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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."

 

4 SHOWS

Esteban Vicente’s collages have the endearing quality of always seeming new. I so much enjoyed his current show at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, entitled “Concrete Improvisations: Collages and Sculpture by Esteban Vicente.” It has been elegantly co-curated by Lynn Gumpert, Edward J. Sullivan & Ana Martínez de Aguilar and will be on view through March 26, then at the Meadows Museum, at SMU in Dallas (May 15 to July 3), and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Esteban Vicente in Segovia, Spain (September 27 through January 8, 2012). This show features some 60 works on paper and small-scale sculptures, and, although I’d somehow been aware that this painter was also known for his collages, I was under the impression that I hadn’t seen any them, though I knew I’d seen (and liked) his paintings. Before I started to write this review, however, I checked my records, and discovered that I’d written quite a substantial (and admiring) review of his last show of collages at Ameringer-Yohe in December 2008, only a little over two years ago. It may be that there is just something about paintings that stays longer with me. A certain sensitivity, a certain extra personal touch, while collage by its very nature is somehow more impersonal. Never mind, these collages are for the most part still very easy on the eyes, and well worth a visit to Washington Square.

For those who may be coming in on Vicente for the first time, he was a member of the first generation of abstract expressionists in terms of his birth date (1903), but only a member of the second in terms of beginning to exhibit in New York as an abstract expressionist. Born in Spain, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1936, and on both sides of the Atlantic devoted his early career to representational painting (supporting himself as a portraitist during World War II). In the later 40s, he began to gravitate towards the first generation of abstract expressionists, and even moved into a studio on the same floor as de Kooning in 1950. The year before, he’d made his first collages shortly after arriving at Berkeley to teach, and becoming impatient because his brushes & paints had not yet arrived. It was, however, not until he was included in “Talent 1950,” the landmark show organized by Meyer Schapiro and Clement Greenberg for the Kootz gallery, that he began exhibiting abstract expressionist work in the Tenth Street galleries then so important to the movement. Thereafter, his fame began to grow, and he was able to supplement his earnings with additional prestigious teaching appointments (finally helping to establish the New York Studio School, and remaining on its faculty for many years). He died at the age of 97 in 2001.

The early collages in this show, muted in color, full of busy little shapes and sometimes employing scraps of newspaper with writing on them, are clearly based in the cubist collages of Braque, Picasso and Gris (nor is this surprising, when you remember that Vicente was Spanish, and that he looked up his countryman Picasso when he was visiting Paris in the early 30s, even if he didn’t yet share the senior artist’s esthetic outlook). As Vicente’s collage technique matured, he began to develop a style that, for lack of a better word, we might call “formalist.” By this I mean that, unlike Schwitters and the surrealists, he chose pieces of paper for their appearance, as opposed to what they might have written upon them (intellectual content). This meant abandoning found materials and tearing or cutting up hand-painted fine-art paper without any writing on it, then arranging the pieces on paper or cardboard supports, so as to create an independent composition. In this endeavor, Vicente must surely have been aware of the contemporary paper cut-outs that Matisse was making (“Jazz” was published in 1947, while the “Blue Nudes” date from the early ‘50s); also of the combinations of gouache & oil with collage that Motherwell had made a name for himself with earlier. Motherwell, Pollock, and Baziotes were all invited by Peggy Guggenheim to contribute collages to a major collage exhibition that she staged at Art of This Century in 1943, and Motherwell subsequently featured such work at his first solo exhibition at Art of This Century in 1944. The best-known of these works, ”Pancho Villa, Dead and Alive,” was acquired by MoMA that same year. I don’t mean to suggest that Vicente’s collages look like Matisse or Motherwell, only that their insistence upon valuing paper for its esthetic properties (not its nostalgic ones) would have furnished Vicente with encouragement to proceed in that same direction.

Still, there is something for everybody in this exhibition, even diehard dadaists. Fanciers of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol will no doubt enjoy two collages, dating from 1956, when Vicente was experimenting with commercial labels, from Girl Scout cookies to Lionel electric trains to (yes, indeed) Campbell’s tomato soup. In the relatively muted compositions of the earlier ‘50s, I see a kinship to Conrad Marca-Relli, while the organizers of the show point at this stage to parallels with the “push-pull” theories of Hofmann. Toward the end of the ‘50s, though, and on through the rest of Vicente’s career, his shapes open out into larger, freer forms, and he begins to take full advantage of the radiant coloristic possibilities in fine-art paper. All of this puts him more in the family of Helen Frankenthaler. The later work still has its lows as well as its highs, but there is so much to like here that I fancy anybody who shares my heterodox taste will have a good time. (As to the sculptures, which are small, brightly-colored and tossed off by the artist as “toys” or “divertimentos,” they are cute. Those on view, executed between 1968 and 1997, reminded me of miniature David Smith “Cubis,” though maybe earlier ones look to earlier models, such as those mentioned in the labels, by Joaquín Torres-Garcia.)

Incidentally, the downstairs gallery at the Grey is displaying "Art/Memory/Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire," an exhibition devoted to the awful fire that raged through a Greenwich Village factory a century ago, killing 146 mostly female garment workers and sparking reforms & political ramifications (through March 26; also April 12 to July 9). This documentary show is more historical than esthetic, and the early part of it, dealing with the catastrophe itself, are quite interesting. The latter parts, dealing with the attention that the event has received in the century since, I found less appealing, especially the art dedicated to the subject.

FROM THE ATTRACTIVE TO THE INTERESTINGLY UGLY

Conceptual artists interest me occasionally, particularly when I feel that they are commenting on modernism. Loren Munk has done this in the past, from time to time, and so, in his current show at L & M Arts, does David Hammons (through February 26). Or at least it appears that way to me. In this show, “Obstruction” would appear to be the theme, though the exhibition has no title (beyond the artist’s name) and eschews a press release (at the artist’s request). In this luxurious space, the two bottom floors of a huge town house on the upscale Upper East Side, one may see a group of large unframed canvases, covered up almost entirely by casually draped sheets of black plastic or fabric (or, in one case, by a piece of furniture turned to the wall). Every work is listed merely as “untitled, mixed media,” but from the glimpses of paint visible through the holes in, or around the edges of, these sheets, I deduce that these paintings may be abstracts in the gestural style of vintage de Kooning. Though I can’t be sure about this, if indeed it’s true, then the presentation may be read as traditional art being obscured or obstructed by non-traditional art, or, to put it the way I see it, as modernism obscured or obstructed by dada, aka postmodernism, aka anti-modernism --- in any event, a cogent commentary on the situation at present.

MEANWHILE, DOWN IN TRIBECA….

An exhibition entitled “Frida, Fan, Red Painting and Me” in the Lotus Salon stars a far younger artist who, in his more serious moments, makes a serious claim to modernism (through March 30). The artist is Miljan Suknovic, a Montenegrin born in Serbia & educated in Prague, Florence, Hamburg and at the Art Students League in New York. I’ve been reviewing his work for a while now, as he manages to keep on exhibiting in any venue he can wangle. First, he appeared in a group show in an advertising agency, next in a solo show at the Serbian Consulate, then in a gallery in Tribeca, and now in an establishment that cuts, colors & conditions hair. Some of this latest show is whimsical, including the invitation, which is a photo of the artist made up to resemble Frida Kahlo, against a field of blood red, pointing a hairdryer at his head like a gun. This image is for sale as a poster, but in addition there are a couple of the “fluid paintings” that the artist exhibited in his gallery show, and that I like as much now as I did then. There are also several medium-sized all-over paintings in pale blue or pink with intriguingly thatched brushwork, and above all, a large (6 ft. x 10 ft.) and exceedingly handsome untitled diptych that hangs over a row of wash basins. The field is blackish green merging into purple, and adorned --- especially around the edges --- with dancing, deftly brushed squiggles of brightly colored greens, yellows, whites, reds and blues. This painting is worthy of any gallery in Chelsea, but Suknovic, at 37, has yet to develop a following large enough for a big-time dealer to take a gamble on him.

GUILT REARS ITS UGLY HEAD

An exhibition that I feel guilty about not having reviewed earlier is (or was) “Two Modernists Revisited: Stanley Boxer (1926-2000) & Guy Danella (1928-2006)” at Kouros (closed January 29, though a truncated version of it has been mounted on the third floor of the gallery & extended through February 26). I yield to no one in my admiration for Boxer, but this show did not present him in top form. In the original presentation, he was accorded a separate gallery, on the second floor, while Danella got a gallery of his own, on the more accessible first floor. A speedy tour of Danella’s work told me that I wasn’t interested in it, while the Boxer gallery was about 40 percent devoted to semi-abstract, semi-surrealist paintings from the ‘60s and ‘70s that gave not a hint of the brilliance he would later attain. The only painting from this period with any promise was a small, greenish-bluish “Still Life” (1951). The remaining 5 or 6 paintings on view, all from later years, were mostly good, though rarely great, with the artist’s characteristic vocabulary of flickering fields of paint overlaid with splatters, tiny glistening beads of color, bits of cardboard & other elements that lent textural interest. (Just as Vicente chose his papers only for their esthetic value, so too Boxer rifled notions stores & art stores to find materials that appealed strictly for their visual value.) The best of the works on view was the large diamond-shaped, darkling “Screamwithcalm” (1996), with blacks & greens at the top, and mottled beige below. Also good was the pale “Feastofsighs” (1993) with a beige field beneath drips of grey and red glittering particles, as well as “Screamtowhere”(1995), combining a field of light brown & beige with glitter of green & sparkles of red. The last-named was the most conventional of the three, but still very likeable.



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