A show that is still up is “Ray Oglesby: Recent Works” at Accola Griefen (through October 15). This is the inaugural exhibition of a new gallery whose proprietors are Kat Griefen (daughter of John) and Kristen Accola. It’s located at 547 West 27th Street, Suite #634, but don’t go expecting a carbon copy of John Griefen’s work; Kat Griefen is a lady with her own mind, and Oglesby (b. 1971) is a younger artist who made a name for himself with urban graffiti before attending Bard College, where he studied under (among others) Judy Pfaff. The result is a series of sinuous, large-scale cut and layered plywood sculpture-paintings that resemble in appearance a tangle of ribbon- or snake-like forms (like all true abstractions, this work is multireferential: the gallery’s press release finds further associations with blood vessels, aqueducts, air passages and underground pipelines of water, electricity, gas, and steam). The flat colors, curves and painted outlines to the shapes are vaguely reminiscent of Léger, but the effect is lively.
A third show in Chelsea that I attended is “Black Mountain College and Its Legacy” at Loretta Howard, co-curated by Howard and Robert S. Mattison, art professor at Lafayette College in Easton, PA, & author of books on Robert Rauschenberg, Motherwell and others (through October 29). This is an ambitious attempt to recreate the dynamic educational institution whose art programs were run by Josef Albers from 1940 to 1949, and which during that period (and slightly later) attracted not only distinguished teachers like Motherwell, de Kooning, Franz Kline, Merce Cunningham and John Cage, but also students who would later become famous, most notably Rauschenberg and Kenneth Noland. In the annals of Greenbergdom, Black Mountain is mainly notable for having enabled Noland to meet Clement Greenberg, who put in a week teaching critical theory there in August 1950 (and was visited during this period by Helen Frankenthaler). To the world at large, though, there is doubtless more interest in the Cunningham-Cage-Rauschenberg axis, so that’s where the emphasis lies in the current exhibition, leading to misty dance movies, recorded music & early & later work by Rauschenberg – all of which is very valuable from a pedagogical point of view but offers little visual appeal.
The show combines – or tries to combine – work from the period when the students or teachers were at Black Mountain with more recent work, and to accompany both by photographs showing the artists and other participants as they were at Black Mountain. To anybody who cares about art history, this is a very worthwhile show. But I must confess, I found very little art here worth a visit. The early Motherwell is interesting, but far from great, and the later work by him and de Kooning is substandard. The Albers is fine, I guess, if you like Albers, but he’s never sent me up the wall with delight. The later, semi-abstract painting by Robert de Niro, Sr. is again interesting, but on the dark and messy side—giving some hint of why Greenberg had praised his work in the 40s, but only a hint. I’d seen the name of Emerson Woelffer in Greenberg’s catalogue for the LA County’s “post-painterly abstraction” show, but I’d never seen his work in the flesh, so the three paintings by him here were also interesting. The early two, from ’48 and ’49, are surrealist, while the third resembles the pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb, but is dated 1952 (by which time Gottlieb himself had moved on to pure abstractions).
Sorry if I’m using the word “interesting” a lot, but that’s the highest praise I can give any of the paintings, including even the later Noland, “Soft Touch” (1963). True, it’s a crisply made chevron painting, but in very subdued, almost dingy colors (maybe the idea was that his work should be in keeping with the rest of the work in the gallery). Equally (and more surprisingly) interesting is the little early Noland from the artist’s Black Mountain period—very Klee-like, but brightly-colored, and also reflecting his liking for Ilya Bolotowsky, whose teaching he preferred to that of Albers (and the Bolotowsky painting in this show is definitely among its assets). But the really fascinating part of the show is all the many photographs—of everyone, teachers as well as students, but especially the one of young Noland, glaring into the camera with remarkable intensity. It fits perfectly with what I understand to have impressed Greenberg about Noland upon this meeting—not the work he was doing, but the fact that he evinced “character.”
Finally, two shows of 19th century photography. I don’t know why, but 19th century photography often turns me on. Maybe it’s the fact that the thrill of discovery is still with it, the charm of making images in a way that nobody else has made them before. The first of these two shows, at Throckmorton Fine Art, is “Sheying: Shades of China 1850-1900” (through November 5). This is photographs made by both foreign and Chinese photographers of the Chinese landscape, or – to be more accurate – cityscapes and harbor scenes, plus occasional pictures of people, scenery & people alike captured with a magical stillness. This was near the dawn of a period when China itself was becoming more familiar to the Western world. Thus there is a double thrill here, the first of the medium, and the second of the subject — which is what photography is all about anyway (I know there’s a lot of technique involved in making photographs, but to me the best photographs give no evidence of that technique). This show isn’t completely new. All the photographs in it, and many more besides, are contained in a picture book of the same name by Clark Worswick (and Maria Santoyo) that was published in Madrid in 2008, at the time of an exhibition in Valencia. But if you want to look at the book, it’s right there at the gallery—nobody is hiding it from you, nor—by the same token—would you have been able to see the photographs, separately hung, in New York before.
The second show is “Julia Margaret Cameron” at Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Fine Photographs (through November 18). I’ve written about this extraordinary woman before, but not recently, nor have I had a chance to see any other show of her work in quite a while. In this lovely exhibition, the checklist has 34 entries, most of which are photographs by Cameron herself, though a few are by other photographers, depicting her. I was a little worried that this show would do what MoMA did some years ago, focus on her “fancy pictures” of ladies drooping artistically in leafy bowers & wearing pseudo-Grecian garb, but fortunately, these elements are kept to what I am sure is a minimum. To be sure, there are portraits of women, but to the extent that they are clad in “artistic” costumes, they are more Pre-Raphaelite than Greek, which somehow fits them into a 19th century context more sensibly. Then, too, only about 18 of the items on the checklist are of females of any kind, while 11 are portraits of men, and these are the ones that I go ape for. In an earlier posting, I remarked that Ingres was better at depicting women than men; with Cameron, just the reverse is true—something about how distance from one’s subject may enhances one’s powers of observation, perhaps? I could hypothesize that since the men’s portraits are so much more muscular and strong, they appeal to a modernist sensibility, while the fainting, fading female image is more in line with postmodernist camp — but I suspect that even in this day and age, it’s the Cameron portraits of men that are most in demand (and this may explain their relative paucity in the present show).
In any event, the men here are marvelous, and again it’s the combination of composition with subject matter that makes them irresistible, whether we’re talking about elegant Sir Leslie Stephen, who married Julia’s niece and begat Virginia Woolf, or picturesque foreigners like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the Yankee poet, and Herr Joseph Joachim, the Hungarian violinist. My two favorites are probably everybody’s. First, there is Sir John Herschel, the Astronomer Royal, with his Messianic eyes, and second, Charles Darwin. I have always wondered what Darwin looked like, and am awed not only by his extra-long, flowing beard but also by his curiously monkey-like furrowed brow. By the way, when you go to see this show, check out the galleries on both sides of the entry lobby. The main gallery is to the right, but the second, to the left, has 8 more pictures, including one of Vice Chancellor Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, and father of the Alice Liddell who so inspired Lewis Carroll. Also on view here is a most intriguing picture of Alice herself and her two sisters, following the Victorian fashion of dressing alike — but well past the nymphet stage that Carroll immortalized.