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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."

 

LEON KOSSOFF: VETERAN

Well, when I went out to Governor’s Island last fall, to see the show of paintings there by Franklin Einspruch, I learned that Einspruch very much admires Leon Kossoff. I’d never heard of Kossoff, so when I saw an advertisement this spring for a show of his at Mitchell-Innes & Nash Chelsea (through June 18), I hurried round. Turns out I am late to the game. Kossoff was born in 1926, so he is now in his 80s. Although he only seems to have emerged fully-formed from art school in the 1950s, this is still more than 50 years of a professional career that I’ve missed, and I don’t feel I can make a definitive statement about the artist as a whole upon the basis of this one show. All I can do is review the show.

My first impression, upon entering the gallery, was of many very pale oil paintings, all figurative & all moderately impastoed, with a more or less standard late Monet brush stroke (Einspruch’s lavishly slathered, broader brush strokes had been fresher, somehow, just as his color was more vivid.) This entire show looks bleached. At least a third of the works on view are small, sketchy or schematic portrait heads, mostly of women, and mostly of a friend or model named Peggy. These nearly-identical paintings have an assembly-line look, as though the artist were willing to dash off as many of them as he had clients for.

Another third of the works on view are more fully realized, somewhat larger paintings depicting a fruit tree with a heavily slanted bough or trunk, held up by two wooden supports (according to the press release, this is an old cherry tree in the artist’s garden). These paintings are much more appealing, especially since the tree is seen from different angles in different pictures, and/or different seasons and/or with different accessories (house, tube train, etc.).The variety is welcome, and the impressionist brush stroke appears to better advantage with this subject, but I find the image of a crippled tree, held up by crutches, disquieting. Monet and Renoir typically painted healthy trees

I liked the last series of paintings much better. Although they were least numerous, they were the largest, and depicted Christchurch, Spitalfields, an 18th Century Anglican church that has been extensively restored over the past thirty years. According to the desk attendants at the gallery, this church is near Kossoff’s studio, too, but what made his images so exciting to me was the foreshortening he’s used to portray the ornate baroque details of the church’s facade as a stack of curved & angular forms, piled up together in a tone-poem of grays. At last, I thought to myself, he has moved on from late impressionism to proto-cubism. Joking aside, I did get a sustained feeling of esthetic ambition from the show as a whole (which is more than I can say for Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud, two better-known members of “the London school”). And the charcoal drawings of the cherry tree looked terrific – black & wiry & very energetic – at least, as nearly I could tell from the reproductions in the catalogue. Too bad none of the drawings themselves are on display.
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