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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."

 

AND THE BEAT GOES ON

William Perehudoff (1918-2013) AC-87-023, 1987 Acrylic on canvas 55 x 114 inches Courtesy BERRY CAMPBELL, New York
Chelsea is still a place where younger artists & audience go to see and be seen, but it is also getting to be awfully chic. It never really was a low-end platform, even when it first took over the leadership of the downtown art scene from SoHo, but now this is more evident than ever, with the proliferation of shows by stars from the 60s (alive or dead, abstract as well as figurative). I’ve seen five shows there so far this fall worthy of consideration—all abstract, that being what still strikes me as our most radical art form.

AT LORETTA HOWARD: POONS

The most glamorous opening of the lot – to judge from what I’ve heard – was that of “Larry Poons: Geometry and Dots 1957-1965” at Loretta Howard (through December 14). Alas, a prior commitment prevented me from attending the opening myself, but I understand that it had “good vibes” and the stars came out for it, including James Rosenquist and Frank Stella. Poons himself, still going strong at 76, was there to greet them.

As to the show itself, I shouldn’t call it “interesting” as I gather that Poons dislikes this word. Written on a small sheet of graph paper with notations for proposed “dot” paintings that forms part of this show is this message: “People don’t realize that ‘interesting’ has absolutely nothing to do with talent.”

But it is precisely the inclusion of six such sheets of graph paper with similar notations, plus the inclusion of four paintings from the 1950s that don’t measure up to Poons’s work at its best, that shifts the focus of this show from being primarily esthetically rewarding to -- well, shall we say better described as “educational” or “illuminating”?

This emphasis on process, of course, is in the best pomonian tradition, where the act is more important than the result, and certainly these drawings on graph paper furnish abundant evidence that for Poons (as for almost any other artist worth mentioning) genius is one-tenth inspiration and nine-tenths perspiration.

Also, just because some of the work on view was done prior to his development of the “dot” paintings in the early 1960s doesn’t necessarily make it inferior: I liked “Florentine” (ca. 1958), a jazzy oil on canvas of jagged bright red and deep green forms, and also “The Flower it took centuries to make” (1957), a small and delicate gouache and ink on paper with just a few curved- and straight-sided geometric forms in black, white, gray and yellow.

However, the three lozenge-shaped canvases from the ‘50s did nothing for me beyond reminding me that Poons started out with an admiration for Mondrian (I seem to recall from an interview for the 1968 story that I did on him for Time that before he hit it big, he worked as a guard at MoMA, though the web doesn’t furnish me with any substantiation of this recollection, and I’m too lazy to hike out to a library and look up the story itself).

That said, there are also three large, gorgeous vintage paintings on view, together with a charming smaller untitled one from the same period.

The only one from the “dot” period is the dazzling “Lee’s Retreat” (1963). This is an 80-in. square canvas in which the blazing orange field is counterpointed by pale purple and irregularly spaced perfectly circular dots.

These dots seem to jump off the canvas every time you turn away from it and then turn back to look at it, perfectly illustrating why Poons was known during this period as a monarch of op.

“Jessica’s Hartford” (1965), an 80” x 120” rectangle, is a lovely picture, with a lime green field and contrasting accents of pale purple, pale orange and green. However, the mood is gentler and these accents are a combination of dots and the small ellipses which indicate the beginnings of the artist’s evolution toward a more painterly style.

Employing ellipses instead of circular dots is “Imperfect Memento: To Ellen H. Johnson” (also 1965), another more restrained beauty with a long, narrow format (39¾ “ x 181 ¾”), and a field of deep orange contrasted with ellipses of brown, blue and green.

There’s no doubt about it: Poons was and continues to be a master colorist, however many evolutions his draftsmanship may go & have gone through.

AT GARTH GREENAN: FEELEY

Another gallery showing work that vaguely fits the “color-field” category was Garth Greenan, a continuation of Gary Snyder’s establishment, on the same premises and run by a former Snyder employee/partner (Snyder himself, one gathers, has gone back to private dealing, as he seems to do from time to time).

The show was “Paul Feeley: 1957-1962,” and it was the show with which Greenan chose to inaugurate his new management (the show closed October 12). On view were a series of smallish hard-edge, semi-organic abstractions, mostly in only two colors, and large, simple shapes that reminded me of diagrams of skin cross-sections, dental X-rays, and jigsaw puzzles.

Only one painting on the checklist, dated 1962, presented the kind of image that Feeley (1910-1962) would become known for, with a balanced, regular in-and-out shape delineated by contrasting borders of color.

It somehow looked so much more right than any other images in the show that it’s obvious why Feeley stayed with it and developed it over the following years. Maybe I feel this rightness because I’m more familiar with this image, but I don’t think so. It has firmness and decisiveness that the other, earlier images lack.

Someday, I would like to see some of the painting Feeley was making in the late 1940s, when he was already teaching at Bennington College and Helen Frankenthaler was among his students. It may not strike me (at this late date) as radical or even good, but it seems to have inspired her.

AT STEPHEN HALLER: ZOX

Another color-field painter (and one, who according to the late, beloved critic Valentin Tatransky¸ served up really high-quality smack in those heady days of yore) was Larry Zox (1937-2006). The show was called “Larry Zox: The Early Work,” and, as presented by Stephen Haller (through November 2) it was another of these shows presenting early work along with mature work (do we sense a pattern here???).

In this case, the early work was three collages from 1960 to 1962. They cast a fascinating light upon Zox’s evolution, but didn’t overwhelm the effect of seven almost entirely handsome paintings from his peak years in the later ‘60s.

The collages merely suggest how Zox arrived at his signature “tectonic shifts,” with horizontal zigs of color and areas at the edges of the canvas that appear to have been cut into, but aren’t in reality shaped canvases.

I particularly went for “Diagonal II” (1965), with maroon, black, yellow and red; “Diagonal I” (1965), with yellows and oranges, more complicated but still elegant: “Untitled” (1964), with appetizing pinks, reds, oranges and yellows; and “Rotation B” (1964), with pale but distinguished bands of yellow, orange, maroon, pink, apricot, yellow, white and blue.

AT BERRY CAMPBELL: PEREHUDOFF

Berry Campbell is a new gallery, formed by the partnership of Christine Berry and Martha Campbell, two bright young graduates of Spanierman (which has concurrently relocated to West 55th Street, near 12th Avenue).

For their inaugural exhibition, Berry Campbell has chosen to feature William Perehudoff, a Canadian color-field painter who was born in 1919 and died only last February at the ripe age of 93. He is well-known in Canada, though less known here.

Like Poons, Zox and even Feeley, this artist became associated with color-field painting in the 60s, but instead of going back to that period, Berry Campbell has chosen to exhibit more recent work in “William Perehudoff: Color Field Paintings from the 1980s” (through November 16).

This was a courageous choice, as color-field painting is so firmly lodged in the public mind as a phenomenon of the ‘60s. I suspect that from the Chelsea walk-in traffic, the gallery owners are getting a certain number of dummies saying, “I didn’t know there was any color-field painting in the 80s.”

However, from an esthetic point of view, the decision is fully justified. From start to finish, this is a beautiful show, full of pictures made by an artist no longer in his preliminary stages, but having attained full command of his powers.

To be sure, there are none of Perehudoff’s marvelous large paintings from the period on view. The small space of this gallery—jammed to overflowing at the opening—wouldn’t have permitted it, nor would shipping them from Saskatoon have been feasible.

But I was happy to meet the artist’s daughter Cathy Fowler at the opening—having been introduced to her by Cara London – they first became friends when they were both painting at the Triangle Artists Workshop, back in the early 80s. I understand the artist’s two other daughters, Rebecca and Carol, were also there.

I saw something a while ago on artcritical.com to the effect that abstraction in the 80s in the U.S. generally became more fluid and open. This certainly applies to the works of Jules Olitski and Larry Poons, the U.S. artists by whom Perehudoff would most likely have been impressed, and it applies to him as well.

However, his own brand of “fluid and open” is not at all like theirs; he was firmly committed to a figure-on-ground approach—and even more firmly committed to a palette with vigorous contrasts between dark and bright. None of this “close value” nonsense for him!

Also, his paint is thinner for the most part, sitting sedately upon the canvas instead of rising to confront the viewer.

Most paintings at Berry Campbell have dark, soft, rich fields, with lighter and/or brighter, sometimes slightly thicker paint laid on in strips or circular glowing shapes at the center, which are also surrounded by strips.

And the touch is so sensitive! The paint is just laid on, ever so carefully, nothing swashbuckling about it. Just – at its best – plain wow.

My only complaint is the names of the paintings, or what passes for names but are really only letters and numbers.

A typical title is “AC-87-023.” It belongs to one of the outstanding paintings in the show, with a gold stripe laid across the top of its dark field, a yellow down stroke at the far left, a mauve one at the far right, and a row of mint green and gray closing the figure at the bottom.

AT KASMIN: BRANCUSI

Finally, the other show I saw in Chelsea that displays its subject exclusively in peak form is equally blessed in the space it is able to allot to its installation. This is “Brancusi in New York 1913-2013” at Kasmin (not the flagship space on Tenth Avenue, which was busy installing a show of native African art when I was there, but its outpost at 515 West 27th Street—through January 11).

If you want a superbly serene and uplifting experience, pay a call upon this space. There in solitary splendor (not even a receptionist sitting at a desk) you can contemplate five gleaming bronze masterpieces, each on its own pedestal, by Constantin Brancusi, the redoubtable Franco-Rumanian sculptor who, if he were still alive, would be 137 years old.

Beyond the partition at the back, you can see six black-and-white photographs, half of the work on view, and the other half devoted to Brancusi’s “Endless Column” sculptures (two of these pictures shows his cluttered studio, where you can also see a version of “The Kiss” and other sculptures).

The five actual bronzes on view are “Mademoiselle Pogany II,” “The Newborn,” “Sleeping Muse II,” “Head,” and “Fish.” None of them have any dates, but if you know your Brancusi, you know that he repeated his favorite subjects in many different sculptures, and in different years.

Nowhere can you see “Bird in Space,” which may be the artist’s most famous sculpture, nor are there any physical examples of his work in marble or wood, but then this is not meant to be a retrospective, or even an ordinary gallery show. Rather, it has the aura of being un hommage to Brancusi, and more particularly a show prompted by a book launch.

Nestling on a solitary chair, when I was there, were two copies of what the press release calls the show’s catalogue, but is more nearly a luxurious art book, with tons of classy photographs, authored by Jérôme Neutres and published by Assouline.

The title (which is also the title of the show) reminds us that Brancusi made his debut at the Armory Show of 1913. Although he was 37, he had never had a solo exhibition, but after the welcome his work received in New York, Alfred Stieglitz gave him his first solo exhibition here at 291 in 1914.

In the following decades, Brancusi remained a favorite with U.S. art-lovers. According to the wall text, during his lifetime 90 percent of his works were sold in America, even though he himself visited the country only three times (in 1926 and 1939).

“Without the Americans, I would not have been able to produce all this or even to have existed,” he told the New York Times in 1955, upon the occasion of his first museum retrospective—at the Guggenheim Museum.

So much for Paris, as the mother of modernism! But do go see this show.
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