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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."

 

3 TIMES & PLACES

Peter G. Ray. "The Garden of Earthly Delights" 2013. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 72" x 102".
Three worthwhile gallery shows I’ve seen recently present art from three times & places. The earliest takes us back to the 1920s in Paris. The latest presents art as it is now, in exurban New York and Canada. The middle focuses on a painter who worked during the five decades in between, all the way from Florida to New Hampshire.

FIRST, A CORNER OF VIEUX PARIS

Eyken Maclean, on the Upper East Side of New York, is usually a private gallery, but every so often it stages a special exhibition open to the public. My readers may remember its memorable 2011 exhibition on “Matisse and the Model.” Now it has matched the high quality of that show with “Surrealism and the rue Blomet". This show was organized by Kristy Bryce, the gallery’s director (through December 13).

It seems that in the 1920s, Joan Miró and André Masson had studios side by side at 45 rue Blomet. This was a ramshackle building in an out-of-the-way (and correspondingly bargain-priced) corner of Montparnasse.

Miró’s studio was compulsively neat, while that of Masson was compulsively messy, but that patchwork group of artists, writers, and ideologues who formed the nascent surrealist movement went for the messy.

They hung out at all hours in Masson’s studio. There they ate, drank, smoked opium, played games, made art & above all, talked and talked on into the night (a spare mattress was provided in case somebody wasn't preparaed to go home).

Around this nucleus of an idea, a compulsively beautiful, albeit modestly-scaled, exhibition has been constructed. There are four lovely small to medium-sized works by Miró on display, but the show really belongs to Masson.

He is represented by 12 paintings and drawings, not to mention the partial authorship (with Yves Tanguy and others ) of four of the most persuasive “cadavres exquis” that I’ve seen (persuasive, I think, because the folds that separated the various artists’ contributions are still evident—no overly-assiduous curator has ironed them out).

Other artists represented to good effect include Picasso, Juan Gris & Pablo Gargallo, whose delightful bronze-and-nickel head of Kiki de Montparnasse combines cubism with Art Deco. There are also a number of works by lesser surrealists and/or habitues of the rue Blomet that seem to have been included more in the interests of completeness than because they are artistic triumphs.

Then, not only because it’s academically correct, but also because surrealism reverberated through all the arts, there are books in the back gallery written and/or illustrated by surrealists, a clip from a film by Man Ray, photographs (reminding one forcibly of how young all these people were) and headphones (to let one hear West African music typical of the Bal Nègre, a dance hall on the same block).

A good deal is made of Masson’s use of “automatic drawing,” which is the closest that the visual arts would come to the “pure psychic automatism” that defined surrealism, according to the manifesto by André Breton, the movement’s official founder.

It’s well illustrated in this show, and not only through Masson’s two elegant, and almost completely abstract, small “dessins automatiques” that hang in the back gallery. In addition, the front gallery shows how Masson progressed from his workmanlike but somewhat derivative small cubist paintings of the early 20s to the far freer, more original and semi-automatic paintings of the mid- to late 20s..

Two examples of these are the sweet watercolor of a fish (1924) and the tidy oil and charcoal entitled “Le paysage au serpent” (1927). Here the white snake of the title slithers from the blink of a coy eye at the lower left-hand corner of the canvas to a flickering tail in the upper right.

I do wish that the gallery had mentioned that Miró also experimented with automatism – indeed, I think it contributed to the airy symbolism of his later work.

I first learned about the surrealist use of automatic drawing back in 1968, when I was still on Time & being introduced by William Rubin to surrealism & dada, in connection with his great show of these subjects at MoMA.

To Rubin, the best example of automatic drawing was Miró’s great painting, “The Birth of the World” (1925). While I was working on my memoir in the 21st century, I read more recent scholarship on this painting, and learned that it wasn’t as automatic as Rubin had claimed, since Miró had made preliminary drawing(s) for it.

However, even those pomonian scholars most eager to discredit that old devil formalist Rubin still conceded that in Miró’s drawings, sometimes he did use automatism. Miró may have gotten the idea from Masson, or Masson may have gotten it from him, or they may both have gotten it from Breton—or it may simply have been “in the air.”

Whoever was responsible, the balance & coherence Masson’s automatist drawings and paintings in this show make me feel that the surrealist claim that such images leap spontaneously & unbidden from the artist’s unconscious can only be understood in the more general context of how every artist makes a picture. It was always more of a talking point than a reality---though for many artists, I am sure, a very helpful one.

WILD & WOOLY IN WILLIAMSBURG

The modernist community owes a great debt of gratitude to Kenworth W. Moffett. When he was curator of modern and contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, he acquired many important works of art & organized many important exhibitions, including those for Jules Olitski and Larry Poons. He has also written books on Olitski, Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis.

More recently he has been director of the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and advised many collectors and museums. He has offered, and continues to offer, much illuminating commentary in his two “Artletters,” the first published in hard copy some years ago, and the second, currently at his website.

Moffett has also been a prime mover and shaker in the creation of the “New New Painting,” a group of somewhat younger modernist painters that has enjoyed considerable sales & exhibition success over the past two decades.

I myself am very indebted to Moffett for his extensive review of my book, A Memoir of Creativity. This review went online earlier this year, and in it he said many very nice things about me and my book.

However, he also conceded that on occasion, he and I have had differences of opinion, and specifically, he had a bit of trouble with my theory of multireferential imagery. So I hope he will forgive me if I confess that I, too, have had a bit of trouble in appreciating his newest venture.

This is a two-person exhibition at Sideshow in Williamsburg which he curated. It is entitled “Roy Lerner, Peter G. Ray: Wizards with Paint” (through December 15).

Not that I intend to pan this show. On the contrary, I found it highly interesting, and – in its way --- highly stimulating. Everybody who is interested in serious painting should go see it. It has some splendid work in it, too, but it isn’t – in my opinion, perfect.

Moffett always looks for the most far-out art he can find. He loves the experimental, the wild and wooly. Although he is preeminently a modernist, he also feels that modernism can benefit by taking inspiration upon occasion from postmodernism.

This exhibition includes a lot of experiments and a number of works influenced by postmodernism. I just don’t happen to feel that all the experiments are successful, or that borrowing from postmodernism necessarily enhances a work.

In the category of experiments, I would include almost all the works by Roy Lerner. I know this because I have followed his work over the years, considering him perhaps the most gifted painter in the “New News” and definitely a major artist in his own right.

However, the work that he’s shown me in his studio in South Salem NY, and the work that he’s exhibited in previous exhibitions I’ve seen, mostly differs from the work on view at Sideshow. Moffett almost always appears to have selected experiments that Lerner tried, and subsequently decided he didn’t want to develop further (or display).

I wouldn’t call any of them “postmodern.” They are all firmly in the modernist tradition of painting, and mostly, they give evidence of Lerner’s very fine color sense.

The earliest examples of these modernist experiments are the two pictures painted on convex stretchers, “Axis” (1996), and “Two Dimensions Bent” (1996). I felt that the first didn’t come off, but the second one did.

Same story with two paintings on which very thin and brightly colored paint has been poured over the canvas (diluted Pollock): “Satellite Resolution” (1999) and “Clear as a Bell” (2006). The first, larger one has too many colors, and their organization is awkward; the second, somewhat smaller & mostly red with some yellow, works well.

Most recently, it seems, Lerner has been covering his canvases with aluminum mesh, then painting onto the mesh. The first painting that he shows using this technique is “Life as it Should Be” (2013), but the large bland shapes at the top don’t go well with the smaller & busier ones at the bottom.

The second painting with the mesh, “Gravity” (2013) works a lot better and is really very good-looking—the mesh offers a softer, cloudlike and slightly glittering surface. I could wish that the new look to this painting were due to an alteration in the painting, rather than to the support, but I know that any sort of innovation is hard to come by.

“All Set to Samba” (2001) is different in its painting. Rather than introducing new materials, it relies for its distinctive effect on the softer, subtler colors that it employs, as opposed to Lerner’s usual brilliant hues. At first, I was put off by this novel (for Lerner) palette, but then I found it growing on me.

Peter G. Ray is Moffett’s newest discovery. I met him briefly when I visited the gallery, and he struck me as very intense and very sincere.

According to Moffett’s Artletter 2.0, Ray was a boxer, an actor, and a film maker before immigrating from his native Bulgaria to Montreal in 1991. Since then, he has written a volume of poetry and two novels, before experiencing the “epiphany” that led him to take up painting.

His present idiom falls between modernism and postmodernism. He freely employs abstract areas of poured paint, mostly black, white and silver, in splats, loops and pointed whorls. They seem to derive, at some distant remove, from Pollock,but look more like biomorphic 1930s surrealism (reminiscent of Masson, Matta or Ernst).

Sometimes this technique is employed in traditional easel paintings—for example, in the lozenge-shaped picture called “Invisible Reality” (2013). I thought it quite attractive.

Sometimes areas employing this paint technique are laid onto assemblages that incorporate sheets of aluminum and/or other materials. Three assemblages in this show are monumental versions of common objects.

They are: “Urban Galaxy in the Shape of a Sweetbar” (2013), “Urban Galaxy in the Shape of a Soft-Drink Can” (2013), and “Milena” (2009 – an 8-foot tall shopping bag).

I thought these were interesting, but unfortunately I am haunted by memories of Claes Oldenburg, who has been making “monuments” of common objects since the 60s.

Oldenburg’s “monuments” are different, of course. Most notably, they don’t have paint smeared all over them—but I wouldn’t say this lack of paint makes them inferior.

Another assemblage is “The Door” (2009). This sheet of plywood has two pieces of silver chain in the center, held together by a silver padlock and surrounded by areas of paint. I was reminded of the combines of Robert Rauschenberg, which have never done much for me; also, the paint areas in “The Door” are messy and the colors, often muddy.

On the other hand, every so often, Ray comes up with a real winner. I really loved “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (2013). This 6’ x 8½ ‘ acrylic on canvas, a real & well-organized abstract painting, starts with a field of mostly yellow , a center area of greens, and assorted accents in other colors.

However, what makes it do unusually effective is that it’s surrounded by a huge sheet of aluminum paper, torn back in the middle to reveal the painting. The paper’s bulging jagged edges complement the painting, yet offer a refreshing change of pace from it.

All told, I would say that out of 14 major works in the exhibition, in my opinion (which obviously differs from Moffett’s) six came off well above average, and this is a pretty good batting average. (I understand that Clement Greenberg used to say that if there were five good paintings in a show, it counted as a good show).

I would also say that although a higher percentage of Lerner’s experiments are successful, the best single work in the show is Ray’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.”

By the way, Richard Timperio, proprietor of Sideshow, has two exhibitions of his own paintings going right now, too. The first is "Sonic Boom," at G. Grippo, 174 Grand Street in Williamsburg (through January 6). I dropped in on it, on my way to Sideshow, and was favorably impressed. Timperio's paintings hang high on the gray concrete walls of the lower area of this space (otherwise occupied by an elite clothing establishment). This places them right at eye level with the upper area, where the entrance from the street is.....

The other show is "Color Me Gone," at Janet Kurnatowski (through December 22). This is a regular art gallery, so it's a more prestigious show, but it's located at 205 Norman Avenue, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint, and that's a long, long way from my home. I'm sorry I won't be able to get to this show, but, as I have reviewed Timperio's work twice in the past three years, I didn't feel it was necessary to review it again just yet.

AND A HAPPY MEDIUM: FROM FLORIDA TO NEW HAMPSHIRE

Finally, for those who just like fine painting, and don’t feel the need to stay up on the latest wrinkles, I can strongly recommend “Jules Olitski on an Intimate Scale…and Friends” at Freedman Art (through January).

This exhibition of small works by Olitski from 1961 through to 2007 (the year he died) is a version of the exhibition at George Washington University in Washington DC that I warmly reviewed last year, and that I am equally delighted to welcome to the Big Apple.

Every period in the artist’s mature career is included, from the early stain and spray paintings through his classic and baroque periods, and up to and including the “orbs” of his final years.

These paintings were made all up and down the Eastern seaboard, from the Florida Keys to Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hamphire.

While I am sure everybody will have their own favorites, I went in particular for the baroque works from the late 80s and early 90s that are the first paintings you will view as you step off the elevator.

I also saw two later works that I hadn’t remembered and that I liked: “Violet Estuary” (1999) and “Ablimech Reflection” (2000).

As if that weren’t enough, this exhibition also includes (in the back gallery) some neatsy small works by Olitski’s friends. There are a couple of fine small table pieces by Anthony Caro, plus a fat little “personage” by David Smith, and a tiny but suitably clotted 1986 painting by Larry Poons.

Helen Frankenthaler has five pieces here, of which the 1982 untitled acrylic on paper is by far the best, and Kenneth Noland has two pieces, among them a haunting vertical plaid piece entitled “Andrew’s Gift” (1973), with surprisingly thin paint behind its stripes.

Walter Darby Bannard is seen to good advantage with “Yellow Pearl” (1980), a mellow stoneware piece, and Hans Hofmann is also represented, while Andrew Hudson, the Washington DC art critic, creeps into this august company with “Turtle Green” (1964), an oil on canvas that doesn’t tell us much beyond the fact that Hudson was a fervent admirer of Olitski, Frankenthaler and maybe also Friedel Dzubas when he made it.

Nor would I count the Hudson as the only piece in this exhibition that owes its presence more to sentiment than esthetics. Most of the Frankenthalers on view, the other (very late) Noland, and the Hofmann in my opinion do not repeat not represent their creators at their peaks.

Moreover, I must confess that I have never been that enthusiastic about Olitski's late "orb" paintings, and that, as a friend of mine observed, the early stain paintings are most effective at a large scale, and tend to look a bit cute when presented in miniature.

Merely because all these artists have done so much for us doesn't mean they were gods, incapable of mistakes and lesser achievements. On the other hand, the relatively few lesser works in this show don't keep it from being an overall absorbing experience.

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