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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

FROM THICK TO THIN, ETC.

Peter Reginato. WTF. 2011. Stainless steel and enamel, 47 x 48 x 35 in. Photo courtesy the artist.
In my last posting, I mentioned that Jean Fautrier was in “Thick Paint,” a three-man show uptown. Never having seen Fautrier’s work first-hand, I got there—as well as to two other galleries, with work by Scott Williams, Chuck Thomas, and Peter Reginato. Finally,capsule coverage of three monster shows staged in the first week of March.

“THICK PAINT”

“Thick Paint” is on view at Luxembourg & Dayan, 64 East 77th Street (through April 19). This gallery advertises itself as a secondary gallery founded in 2009 to present “museum-quality” curated exhibitions. This means it doesn’t represent artists directly, but stages shows by artists who are or have been represented by other galleries.

“Thick Paint” covers three generations with three artists, but only the first and third attracted my attention. The first is Fautrier (1898-1964); he is described as a “French painter, illustrator, printmaker and sculptor,” but only paintings by him are on display.

They are interesting, especially the five from the 1950s. All but one are quite small, while the remaining one is at best a large medium-size (35 x 57½ inches).

This, it seems, is what was known in the ‘50s as “matter painting.” By comparison with Olitski’s “mitt” paintings, they are modest and demure. The “matter” is a combination of pigment in the oil paint, plus what seems to be a crust of papier-mâché; anyway, it rises slightly above the surface of the canvas—dry and chalky, or (if you like) resembling fresco in appearance.

The image, too, is restrained and unpretentious—usually a horizontal rectangle in the center of a horizontal canvas, in a muted color, with sometimes a series of straight lines or a grid on it, or a small cross,

Best is “Tourmente” (1957). It measures 24 1/8 x 29 3/8, and consists of a pale mauve & gray rectangular image on a cream-colored field.

I’m sure that somewhere there are (or have been) larger Fautrier paintings, possibly in more vigorous color schemes, but from this show (as with the one I recently reviewed at Mitchell-Innes by Nicolas de Staël, another devotee of “matter” painting) one becomes aware that what passed as “radical” and “daring” in the 1950s (anyway, in France) looks pretty tame today.

Still – interesting, as opposed to uninteresting. I hesitate to say, as opposed to boring, since in pomonian circles, “boring” can be a compliment (Andy Warhol rejoiced in his capacity to bore viewers, most notably with his 8-hour movie of the Empire State Building, and the minimalists of the 60s were likewise proud of the fact that they were known as the “dumb box boys”).

“Interesting,” on the other hand, is often taken as an insult (as, it seems, is “clever”). Neither of these are insults with me. Rather, I use them to designate work above the average of what one sees about (though nothing to rave about, in my opinion). Work, in other words, that in one way or another illuminates the world around me—without, however, really lighting up the sky.

The other artist who interests me in “Thick Paint” is Zhu Jinshi (b. 1954). He’s Chinese (and, at some point, even exhibited with the far more widely-publicized Ai Wei Wei). Zhu carries paint thickness to new highs (quite literally), in the process making Olitski’s “mitt” paintings look like monuments to stability and compositional mastery.

In short, Zhu paints up a storm. One gets a feeling of youth & energy from his work (though he’s not that young, he may still be immature). His medium is oil, usually on canvas, sometimes on board, and slapped on, slathered on, piled up, lathered about and whipped into peaks, like cake frosting. The paint, more often though not always, is shiny and wet-looking—in this again resembling the “mitt” paintings, but the color is much more varied and brighter, with many dabs of different hues.

To say these works are composed would be stretching it a bit (though not entirely). With their uneven and irregular whirligig of strokes, they appear to be striving for “chaos,” a desirable concept ever since Pollock was accused of it. And, at times, these paintings achieve incoherence--while on other occasions becoming surprisingly firm.

Whatever you want to call it, this style is distinctive. It doesn’t look like much or indeed anything else to be seen in New York – so much so that when I saw it in “Thick Paint, “ I instantly thought I remembered it from one of the big March Manhattan art fairs, a year or two ago. Double-checking, I learned that yes indeed, Zhu’s paintings had been featured by Blum & Poe at the ADAA show in the Park Avenue Armory in 2012.

Of the four Zhu paintings on view at Luxembourg & Dayan, only two come off reasonably well. They are “June Siege 2 Out of Control” (2013) and “Text Message Landscape 2” (also 2013). Both are creditable performances, especially “Text Message,” with its harmonious color scheme of peach, mauve, mint and lime.

It’s too bad that the show also has to include a small kitchen stand with three shelves. Upon them repose – horizontally—flat gobbets of Zhu’s paints, rectangular platters of multicolored goo. Seems that even exhibitions of serious painters these days have to include a comedy element, a gimmick to placate the ghost of Duchamp.

“CHUCK THOMAS/SCOTT WILLIAMS”

A similar gimmick encumbers an otherwise quality exhibition at Sideshow in Williamsburg. The show is “Chuck Thomas/Scott Williams,” a display of four large and at least twenty small abstracts by the former painter, and 31 small to medium-sized representational paintings by the latter (through April 20).

Although many of Thomas’s small abstractions are jolly, his most distinctive idiom is to be seen in the larger ones. There he employs many small, brightly-colored pats of paint that remind me of tesserae – those building blocks of mosaics, ancient & modern.

“Sentry” (2013) comes off exceptionally well, with yellow, olive and brown tesserae – but you know, I’ve seen so much superlative abstraction lately that I’ve been growing eager for a little representation. For that reason – if no other – I was even happier to see the contributions of Williams to this show.

I had already admired “Transport” (2011), his painting in “Sideshow Nation II: At the Alamo,” Richard Timperio’s 2014 extravaganza that I reviewed in January. That painting (also included in this show) is a cityscape. It shows a river and a bridge in the foreground, and a big-city skyline in the background, evidently that of Manhattan.

Based upon my experience in the 1970s with the verist paintings of Catherine Murphy, I’d somehow assumed that the bridge was somewhere in New Jersey, and the more distant view, eastward across the Hudson.

It turns out that the view in “Transport” is westward instead, from the Grand Avenue bridge over Newtown Creek that separates Maspeth from Greenpoint—or, in other words, Queens from Brooklyn.

All the rest of the Williams cityscapes in this show also depict the streets, buildings, trees, parked vehicles, street lamps and so forth of various locations in Brooklyn and Queens.

These sites were nominally selected at random. The little installation in the gallery with a street map, two Styrofoam cups and some little coin-like medallions, all intended to explain how the sites were selected, is the piece of gimmickry I alluded to earlier.

Moreover, it doesn’t begin to explain how the artist scouted the areas chosen in order to arrive at such cohesive and balanced compositions. There are, after all, dozens of different vantage points and angles from which one can view any site, and it’s obvious that Williams didn’t put up his easel just anywhere.

The more important fact is that he put up his easel at these points in order to work en plein air, or sur le motif if you prefer. Anyway, his cityscapes are from nature, just like the landscapes of Cézanne or Monet, and not from photographs, like the cityscapes of Richard Estes or Robert Bechtle.

That said, in style they are closer to 20th century hyperrealism than to 19th century impressionism, although with a perceptibly greater deftness and sensitivity that indicate a more individual vision.

The same applies to the dandy series of smaller portraits of people who answered Williams’ ads for models on Craigslist, and agreed to pose for $10 an hour. In both portraits and cityscapes, I find it impossible to single out any individual picture as better than any other, so consistent is the level of excellence throughout.

REGINATO (& COLLEAGUE)

A third gallery worth discussion featured a major and a minor show (both unfortunately closed April 12). André Zarre in Chelsea exhibited small flower paintings by Milosh Sekulish in the smallest of its three spaces, with the two larger ones given over to new paintings and sculpture by Peter Reginato—no stranger to readers of this publication.

The six Reginato paintings were all 8½ x 11 inch colorful works on paper. They continued the “erudition” series that I also commented upon at “Sideshow Nation II.” There, the large painting entitled “Barnum & Bailey” incorporated the elliptical blips of ‘60s Poons and the ‘60s edging of Olitski. At Zarre, both these allusions continued, but I also noted scribbled areas that reminded me of ‘70s or ‘80s Frank Stella.

The six sculptures, on the other hand, showed Reginato in another world entirely--one of his very own making. This far more complete synthesis combined both the candy colors and occasionally cartoony shapes of pop with the elegance and dignity of mainstream modernism.

What this added up to, this time around, was a bewildering but satisfying mix of tightly curved and woven-together thin steel rods. They were usually accompanied by cut-out pieces of metal, ovals or blips and otherwise, every part painted with shiny enamel. All six sculptures were a very livable large medium-size, the tallest being about 7 feet tall.

I liked best those sculptures with the fewest, best-integrated colors, and the smallest areas of black.

“Johnny Wadd” (2013), for example, was largely pale colors—yellow, pink, blue and , orange—with a dynamic rise and thrust to one side, and the black limited to the ovals at the ends of its stalks.

“WTF” (2013) was even more balanced, branching outward like a young tree and with a minimal amount of black. It was composed of three small spirals, but practically no blips or other cutouts, and deliriously lovely colors: sailor blue, purple and aqua, with highlights of peach and lemon. Wild!

BRIEF COVERAGE FOR THREE BIGGIES

During the first week in March, the so-called avant-garde descended upon Manhattan like the mudslide in the state of Washington. Within five days (Tuesday through Saturday) I felt it advisable to try and take in 1) the media preview of the Whitney Biennial 2) “The Armory Show” on Piers 92 and 94 out on the Hudson River, and 3) “The Art Show” sponsored by the ADAA and held in the Park Avenue Armory. Both The Armory Show and The Art Show only ran through that Sunday, and I had other plans for Sunday.

The Biennial, to be sure, will be on view through May 25 , and I didn’t see it in its entirety at the media preview. About half way through my inspection of it, I ran into an editor I knew, and became more interested in talking to him about artists not in the Biennial. Before I knew it, my media preview was over.

Maybe I’ll get back to the Biennial at a later date. Maybe I won’t. Upon the basis of what I did see—and hear, from the show’s three curators,-- it’s possible other museum shows in New York may be of more interest to my readers. If there were six of me – just as the Times has six reviewers to cover the waterfront – this column could cover more shows.

I did spend a couple of afternoons with “The Armory Show” on the Hudson, but again, I didn’t see any particular works that screamed “write about me!” The exception might be the handful of recent paintings by Frank Bowling that was part of the display in the booth of Hales (of London), but as Bowling is having a bigger show of recent work at Spanierman Modern in New York next month, I will wait and review that show instead.

I will say that, in a general way, I saw more painting than I expected, and more abstract painting, on Pier 94, the “contemporary” pier. Much of the abstract was monochromatic, therefore pomonian minimalist as opposed to even trying to be modern, and even the abstract work that I’d classify as trying to be modern wasn’t succeeding very well.

I also didn’t feel that I saw as much Chinese work as I did a few years ago. I later learned that a special section of the exhibits had been devoted to Chinese galleries, but I seem to have missed this section, and wasn’t overwhelmed by the number of Chinese artists exhibited by non-Chinese galleries, as I have been in the past. Maybe it was simply that most of the Chinese art on display in Western galleries now looks so much like the Western art displayed right next to it that I didn’t feel any need to look at the labels.

Pier 92 – the “modern” pier—was a disappointment this year. There were only a few color-field paintings, and practically no abstract expressionism. Seems that ab-ex is out of style these days (maybe because it makes so much else look so tacky by comparison). In his discussion of the Whitney Biennial on March 6, the NY Times’s Holland Cotter voiced what seems to be a common opinion: “I find Abstract Expressionism….overrated and pretentious, a bore.”

Much the same sentiment was expressed to me a year or two ago by a Yale art history professor—after he had attempted to teach a seminar on the subject. Evidently he hadn’t been able to convey the enthusiasm that I believe he’d once felt to his students, conditioned as they doubtless had been by Damien Hirst, Richard Prince, or others of a similar ilk.

Of these three monster shows, best was “The Art Show” staged by the ADAA at the Park Avenue Armory, and even that was heavily infiltrated with the contemporary, ranging from the definitely entertaining pseudo-Flemish portraiture of Kehinde Wiley at Sean Kelly to the slick and superficial floral “abstracts” of Philip Taafe at Luhring Augustine.

“The Art Show” was also much more of a local affair, with no foreign galleries (they were all over on the Hudson) and only a smattering of U.S. galleries from outside the Big Apple.

Still, in and around all the attempts to grab spotlights were galleries showing admirable art. Acquavella had a smashing Fauvist Derain – “Paysage Provençal” (ca.1906-07) and a nice little 1864 seaside scene by Boudin. Galerie St. Etienne had an interesting and attractive display of paintings by Paula Modersohn-Becker, an early German modernist who might have amounted to even more if she hadn’t died at the age of only 31 (in 1907).

Adler & Conkright Fine Art (a private gallery in New York) had an appetizing display of Italian Futurists and Mittel Europeans. Giacomo Balla was included with an enchanting gray and white graphite on paper,”Dinamismo d’automobile” (1912-13) but as a Hungarian, my favorite (naturally) was a vividly-colored flower-like 1922 abstraction by Janos Mattis-Teutsch, fellow Magyar.

The real star of “The Art Show” was the booth of Mitchell-Innes & Nash, entirely devoted to the work of Anthony Caro. On view were six small but almost uniformly magnificent “Table Pieces,” four of them from the 1960s, one from 1972 and one from 1984. They were brilliantly displayed.

One of the two most unforgettable was the earliest and simplest, “Table Piece XIII” (1967), which had just three polished steel elements, one furnishing the base, one the connection, and one the flat rectangle hanging off its plinth. The other most memorable was the most elaborate, “Table Piece LXXVI” (1969). Made of varnished steel, it was entirely built around curved bars--centering on a circle with bars curving into its middle, and more curved bars radiating out from the circle’s sides. The whole was tilted at a 45-degree angle off its plinth, and it was remarkable how the whole hung together.

I visited this display twice, on my two visits to “The Art Show.” The first time, an older woman was in attendance. “It’s beautiful!” I said. She looked vaguely dissatisfied—“beautiful” is rather an old-fashioned adjective just now. The second time I went, a younger man was tending the booth. “It’s a-mazing!” I said. He looked happier—if also a tad startled (possibly to find that granny knew such words).
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