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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."

 

PLEASURES ON THE POTOMAC

Susan Roth, North Country Girl, 2013. Powder coated steel, acrylic paint. 29" x 24" x 12". Private Collection. Courtesy S&D Studios and Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, The George Washington University. Photo: Darryl Hughto.
Washington DC has a number of worthwhile shows this autumn: Neo-Impressionism at the Phillips Collection, Richard Estes at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and – most provocatively – Susan Roth at the Luther W. Brady Gallery. It made for a busy day for me, but I got them all in.

POINTILLISM AT THE PHILLIPS

Moving in chronological order, I’ll first report on “Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities: Painting, Poetry, Music,” at The Phillips Collection (through January 11, 2015). Organized by Cornelia Homburg, this exhibition includes 15 French, Dutch and Belgian artists with about 70 oils, watercolors, drawings in various media and prints.

All were executed in the 1880s and 1890s, and the selection is intended to highlight the relationship between the Neo-Impressionist painters and their contemporary poets and musicians, especially Symbolists.

The idea is that, although impressionism in general, and Neo-Impressionism in particular, are generally seen as objectively portraying nature, in fact Neo-Impressionism incorporated Symbolist concepts that emphasized subjectivity, inner dream worlds and the synergy of senses.

I would agree that the Neo-Impressionist pointillist technique, based on 19th century color theories as developed by Michel Eugène Chevreul and Ogden Rood, lends a distinctive stillness and remoteness to its painted images that allows them to be reminiscent of images seen in dreams.

At the risk of sounding terribly old-fashioned, though, I wish to point out that the idea behind pointillism was scientific, not poetic: it was believed that the hundreds (or even thousands) of tiny points of paint in contrasting colors on the canvas would blend on the retinas of the viewers, so that they would see only solid colors.

Actually, it doesn’t work that way. One still sees a lot of little dots, but from the standpoint of esthetic judgments, that's beside the point. In terms of their purely visual qualities, the pictures on view here are still an exceptionally well-chosen and likeable bunch.

True, there is nothing to compare in size with “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand Jatte,” the 7 x 10 foot pointillist masterpiece that its creator, Georges Seurat, first exhibited in 1886 at the second Salon of the Société des Artistes Indépendants.

This show is more chamber music than symphony orchestra. Almost everything is small to medium-sized, including virtually all of the best work.

And -- although there are a handful of works by Seurat in it (most notably three small conté crayon drawings of café and music hall performers) -- the real stars here are mostly the minor pointillists, including some I’d never heard of.

The show is hung in seven modest galleries, each with a different theme. Some themes highlight greater accomplishments than others. “Arcadia” emphasizes working folk in the south of France; most look depressingly wooden. “Timelessness,” though incorporating some members of the northern working class, comes off a lot better.

Standouts in “Timelessness” include “Broek in Waterland” (1889) by Jan Toorop (Dutch, 1858-1928), a depiction of carefully tended canals in the last light of day, with impressive lights and darks. Also memorable is “Landscape in West Flanders” (1888), by Alfred William Finch (Belgian, 1854-1930), with trees being tossed in the wind.

By all yardsticks, though, the first gallery in the show, entitled “Beyond the Real,” is the one that is drop-dead gorgeous. Every one of the nine paintings here is outstanding.

Unusually fine is the row of five with bodies of water in them. This row begins with “Camaret, Moonlight, and Fishing Boats” (1894), by Maximilien Luce (French, 1858-1941); it shows a forest of small sailing ships at night, in darkness except for the moon.

Next comes “The Scheldt Upstream from Antwerp, Evening” (1892), by Theo van Rysselberghe (Belgian, 1862-1926). This one is a twilight scene, with a row of piles standing up out of the water, and their reflections below.

Another Luce comes next, “Banks of the Seine at Herblay” (1889). It’s a sunset, with vivid contrasts of light and shade.

In this company, the following painting is not quite quite up to the standards of the others, even though it’s a Seurat—“Seascape at Port-en-Bessin, Normandy” (1888). And it’s still an excellent picture of classic simplicity, with a hillside descending from the left, and the waters of the English Channel extending serenely away to the right.

The final picture in this stunning sequence is by Paul Signac, after Seurat the best known artist of this group. The painting is “Adagio. Setting Sun. Sardine Fishing. Opus 221” (1891), and it shows a fairy-like flotilla of small fishing boats, almost reflected out of existence by the play of light. A dream image, indeed.

ESTES AT THE SMITHSONIAN

Next on my list, in terms of historical chronology, comes Richard Estes (b. 1932). He is the subject of “Richard Estes’ Realism,” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (through February 8, 2015).

This retrospective of 46 paintings, dating from 1966 to 2013, was organized by Patterson Sims, independent curator, and Jessica May, of the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, where the show was on view this past summer. It has been coordinated in DC by Virginia Mecklenburg of SAAM.

Estes was one of the two leaders of that short-lived movement which flourished in the early 1970s and was known variously as hyperrealism, photorealism or super-realism (the other leader was Chuck Close, who stuck to portraits, while Robert Bechtle functioned as a worthy second to Estes in the depiction of urban and suburban cityscapes).

Audrey Flack functioned as a sort of outlier, with hyperrealist still lifes, and a whole lot of pretty terrible lesser lights were exhibited by Louis K. Meisel on Prince Street in SoHo, every time I looked in during the early 70s (for all I know, they are still there).

Malcolm Morley could be seen as a sort of precursor, though in a broader sense the real progenitor here was pop, with its explosive emphasis on the figurative. From the likes of Wesselman & Rosenquist, it was only a question of how much further painters could get to the literal in “realism.”

Hyperrealism was excessively literal. Its artists worked from photographs, and (initially, at least) created paintings that looked exactly like large color photographs. That was their appeal.

The movement seems to have been getting off the ground in the later 1960s, though it was still so close to the ground that, even though I was writing about art for Time up to 1969, I was unaware of it.

I next attempted to survey the art scene for an article that Milton Esterow asked me to write for ARTnews sometime in the early 70s, then declined to publish. He had asked me to interview a succession of big names, including Bill Rubin at MoMA and John Russell, then the senior critic at the NY Times. Esterow wanted me to find out what the “new” thing in art was, but lost interest when all I could come up with was hyperrealism.

Hyperrealism sold very well, but lacked the intellectual cachet that might have attracted more critics & reporters to it (also big in the early 70s was conceptual art, which was intellectually stimulating, but which—from what I could tell—wasn’t selling very well. And conceptualism had been big since the later 60s, written about by me on Time as well as elsewhere.

(I have only lately learned that Bruce Nauman, the Clown Prince of Conceptualism, narrowly missed being on the cover of Newsweek in 1968. They had a big article on “the avant-garde” all ready to print with the Nauman cover portrait, but at the last minute, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia to stamp out “the Prague spring,” and the editors of Newsweek decided to put that on their cover instead of Nauman—though the article on “the avant-garde” ran in the same issue nevertheless).

Robert Hughes, my replacement on Time, was among the big names whom Esterow asked me to interview for his article. I asked him about hyperrealism, too, but as far as he was concerned, it was “for dentists from New Jersey.”

Lap dissolve (as we used to say, in the old days of movie-making). Half-a-century later, Estes is looked upon as an Old Master. His supporters carefully explain that although his paintings did -- and still do -- look like photographs, he himself regards photographs as merely sketches, to be reworked and combined into finished compositions that have nothing to do with any single individual view.

In other words, he is an academic artist in the same sense as early 19th century landscape painters were: he makes photographs (instead of sketches) sur le motif and then returns to his studio to work them up into a finished composite.

Of the 46 paintings in the show, 3 come from the 60s, 9 come from the 70s, 8 come from the 80s, 9 come from the 90s, 13 come from the first decade of the 21st century, and 4 come from its teens.

Thus there is relatively little here from the period when Estes was most in the public eye. There is also relatively little that looks familiar to me. True, I haven’t seen that much Estes over the years, but I did drop in on the opening of his exhibition at Marlborough in the wake of 9/11, when I was in a manic mood, and included a brief review of that show in the mammoth issue of FMD that I got out at that time.

In that (three-part) issue, I had a segment on “Realism, Better & Worse,” and ranked 8 shows of “realist” art that I’d seen, in ascending order of quality. Estes was only number 3, though I described his show as “moderately interesting” and found that the addition of people to his Upper West Side city street scenes “worked quite well.” (The undisputed No. 8 in this category of “realism” was Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who was having a show of graphic work at the Met.)

In the current Estes show, I found relatively few street scenes of the sort that I remember from that Marlborough show in 2001, street scenes that could be mistaken for actual snapshots.

Instead, the emphasis is on paintings that insist they are the product of various sorts of trick photography. A number play around with reflections-- in shop windows, the hood of a car, or on an escalator.

We also have a couple of views that wrap around 180 degrees of a street scene, one in Greenwich Village, one in Paris. The effect is of obvious artificiality.

We have tourist sights in Venice as well as Paris, plus coastal and woodland scenes, presumably from Maine, where the artist now spends a lot of time. One “Forest Scene” (2006) has some branches and twigs in the foreground which come off especially well, but “Mt. Katahdin, Maine” (2001) is only a distant fourth best by comparison with the marvelously ominous and colorful paintings of that same subject by Marsden Hartley.

There is a subway scene, “The B Train” (2005), that doesn’t stand up very well by comparison with “Why Not Use the ’L’”?” (1930), the subway scene by Reginald Marsh, and, although Estes’ monumental “Brooklyn Bridge” (1991) is very impressive, anybody with any knowledge of art history must be aware that this same futuristic view has been employed before, most notably by Joseph Stella.

Still, on the whole, this show is pleasant and moderately interesting. There is a simple, straightforward look to even its later & more baroque efforts that compares well with Wesselman, Rosenquist or any other one of the many pop image-mongers who came barreling out of the 60s with no place to go, and have subsequently folded altogether.

This very likeable simplicity is especially true of the classic views of Manhattan city streets and shops, eerily cool and silent, totally uncluttered by people, with which Estes first made his name. In the current show, for example, the viewer might particularly want to look for paintings like “Diner” (1971), “Central Savings” (1975), and “Bridal Accessories” (1975)

ROTH AT THE BRADY: BACKGROUND

While I’ve followed the career of Susan Roth over most of the years that I’ve written this column, I haven’t seen every painting she ever made. I may have seen some earlier work at Salander O’Reilly in the 1980s, though I can’t be sure, having made no record of it. I know that I’ve long been aware she established her reputation during this period with shaped canvases on which were mounted more rumpled and folded sheets of canvas.

Since I started my column, I have at least five times recorded my exposure to Roth’s work, beginning with the visit to her studio that I made when I visited Syracuse in 2003. Here she very graciously showed me how she was then making paintings: she had developed an ingenious method based in the application of paint and gel to sheets of polyethylene, then lifting the dried sheets or “skins” off the polyethylene, collaging them onto canvas, and often or even always embellishing them with more paint.

I twice more saw paintings by her utilizing this “skin” method, first at a group show of five Syracuse artists held at Syracuse University’s Lubin House in Manhattan in 2006, and again in 2012, in “Color & Edge: Lauren Olitski Susan Roth Ann Walsh” at Sideshow in Brooklyn.

On all three occasions, I was very impressed by the sophisticated technology involved, but my emotional response has been much stronger and more joyful on those two other occasions when I saw small works from earlier moments in Roth’s career.

The first occasion came in 2007, when I visited New Berlin, New York to attend a viewing and “silent auction” at Golden Artist Colors. Roth’s contribution was a small, shiny, brightly colored concatenation of acrylics & jewel-like accretions from 1997, called “Mabel’s Hat.” In my notes, I awarded it three stars—meaning, “wow!”

In 2013, Roth was (in my opinion) the star of a group show of “painterly pasted pictures” at Freedman Art in Manhattan. The show included many more famous artists, but Roth’s small piece, “Sun Kissed,” stood out – I wrote—“in a class by itself.” Made in 1983, it was composed of “large, folded and artistically rumpled sheets of handmade paper, elegantly tinted in soft yellows and grayish blues.”

PAST TRIUMPHS

The DC show that this column principally concerns did little to make me want to revise any of my previous opinions, but it’s well worth a visit nevertheless.

First, it affords a welcome opportunity to revisit a modest sampling of Roth’s triumphs from the 20th century. Principal among them are three beautiful examples of her folded canvases atop shaped canvases, in appearance not too unlike “Sun Kissed.” They are “Cut Bank” (1982), “Lipstick Traces” (1983), and “Black and White World” (1991), the last-named being especially appealing for the way that pumice gel in addition to canvas and paint is piled on.

There is also a charming example of Roth’s “concatenation” style, from the same family and decade as “Mabel’s Hat.” This is “Spanish Nights” (1993).

The best of the 7 acrylic “skin” paintings (all done since 2011) is also the biggest, and with the longest title. It is a richly, darkly moody picture entitled “The Tale of the Love and Death of Cornel Christopher Rilke” (2011), and it measures 72½ “ by 102”.

AND THE REAL NEWS IS...

Yet more excitingly, this show demonstrates that Roth has recently evolved into a fresh & frequently even more powerful form of expression that she calls her “steel paintings.”

The show as a whole is titled, “Susan Roth: Form, Frame, Fold.” It’s at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery at George Washington University (through January 30, 2015). Billed as the artist’s first exhibition in three decades, it is accompanied by a 40-page catalog with a full-page, color plate for each of the 21 works in the exhibition.

This catalog also has an introduction and interview with the artist by Lenore D. Miller, chief curator and director of the gallery. In addition, a biographical study by Nancy Keefe Rhodes, a Syracuse-based writer, editor and curator, is included, plus a poetic essay by Carl Belz, director emeritus of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.

Nine of the works in the show are listed as these “steel paintings.” All are dated since 2012, though apparently Roth has been exploring this art form for some time before that. Two of the steel paintings in this show are free-standing, the rest in the nature of bas-reliefs that hang against the wall.

Part of why I liked all of them so much is their more substantial scale. Although not necessarily larger than the other works in this show, their relative simplicity makes them appear stronger and bolder.

Admittedly, none are completely without detail. Some are quite complex, especially where it appears that the artist had to cut up, incise or add other pieces of steel in order to create outlines, shapes and contrasting surface patterns within the overall configuration. However, in no case does this detail become unduly busy or fussy or overdone.

Possibly this oh-so-desirable restraint has been caused by the fact that the steel is more difficult to work with than acrylic skins. But does that really matter? I think not.

The catalog says that all of the steel paintings are made of “powder coated steel” (some have Lexan and/or acrylic paint added on). Powder coating is an industrial technique used for finishing automotive and bicycle parts, but it’s not the first time I’ve come across it in art this year.

This summer, I reviewed sculpture by James Wolfe at the New York Studio School. Everything in that show was powder coated steel, too. Obviously, Wolfe’s work and Roth’s don’t look at all alike, not even in the way that the powder coating has been applied (Wolfe coats his sculptures evenly and limits each piece to a single color, while Roth sprays combinations of colors on her paintings, blending them into each other and sometimes leaving looser, sparser sprays at edges).

Still, Wolfe does now live and work in Maine, and, according to the Rhodes essay in the Roth catalog, Roth and Hughto have been visiting a private Maine studio several times a year since the 1990s. Is it conceivable that their paths have crossed?

At any rate, quite a number of the “steel paintings” come off. Among the most effective are “Queen of Spades” (2012), with its passionate blacks and wizardly combinations of stark verticals with curved cut-outs; “Moby Dick” (2014), which is cheerfully red below, blue on top, and even more cheerfully ornamented by rumpled rods and wires; and “The Wave” (2014), in which a folded sheet of Lexan is complemented by sprays of blues and blackish browns, together with an area across the bottom that looks somehow either foamy and/or eaten away.

“North Country Girl” (2013) is one of the two free-standing “paintings” in the exhibition. In reproduction, it looks a little like a suitcase or shopping bag, being rectangular with a loop of steel up top, but this latter touch only endows it with a deft sense of humor, to which are added many small holes and a piquant color combo of soot-black brown on its extremities,with golden yellow at its heart.
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