story by J.D. Salinger (though not my favorite Salinger short story – I prefer “For Esmé -- with Love and Squalor”).

Anyway, this Stella is dated 1958, a period when the artist (born 1936) was still moving from the generic gestural painting of his immaturity toward the minimalist “pinstripe” paintings of his first maturity. In “Banana Fish” the imagery is irregular but with stripes and rectangles, as opposed to circles or smear, and with soft, lambent colors (predominantly a pale ocher, with contrasting accents of pink, blue and green): gentle before he became fierce & famous. I wouldn’t say it’s a great painting, but it’s very interesting, especially as testimony to the origins of Stella.

HEDONISTS & PURITANS

Why should all of these marvelous paintings have been so abhorrent to the masterminds of Pomonia? One explanation is that because Greenberg criticized the avant-garde claims of “the new realism,” it became necessary to attack his favorites in return. But I don’t buy that – I think there were real and substantial differences between the two approaches that, sooner or later, would come out of hiding and could not be denied.

The standard put-down in the 70s was that color-field painting was “hedonistic,” which in its way is a telling comment on the inherent puritanism of pop. Pop (and that abstraction which allied itself with it) felt that contemporary art had to have a social message and that color-field painting was “hedonist” because its admirers maintained that “beauty is enough.”

Another pomonian way of saying the same thing was to suggest that pop (and its allied abstraction) was “industrial” and “urban” whereas color-field was at best “landscape” – nature as opposed to culture, escapism not commitment. You can still see this attitude at work in the promo for “Conceptual Abstraction,” which claims to display “the experience of American life at the beginning of the twenty-first century: sometimes brutal, sometimes lyrical, sometimes gleamingly industrial, sometimes delicately handmade.”

The strongest superlative that this show's organizers will allow themselves is to say that abstraction is the most “exciting” current in contemporary art. The implication is that reality is ugly and beauty, only an ideal. This may be true if the only reality worthy of the name is urban decay & industrial wasteland. On the other hand, if the landscape (unspoiled or designed) is also reality, then reality may be beautiful as well as ugly--but to a puritan, any beauty without a “message” must be denied.

HOFMANN REDUX: A PANEL

Another occasion for Frank Stella to reposition himself with regard to modernism presented itself when he took part in “Hans Hofmann: A Closer Look,” a panel discussion on November 13 at the New York Studio School, the other participants being Darby Bannard and William Agee, with Karen Wilkin as moderator. The occasion for the panel was the current show in the gallery at the school, “Hans Hofmann: Works on Paper from the 1940s,” also curated by Wilkin (through January 5).

Though I arrived at 6 pm, an hour before the panel discussion was to begin, I had to join a huge long line and wait until 7:10 before I was finally admitted—and even then, only to the overflow room with the panel discussion visible only on a monitor, sound likewise pumped in. Like the main space, the overflow room was plunged in darkness, and, as I was only a few rows from the very back of that room, I couldn’t see or hear well; in the darkness it was practically impossible to take notes.

However, I did note that both Bannard and Wilkin made the point that one reason Hofmann has never achieved the sort of renown enjoyed by some of the other abstract expressionists was because he didn’t fit the clichés about existential anxiety & alienation so often bandied about with regard to the likes of Rothko and even de Kooning. I couldn’t agree more; in fact, the upbeat nature of his art was a central theme in my review of the excellent show last March of large abstract Hofmann oils on canvas at Ameringer / McEnery / Yohe (the review was entitled, “The Happy Abstract Expressionist”).

Stella raised the question of just what Hofmann had meant by his theory about “push pull,” and, although the topic was speculated upon by all four speakers, if they came to any conclusion, I missed it. I did note, however, that Stella & Agee also spoke warmly of the art of Helen Frankenthaler, and Wilkin observed that, although Frankenthaler only studied with Hofmann for a couple of weeks in the early 50s, she became good friends with him in the later 50s and early 60s, when she was married to Robert Motherwell, and spent summers with him on Cape Cod – near Hofmann & his famous summer school in Provincetown.

Somebody commented that, although Greenberg attended lectures by Hofmann at his wintertime school on 8th Street (down the block from where the NY Studio School is located), none of the other abstract expressionists had studied with him. Wilkin countered this by pointing out that Lee Krasner had studied with Hofmann, and that she would have been sharing what she learned from Hofmann with her hubby, Pollock.

Bannard make several points that I thought most interesting. While the panel was discussing why it took Hofmann (b. 1880) until the 1940s to hit his stride, Bannard suggested that he “got going” because of the other abstract expressionists in New York City, and I’d agree: I think this competition from the younger American artists was undoubtedly stimulating. So (I might add, upon the basis of the research I did for my dissertation, which dealt with painting in New York in the 1940s) must have been the competition from Stanley William Hayter. This British émigré, although best known to posterity as a printmaker, was also making and exhibiting somewhat surrealistic abstract paintings in New York in the 40s, and considered part of the group by some critics.

Hayter’s graphics workshop at the New School (for Social Research, as it was called then) was also in Greenwich Village, and after hours, both Hofmann’s students & those of Hayter would adjourn to the Cedar Tavern, there to congregate at rival tables (this was nearly a decade before the Cedar Tavern became a hangout for the more mature ab-exers).

During the early to mid-1940s, Hofmann was passing in and out of abstraction, and this at a moment when younger abstract expressionists like Gottlieb, Rothko and even Pollock were still in the process of evolving from surrealist semi-abstractions to pure abstraction. Robert M. Coates of The New Yorker, who reviewed a number of abstract painters in Manhattan from the 1940s through to the 60s, first coined the term “abstract expressionist” in relation to a show of Hofmann’s (in 1946—he joked that other observers sometimes referred to such art as the “splatter-and-daub school”). So in a way, Hofmann can be considered a founder of the school.

None of this, to be sure, came up in the panel discussion, beyond Bannard’s initial & very cogent observation about the stimulation afforded by the younger abstract expressionists, but another comment that he made and that I liked was to the effect that Hofmann sometimes slathered too much paint onto his canvases, and that, when he began adding those rigidly rectilinear rectangles, they covered up some of this excess, resulting in better paintings.

THE HOFMANN EXHIBITION

As to the show of 17 works on paper at the New York Studio School, some folks on Facebook were opining that these works were reminiscent of 1980s East Village art, which may well be true & agrees with my perception that these are not Hofmann’s greatest works. Although a number of them are certainly very nice, by and large colors are muted, and play second fiddle to the drawing—these are very liney pictures, delineating objects that not infrequently look like biomorphic figures of one kind or another.

One that I liked better than the others was the single, almost colorless but very lively slender spiky figure in the untitled gouache and ink from 1946, (No. 3 on the checklist). Next to it hangs a mostly pale green gouache on museum ragboard that looks like a giant fish, with its tail raised and its head down near the bottom (No. 4 on the checklist, dated 1942 & strangely enough entitled “Reclining Figure”).

No. 6, an untitled gouache from ca.1942, is cheerier and more like one of Hofmann’s paintings, with a certain amount of paint spattered around, but that doesn’t make it as good as his best paintings. Then there are two mostly-red pieces, on the back wall of the second gallery, No. 13 (entitled “Fury”) and No. 14 (a 1946 untitled gouache). Both of these images are vaguely figurative and vaguely surrealist—“Fury”consisting of what looks like a big head, seen in profile, and a body that consists exclusively of a big foot.

While the panel discussion was going on, a number of images of Hofmann paintings were projected onto the screen next to the speakers’ table, and, despite the rotten quality of the reproductions (as seen on the monitor) I could only say to myself , how much better as a painter Hofmann was than as a draftsman.

Then again, I may be unduly negative about the works on paper because I’ve seen so many of them, or smaller oils from this same period. Shows of smaller, earlier and frequently more figurative Hofmanns have been a staple of both galleries I associate with the Hofmann estate, Emmerich & Ameringer. I suppose that such works are pretty much what’s left in the estate. It was precisely because the show last spring wasn’t this kind of work, but big oils on canvas, that it was so welcome.

WHERE IT ALL BEGAN: LANDFIELD AT HIS OLD HIGH SCHOOL

As my nearest & dearest know, I have been morbidly occupied with getting my kitchen remodeled, so I only got to “Ronnie Landfield: Where It All Began” at the Kenny Gallery in the new building of the High School of Art & Design on East 56th Street two days before the show closed on November 16. I was very glad I went, because this was a perfectly charming little show.

Landfield is one of the school’s first alumni, having entered tenth grade there in the fall of 1960 and graduating in June 1963, and the exhibition was accompanied by a fascinating memoir-type statement, posted at the entrance. It described not only what Landfield learned at the school itself, but also after class, visiting museums and galleries (plus the occasional visit to paint pictures in the park).

The school when he attended it was on Second Avenue between 56th & 57th Street, only a hop skip & jump from Gallery Row, as it existed in the 60s, and from MoMA and the Whitney, also both still in the East 50s . Landfield mentioned many great shows he saw while he was still in high school, as well as a conversation with Hofmann when he attended a Hofmann show at Kootz (on Fifth, just up from 57th Street), and meeting Man Ray at Cordier & Eckstrom (at 980 Madison Avenue).

As for the show itself, it was exactly the right size for a Landfield exhibition, with only five carefully-chosen larger paintings and 2 small ones. I say less is more because both Landfield’s imagery and his color schemes tend to be somewhat repetitive: a large exhibition of so many paintings, all looking alike, might be much of a muchness.

Landfield’s idiom is the abstracted landscape, with a series of softly-tinted, hazily outlined, horizontal, brightly-colored arcs piled atop one another from the bottom of the canvas to about three-quarters of the way to the top— the remaining top area either a pale blue or off-white, evocative of sky. The whole canvas suggests, in the first place, a series of Technicolor hills, in the second place, a luscious sunset and in a third, a rainbow (so there is that level of multireferential imagery here).

Only two of the seven paintings in this show had that heavy straight matte strip painted across the bottom which characterizes so many Landfields. I was happy to see it so much in abeyance.

Two paintings stood out for me: “Bluebird” (2000) and “To the West” (2011). The latter, a miniature quartet in yellows, oranges and browns, reminded me of the hills of New Hampshire in autumn, with the foliage in its evanescent splendor. The larger “Bluebird” was a symphony of blues, blue greens, purples and grays—a most off-beat palette for Landfield (who normally insists on the full spectrum). The composition was also slightly different from the usual Landfield, and additional radiance was provided by way of an oval splash of watered-down blue acrylic, high in the heavens, that looked like a sunburst--rays beaming down on the gray hill below.


Comments

  1. November 24, 2012 7:36 AM EST
    color is so important, and difficult. as well as being very personal. thank you for devoting so much attention to it.
    - Jay Zerbe
  2. November 24, 2012 8:11 AM EST
    Reading this article is extremely timely and interesting as in the U.K. Abstract Critical is dealing with similar issues ,redefining Abstraction.I would particularly agree with the view that Frankenthaler,Louis,et al ,in their best pictures are superior to experience than much done since. Thank you for such refined responses.
    - Patrick Jones
  3. November 24, 2012 9:23 AM EST
    Good essay because it raises issues that were never fully resolved, especially in the nature vs. culture aspect of abstraction. Hofmann remains problematic but compelling, too. Was it his allegience to "School of Paris" aesthetics that kept him tied to cubism and avoiding -- or not getting -- the rawness of others, like deKooning in the late fifties? I think Greenberg commented on that.
    - William Conger
  4. November 24, 2012 11:31 AM EST
    Analysis, context, and commentary all very much appreciated here. That it's all clearly stated is a bonus.
    - Carl Belz
  5. November 24, 2012 1:59 PM EST
    Many thanks to all you nice people for reading my thoughts & responding to them so congently . But, William Conger, I don't see Hofmann as tied to "School of Paris esthetics" -- his surfaces are just as raw and beautiful as those of Pollock or Gottlieb or any of the other Yanks (it's artists like Soulages and Hartung who remained committed to the "finished" look of Paris). And de Kooning (not Hofmann) was the one who remained in a vein of late cubism--Hofmann's compositions by the mid-40s were already frequently (if not always) purely abstract, while de Kooning didn't stop drawing lots of shapes onto his canvases--even the abstract ones-- until the later 50s (then he goes whole hog in the opposite direction and simply starts slapping the paint around).
    - Piri Halasz
  6. November 24, 2012 2:13 PM EST
    Always glad to see the color field painters get their due. They pushed color to color and made art that did not need 'issues' for validation.
    - David Raymond

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