FIRST: “ALEXANDER THE GREAT”
The larger show is a tribute to Alexander Iolas, a flamboyant gallerist who was born in Egypt to Greek parents in 1907, and who, after an early career as a ballet dancer, went into the business of exhibiting and selling art after World War II. Until his death in 1987, he was associated with many different galleries, primarily in New York but also in Paris and elsewhere on the Continent—mostly under his own name, but sometimes in association with others.
The show dedicated to him at Kasmin consists of 52 works by 26 artists, created between the 1930s and the present. Iolas exhibited the work of all 26 (though the specific works on view at Kasmin aren’t necessarily among those Iolas exhibited).
“Alexander the Great” is dominated by decidedly weird objects and wall pieces, seen to good advantage against the walls of the gallery, which have been painted a handsome blue. Collages, assemblages, and figurative—though fanciful—paintings abound, along with a few abstract paintings (mostly with a semi-abstract tinge).
Almost all of this work is, in the most general sense, surrealist--and surrealism was always meant to be weird and bizarre, devoted as it is to presenting dreams and their illogical logic of the Freudian unconscious, as opposed to the workings of the rational waking mind.
One of the smaller semi-abstracts in this show was done in 1957, and is the handiwork of Jules Olitski. He was in his mid-30s when he had his first solo exhibition in New York with Iolas.
Olitski has since become known as a quintessential modernist. Why should he have elected to have his show in a seeming haven of postmodernism? After all, the literalism of the academic branch of surrealism was, among other things, a revolt against the abstraction of the best cubism and as such, a form of postmodernism avant la lettre. I will endeavor to explain this seeming dichotomy in due time.
A LITTLE REVISIONIST HISTORY
The press release for the Iolas show claims that Iolas was “among the first to introduce American audiences to surrealism.” Not quite. Surrealism’s semi-official birth year is 1924, when the French poet André Breton, in his first surrealist manifesto, defined the movement as “pure psychic automatism.” And the earliest art by those artists who became known as surrealists dates from that decade as well.
The movement was at its apogee in Paris in the 1930s. During this decade it also became known to American audiences. Manhattan galleries like those of Pierre Matisse (son of Henri) and Julien Levy led the way, the former showing Joan Miró (among others), and the latter showing Salvador Dalí (among others).
Even more importantly, in1936 the Museum of Modern Art staged “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism,” a comprehensive and well-attended show that also traveled around the country. Time commemorated it by putting Dalí on its cover—and, although the news magazine was much more on the cutting edge in the ’30 than it later became, it was also already a national publication, with readers stretching across the U.S.
While it is certainly true that most of the top surrealists who had come to the fore in the 1920s and 1930 continued to make and exhibit their art after World War II, they were no longer the vanguard in either Paris or New York.
In Paris, the lead was taken over by forms of abstract painting variously known as tachisme or l'art informel. In New York, of course (though some college professors, even at this late date, try to avoid the fact) the leaders were the abstract expressionists.
In the 1960s, along came pop and post-painterly abstraction (with the first generation of abstract expressionists elevated to the category of Old Masters, and second generation mostly relegated to the storage racks). In Paris, the movement corresponding most nearly to pop was “Nouveau Réalisme.” It was named after a new manifesto, written in 1960 by the art critic Pierre Restany, and signed -- by many artists -- in the workshop of Yves Klein. Among its best-known adherents (besides Klein) were Jean Tinguely, Christo, & Niki de Saint-Phalle.
ALEXANDER’S GOLDEN ERA
The choice of works at Kasmin suggests that the golden era for Iolas was the 1960s and 1970s. Only 12 works in it were done in the period between 1930 and 1960, while 34 were done between 1960 and 1980 (the remainder being even later). Also pointing to this period is the 1987 obituary in the New York Times by John Russell, the transplanted Brit art critic, who wrote that "In the 1960s, above all, his gallery was one of the liveliest and most active in Paris."
Admittedly, the show at Kasmin is rich in worthy late work by Paris-oriented first-generation surrealists : René Magritte, Max Ernst, Victor Brauner, Dorothea Tanning & Roberto Matta, as well as that all-American master, Joseph Cornell (with three luscious collages). Still, it is mostly with the second-generation surrealists – perhaps more accurately described as “Les Nouveaux Réalistes”—that this show really sparkles.
In addition to token pieces by Tinguely and Niki de Saint-Phalle, there a sweet little Klein, with just a spritz or two of blue pigment on it. This is the first Klein that I can recall seeing and liking, the first that comes across as a real painting, not just a joke.
I was even more taken by the sculptures (assembled and/or cast) by “Les Lalanne.” This was a husband-and-wife team: Claude (b.1924) and François-Xavier (1927-2008) Lalanne. I had never heard of either before, but they have 5 works apiece in this show, and most of them are very entertaining.
The star is “La Mouche” (1966) by François-Xavier, a monster fly, four feet long. In addition to shiny, transparent wings and the regulation six legs, it has a toilet seat (with open lid) for the back of its body, toilet paper coming out of its mouth, and (presumably for those who like to read on the toilet) a big book with gold-edged pages hung in a bizarre niche just behind its neck.
Another charmer is “Palafreniere con due Cavalli” (“Groom with Two Horses”). A late work (1937) by Giorgio de Chirico, the proto-surrealist Italian, this small oil depicts a lithe young man, clad only in a loin cloth, with draperies & two horses by the edge of the sea. It is said to relate to the early career of “Alexander the Great” as a ballet dancer.
OPEN TO YOUTH
My readers may still be wondering how Olitski fits into this situation. I find a clue in the evidence provided by Les Nouveaux Réalistes that Iolas was not content to show only artists who were already famous, but also gambled on the young and unknown.
The instance postmodernists will be happiest to hear about is the first solo exhibition in New York that Iolas gave Andy Warhol. This happened in 1952, a full decade before Warhol assaulted the citadels of high art with his soup cans and garish portraits of Marilyn. He was already a successful commercial artist and illustrator, though, and Iolas was the director (though not the owner) of the Hugo Gallery (the Iolas Gallery would not open until 1955).
The work by Warhol displayed was 15 much more conventional drawings, illustrating the writings of Truman Capote. According to David Bourdon, arguably the best of Warhol’s many biographers, getting the show was relatively simple. Warhol brought the drawings in and showed them to Iolas, who liked them but was going to Europe for the summer. He prevailed upon the man who owned the bookstore above the gallery to keep the gallery open for an extra three weeks, so Andy could have his show. (It got a favorable review by James Fitzsimmons in Art Digest, but nobody bought anything.)
Olitski’s path was much more circuitous, according to the tale told by the artist himself in a hilarious article that appeared in Partisan Review in 1989, and has been reprinted in the comprehensive catalog to “Alexander the Great.”
Seems that Olitski returned in 1951 from Paris, where he’d studied art under the GI Bill, and had had his first solo exhibition--at the ex-pats cooperative, Galerie Huit. In New York , he couldn’t find a dealer to give him a show. While some were more courteous than others, all rejected his work.
He did get a job teaching art at C.W. Post College on Long Island. Using his academic credentials, he staged a group show there, “L ‘École de Paris Aujourd’hui.” It was composed of paintings borrowed from all the Manhattan galleries where Olitski would have liked to show. It also included his own paintings—but not under this own name.
Instead, he said they'd been made by a fictional Russian émigré named Jevel Demikov. His story was that “Demikov” had infuriated the all-powerful Josef Stalin with his abstract paintings, and, to escape being exiled to Siberia, he had fled to the U.S. Now “Demikov” was in hiding somewhere in Brooklyn, in deathly fear of Soviet agents, and would see & talk to nobody but Olitski. Olitski also had an announcement printed up, with the names of the artists in the show.
When it was over, he loaded all the paintings in it into his Microbus and started to return them to the galleries. His first stop was Iolas. After he’d returned the paintings he’d borrowed from him, he asked Iolas if he’d like to have a copy of the announcement for his files. Iolas said yes, and in reading it, noticed the name of Demikov in amongst Picasso, Matisse, Miró and all the rest of the School of Paris stars.
He asked Olitski who was this Demikov, and Olitski gave him Demikov’s dramatic life story. Olitski added that he had some paintings by Demikov in his van—would Iolas like to look at them? Intrigued, Iolas said yes, so Olitski brought them up and Iolas examined them. He liked them so much that he offered Demikov a show.
However, he said that he must meet and talk with Demikov. Olitski tried very hard to keep the whereabouts of his fictional Russian a secret, but in the end was forced to concede, “Alors, Demikov—c’est moi!” He got his show anyway, eight months later—in 1958. Among those who came to see it was Clement Greenberg. He liked it well enough to sign the guest book, and that (as they say) was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
MYSTERY & SOLUTION
The only mystery, judging from “Alexander the Great,” is why Greenberg should have wanted to visit the Iolas gallery. He wasn’t that fond of surrealism (with the exception of Miró, who, to judge from the Kasmin show, didn’t exhibit with Iolas). “Le Nouveau Réalisme” was the French equivalent of pop, and, although Greenberg did at first find pop refreshing, its big eruption hadn't yet occurred in 1958.
The solution seems to be that in the 50s, Iolas was showing more abstract painting than one might guess from the Kasmin show, and most likely, contemporary French abstraction not unlike Olitski’s.
There’s evidence that this was the case, starting with Olitski’s recollection (in the Partisan Review article) that the paintings he returned to Iolas, after the show at C.W. Post, were by Georges Mathieu and Jean Dubuffet, both leaders of the abstract (or semi-abstract) postwar Parisian avant-garde.
Also, reviews by Stuart Preston in the NY Times for the early 1950s, and exhibition catalogs listed in the MoMA library database, indicate that Iolas gave a show to Wols in 1952, and shows of Jean Fautrier in 1952 and 1956. (I also saw mentions of shows of flower painting and other innocuous topics, as well as shows of the aging first-generation surrealists—Magritte, Ernst, etc.)
The Fautrier shows are particularly noteworthy, because Fautrier (1898-1964) was a practitioner of “matter painting,” and Olitski’s work of the later 50s was in this vein. A subset of tachisme, “matter painting” involved the application of piled-up sand, spackle, raw pigment and other volumetric materials to lend a semi-sculptural appearance to paintings (As a matter of fact, Fautrier is one of three artists featured in “Thick Paint,” a three-man show at Luxembourg & Dayan, 64 East 77th Street, through April 19)
“Demikov Two,” Olitski’s modest (22 x 24 inches) contribution to “Alexander the Great,” is very much “matter painting.” Made with spackle, acrylic resin, and dry pigment on canvas, its surface is a gritty greyish brown (or brownish grey), intersected by a dark horizontal line, directly above which, in the center, is a smaller, lighter area.
This image can be read as a horizon line, with a sun rising above it – or not, just as the viewer pleases. At any rate, it manages to look almost as weird as some of the other weird objects in this exhibition, while at the same time offering—anyway in hindsight--- “potential,” as opposed to fulfillment.
Fast forward, and we arrive at Kasmin’s second show, “Jules Olitski: Mitt Paintings.” Located around the corner from Kasmin’s larger space, this smaller one displays just eleven paintings, all by Olitski and executed – after three more decades of learning his craft--between 1988 and 1992.
Following the brightly-colored “stain paintings” of the early 60s, and the almost equally bright “spray paintings” of the later 60s, Olitski had evolved into a progressively more muted, more close-value palette, until he’d arrived at the work in this show, which in some ways can be seen as a return to the grey-brown tonalities of his “Demikov” years.
There are substantial differences, not least because the surfaces of the newer paintings don’t look dry, as does “Demikov Two.” Instead, they are succulently shiny (though of course all the paint in them has long since dried).
Also, instead of the relatively stiff, straight strokes of the brush (or whatever else it was that Olitski was using to apply paint in 1957), the facture looks as though a sailor had been swabbing down his deck with short, curved motions (or a cleaning lady, on hands and knees, had been using the same technique on a kitchen floor).
Furthermore, the colors (upon closer examination) are anything but pure grey-brown. Instead, they glimmer and glisten in their gloom, radiant with subtle highlights of gold, red, green and myriads of other colors, and they shift and shimmer as the viewer moves.
Finally, there isn’t the faintest suggestion of any imagery here. It is all resolutely abstract. The best that can be said is that this imagery is baffling—as weird (if you want to call it that) as anything concocted by a surrealist or Nouveau Realiste.
I wonder how a visitor from Mars would react to an Olitski abstraction. What would he make of it, do you suppose? In the last analysis, it really looks like nothing else on the globe.
As for the technicalities of how these paintings were made, an abundance of gel played a large role. So did Golden Artist Colors’ best interference acrylic paint. It had been made with mica chips, was new at that time, and caused different colors to appear in a painting as the observer moved. Sam Golden had sent a supply directly to Olitski for him to try out.
Why are these works called “Mitt Paintings”? One day, Kristina Olitski, the artist’s wife, was painting a wrought-iron bench, using paint and what’s known as a “painter’s mitt.”
These soft, fleecy mittens are used by house painters, farmers and other working-class types to paint fences & other irregularly-shaped objects—manipulating the paint around the object with one’s hand, wearing one of these mitts and dipping it into the paint before applying it.
Olitski asked Kristina what the mitt was, then told her to go out & buy a lot of them for him. Voilà! A radically different look was achieved when he tried them out, although –once one gets used to it—the dignity and majesty that these canvases exude is equaled only by their exhilarating sense of mellow maturity.
The exhibition has eight amazing paintings in the front gallery, and three more even more amazing ones in the back gallery—not one too many, not one too few. Any more would have been too much, any less, not enough.
All are sizable—5 to 8 feet high, 6 to 9 feet wide. Only two—“Amazing Regard” and “Moon Momma” are approximately square. Another two — “Cleopatra Flow” and “Eternity Domain” --- are horizontals. The remaining seven are verticals.
All are awesome, in both the contemporary and traditional senses, overwhelming in their capacity to connect to those observers with the wave lengths to receive them. Most magnificent is “Gold Blaze,” a pale greenish golden gray almost impossible to reproduce.
“Escorial Mystery” is a highly worthy second, and reproduces far better. Its shimmering blackish colors, merged with cerise, cream, green and orange, make it almost gaudy, while at the same time, very faint black spatters atop it create the impression that it glows from within.