instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

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."

 

CROWNING JOYS AT THE CROWN BUILDING

Martin Lewis (1881-1962), Dawn, Sandy Hook, Connecticut, c.1933. Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy D. Wigmore Fine Art, Inc.
Back in the 1960s, when I was patrolling the art scene for Time and 57th Street was the center of the action, the Crown Building, at 730 Fifth Avenue, didn’t count for much, even though its entrance was just around the corner from 57th Street.

Nowadays, all that has changed. Even though the center of the art action has shifted southward, the Crown Building has become the HQ for a handful of good-sized galleries – three of which stood out for me in a recent visit.

Originally, I decided to come to this building because I wanted to see the abstract paintings and sculpture in "Peter Reginato: Fiction" at Adelson. Then I looked at my Gallery Guide and saw that two other galleries in the building might also be worth a look-see. Nor was I disappointed.

All three of these shows had much to recommend them, should be of particular interest to the summer tourist market, and will be open throughout all or most of August.

The first of the two I found in Gallery Guide was Hirschl & Adler. It has a group show of pictures dating from the 19th century to the present. The show is titled “Home Is Where The Art Is” and I was curious to see what precisely this meant.

Finally, I wanted to see “Adapting Precisionism: 1925-1946” at D. Wigmore Fine Art. This was another group show. I’d occasionally encountered work by the better-known Precisionists -- Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth & Louis Lozowick -- in gallery situations or grad school, so I wanted to know more about the movement as a whole.

REGINATO AT ADELSON

The first show I saw was "Peter Reginato: Fiction" at Adelson (through August 21 but with summer hours of Monday to Thursday, 10 to 6, and Friday, 10 to 2).

Displayed in a single large gallery, it presents a very happy, exuberant appearance. The 14 paintings on view range from quite large to quite small. All were done since 2014, most this year.

Of the 6 sculptures, the most recent is “Yellow Dog Blues,” done in 2013, and the oldest, “Spanish Dancer,” dates from 1998.

All the paintings and some of the sculptures are colorful, with the five largest (90” x 63”) and most colorful paintings forming a dramatic row along the long wall to the left of the entrance.

Reginato’s color sense is his own—very bright and cheerful, with lots of hot pinks, yellows, bright greens and Matissean blues.

It’s with his drawing and compositions that I have problems – though I hasten add that not everyone else will find these problems.

In the first place, he uses a lot of splashy sprays. They reminded me of the way Jules Olitski used to paint in the late 1960s, as did Reginato’s frequent use of framing elements—contrasting strips of color along the edges of his pictures.

In the second place, he liberally laces his canvases with ovals or blips. They reminded me of paintings by Larry Poons of the same period.

Specifically, they reminded me of that moment around 1968 when Poons’s hard-edged ovals were evolving into longer, narrower and far more painterly blips.

I was fortunate enough to be able to reproduce “Night Journey,” a key painting in that progression, in Time, the weekly newsmagazine.

Now, if I were a postmodernist, I would find these quotations from earlier masters admirable, an expression of how painting has to be in 2015, to be truly of its time.

This, at any rate, was the rationale offered for “The Forever Now,” that much-admired exhibition at MoMA last winter which incorporated a whole slew of contemporary artists borrowing from earlier ones. I dealt with it at length in my posting of May 31.

And, as readers of my June 15 posting on The Armory Show may recall, its “contemporary” Pier 94 was also liberally supplied with other artists borrowing from yet other earlier artists—so liberally, in fact, that Martha Schwendener reported on this prevalence, too, in the New York Times.

I boiled its philosophy down into a single slogan: “Derivative is the New Original,” and I traced its ancestry clear back through to the ‘60s, finding it a premise of postmodernist art from Warhol & Lichtenstein on down through the Appropriations & “Pictures School” of the 1970s and 1980s, to the present.

Another group of people who wouldn’t have problems with the quotations from Poons and Olitski are those who admire earlier modernist abstraction, but are too young and/or too unfamiliar with the New York scene to be aware of all of its 60s manifestations.

Such persons could well be unacquainted with the 60s work of Olitski and Poons--in which case they’d conclude that all those sprays and blips and framing elements are original with Reginato.

One might expect to find more than the average number of such gallery-goers among the many out-of-towners who grace our sizzling city in search of culture in the summer.

Alas, I am no longer that young or that unfamiliar with the New York scene. What's worse, I am a modernist, so to me all these quotations are simply an indication that Reginato has yet to develop a mature style of his own.

Lord knows, this is no disgrace. Even the greatest of artists have started out by going through periods when they were still influenced by older masters, and Reginato has only been focusing on painting (as opposed to sculpture) for a relatively few years.

Picasso in his earliest days painted scenes of Paris much like those of Renoir & Toulouse-Lautrec, while Pollock in his turn would combine the influence of Picasso with automatist surrealism before achieving his own highly original style.

That said, I did find two paintings in Reginato’s show more likeable than the others.

One was “Denmark” (2015) one of the smaller pictures, with lots of icy white spray on top of a cream-colored field, and framing elements of pale pink and icy blue.

The other was “Night Shift”(2014). This good-sized horizontal picture reminded me of the 20th-century impressionism of Pierre Bonnard: it looked like the view through the wrought-iron work of an ornate French balcony into a sunny garden. On top are black and navy blue floral-type forms with an under-painting of brighter oranges, greens and yellows.

And I have long been an admirer of Reginato’s sculpture—of which there are three exceptionally fine examples in this show.

One is the aforementioned “Yellow Dog Blue,” which is mostly a thicket of narrow, curving yellow rods, with touches of fuchsia, black & blue-green and a few loopy fat cut-out shapes, again mostly yellow.

Another is “Season at Coole” (2007), a smaller, more compact & dignified stainless steel sculpture, all silvery instead of covered with many colors.

And especially! “Black and White Vertical”(2001) is tall, slender and iconic, vaguely but not offensively suggestive of a figure, and colored (as the title suggests) with a black & white Insl-tron finish.

“HOME IS WHERE THE ART IS” AT HIRSCHL & ADLER

“Home Is Where The Art Is” is a group show of about 50 paintings, drawings and prints, mostly though not entirely of American scenes and subjects, to be found at Hirschl & Adler (through September 4th, summer hours Monday through Friday, 9:30 am to 4:45 pm).

This show’s robust brand of “realism” focuses on “the intimacy of home life.” Its expressions of this worthy sentiment are principally displayed in three gallery spaces, one for each of the three centuries in which these works were created (plus a further multi-century sprinkling in the hallway before entering the first gallery).

Whether created in the 19th, 20th or 21st centuries, these paintings almost all look made to order for the art lover who will passionately (if perhaps somewhat defensively) praise the Met’s 2012 George Bellows retrospective of early 20th century prize-fighters, high society & street kids as the best show he or she has seen in years.

The three principal types of pictures on view in “Home Is Where The Art Is” are still lifes, portraits, and genre scenes.

They all look appetizing enough to eat in both their brushwork and their color—to such a degree that sometimes they appear almost overripe, ready to fall from the tree.

The exception to all this over-ripeness are three relatively Spartan and correspondingly more commanding pictures of houses and their surroundings by Charles Burchfield, Oscar Bluemner, & Charles Sheeler.

(These share the excellence of a row of abstract or semi-abstract small works on paper at the entrance to the gallery which have nothing to do with the home life show but demonstrate the superior talents of Stuart Davis & Lozowick, among others.)

(Also worth noting are the two Audubon bird pictures, the Thomas Cole Italian landscape, and the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington – all of them in that other portion of the gallery all filled to overflowing with 19th century furniture and biblelots.)

The still lifes in the “Home” show are also quite refined and innocuous. They run a gamut from “Still Life of Fruit and Wine” by Lars Gustaf Sellstedt (1819-1911), a Swedish immigrant who settled in Buffalo, NY, to the “Still Life with Quinces and White Pumpkin” (2013), by Amy Weiskopf (born 1957), a native of Chicago who divides her time between the U.S. and the hill towns of Tuscany.

Some of the portraits are good. “Boy in Red: Portrait of Josiah Lasell” (1895), by William Merritt Chase, depicts a child in a red costume with white ruffles that makes him look like a child of Charles II of England; a huge dog lies nestled behind him.

Another highlight is a delectable, nearly bald little “Child in Pink with a Spaniel” (ca. 1830-35) by Ammi Phillips, America’s premier frontier portraitist.

But the 19th century genre scenes – oh, dear! True, some are entirely decent, but enough are so sentimental that it’s hard for me to be serious about the lot. It’s like Gresham’s Law, the bad money driving out the good.

What am I to make, for example, of “Peek-a-Boo,” by Seymour Joseph Guy (1824-1910)? A Briton who immigrated to New York as a young man, Guy established a reputation for technical virtuosity, but all this virtuosity goes to show only a cloying young Mom with her two equally cloying kiddies, one a baby on her knee and the other a little girl hiding cutely behind her. Too saccharin for moi, I fear.

Then again, I am sure there are those who will find this Guy painting warm and endearing, and dismiss my opinion as that of a hardened old cynic.

In the 20th century gallery of the Hirschl & Adler show, we have “The Party” (1971), by John Koch (1909-1978).

This picture shows a crowded party in progress in the West Side apartment of the artist, with his wife, his dealer, his model and lots of his friends present.

It’s one of many paintings of party scenes that Koch made. And it’s executed in the sort of soft-focus hyperrealism that made the artist such a successful portraitist.

He was also a painter of nudes, male as well as female. He created the cover picture—a bedroom scene, but with the nudity of both participants discreetly covered-- for Time magazine’s 1964 cover story on “Sex in the U.S.”

To judge from the review by Robert Hughes in Time of Koch’s retrospective in 2002 at the New York Historical Society, Koch was still a favorite of that magazine’s readers.

Hughes was far better at gauging the taste of Time’s Middle American audience and accommodating himself to it than I ever was. (Meow!) This helps to explain why he lasted more than 3 decades at the job, and to him, the Koch retrospective was “beautiful, intelligent and original….”

Bringing the Koch brand of robust (if somewhat literal) realism up to the present is the gallery of 21st century practitioners of it.

Besides Weiskopf, we have still lifes, landscape studies & genre-type pictures by Peter E. Poskas (b. 1969), Martin Mull (b. 1943), and others, plus “Sofa,” a clever wire piece by Larry Kagan (b. 1946).

The real pièce de résistance in this space is “September, West 74th” (2000-2001), an 8 x 6 ft. oil on linen by Stone Roberts (b. 1951).

A native of Asheville, NC, Roberts now makes his home in the New York area, and over the years has amassed something of a reputation as a “social” painter.

Possibly this term is used in the sense of being a chronicler of a distinct segment of society—specifically, those upper middle class, oh-so-knowledgeable denizens of the Upper West Side.

Although, like Richard Estes & Robert Bechtle, Roberts deals in city scenes of the present, he includes people much more often in his compositions.

His paint surfaces are somehow more moist and fluid than the hyperrealism of these two other painters—almost as though a hint of old-fashioned impressionism had crept in.

“September, West 74th” depicts a very with-it and distinctive-looking middle-aged man and woman (portraits?) seated behind a table laden with delectable-looking foods. Behind them a picture window opens out upon an enticing city view culminating in skyscrapers.

This picture is very verist, but also well done--direct and sybaritic but uncompromising.

“ADAPTING PRECISIONISM: 1925-1946” AT D. WIGMORE

What, I wonder, will the enterprising summer visitor make of “Adapting Precisionism: 1925-1946” at D. Wigmore Fine Art?

Arrayed along the four walls of this gallery in a straight, uncompromising line were – when I saw it -- 30 smallish to medium-sized pictures, mostly oils but with a smattering of watercolors & gouaches (through August, summer hours Monday to Friday, 10 to 6).

They were mostly very demure, unprepossessing-looking pictures. The noisiest among them were the least effective.

The forms in them were bare, with many straight lines and angles. The images presented were simplified and “modern.”

They were mostly cityscapes and industrial scenes, with a few landscapes mixed in, the occasional seascape and the somewhat commoner near-abstraction.

These pictures were mostly distinguished not by brilliant or even robust color, but rather by an earthy or more accurately, an industrial palette, dominated by grays, browns, blacks and whites.

People were at a minimum in these paintings. Animals were even scarcer (except for one Vermont landscape by Paul Sample, which showed a farm with many cows).

The gallery calls this all “Precisionism.” Its statement/press release sketches out an illustrious lineage for Precisionism, seeing it as a synthesis of many influences, including futurism, photography and Synchromism as well as cubism—all adapted to the American scene.

I suppose there’s something in this, but not as much as all that. After all, futurism, “modern” photography of urban or industrial subjects (such as that of Paul Strand), and especially Synchromism were all derived originally from the far more powerful and pervasive influence of Montmartre cubism.

Milton W. Brown began writing the first art history book on American painting from the Armory Show to the Depression before World War II, though it wasn’t published until 1955. He didn’t call this style of painting “Precisionism.”

The term was around, having been coined in the 1920s reputedly by Alfred Barr of MoMA, but the movement’s leaders were also referred to as “The Immaculates,” and apparently neither term, in Brown’s opinion, told it like it was.

He called the style “Cubist-Realism,” but nowadays we like to pretend that American modernism isn’t as deeply indebted to the European variety as it is. There is this myth that modernism sprang into being all over the globe at the self-same moment.

God forbid we should give Paris any credit.

Myself still being Eurocentric, I see Precisionism as an attempt to utilize the cubism of Picasso & Braque to convey the essence of what might be called “the modern American landscape”—increasingly dominated in the 1920s by the spread of cities and the rise of industry.

I looked at the hard-edged shapes, angles & straight lines in the paintings in this show– straight out of cubism. I saw simplification of form, again like cubism. Even the subdued palette was reminiscent of cubism, specifically the Analytic Cubism of 1910-12.

Not that it makes that much difference—if the picture’s worth looking at, who cares where the artist derived it from? This means, I am adding belatedly (in the interests of clarification) that a picture's influences aren't important if they have been properly integrated into it, and not left to stick out like sore thumbs.

None of the big names associated with Precisionism (Cubist-Realism) were present in this show when I saw it- – no Sheeler, Demuth or Lozowick, (nor is there any Elsie Driggs, though since no other gallery seems to have any paintings by her, either, that's not too surprising).

The best-known artists of what I did see were Niles Spencer, William Gropper, Gregorio Prestopino, Charles G. Shaw, O. Louis Guglielmi, Joseph Stella, Konrad Cramer, John Storrs & I. Rice Pereira.

Of them all, only Spencer is best known as a Precisionist. The rest of those I’ve mentioned are better known for other aspects of their oeuvre.

Stella & Cramer are more likely to turn up in the art history books for their far more radical abstractions in the early years of the century, and Shaw as a founding member of the ultra-abstract American Abstract Artists in the 1930s.

Storrs is known as a radically modern sculptor, Pereira for her abstractions of the 1940s, Gropper and Prestopino as social realists, and Guglielmi as something of a social realist-surrealist.

In other words, to the extent that these artists were represented here, it was with examples of their more conservative and/or less distinguished moments.

It would appear that “Precisionism” was a style that almost any American painter could slip into when he felt like the need. It was definitely not a formal movement with any manifestoes or a club with rules about membership or admittance. .

Still, I saw a number of paintings that I thought were very nice, and I liked the whole presentation – better, if you must know, than either of the other shows I saw in the Crown Building that day.

Although the brand of modernism offered was a conservative one, the works on view didn’t pretend to be anything more than they were. Still less did they attempt to trade on the public’s appetite for the tried & true.

Their colors were subdued, but somehow that fitted in just fine with their cubist lineage, and with the tough times of the Great Depression so often depicted.

In sum, I found their combination of sobriety, unpretentiousness, sincerity and modest aspirations toward modernity most appealing.

Which paintings stood out for me? Quite a number, but I’ll limit my comments to three.

Working my way around the gallery from the entrance, the first painting of real distinction that I encountered was “Perkins Cove Fish Houses, Ogunquit , Maine” (1926).

It was by Niles Spencer, the only well-known true Precisionist on view. I saw a definite overlay of cubism here, but with Cézanne-like brushwork put to the service of soft grays and greens.

Another quintessentially Precisionist painting was “New York Rooftops” (1935), by Emil Ganso (1895-1941). Although this German-born artist was far better known in his time for nudes and still lifes, this picture’s subject adapted well to the cubist/Precisionist esthetic, being as it was urban rooftops with water towers, chimneys, etc.

Best of all was “Dawn; Sandy Hook, Connecticut” (ca. 1933), by Martin Lewis (1881-1962). This was an oil on canvas, but its nearly monochromatic palette reminds us that Lewis was better known as a printmaker (he taught Edward Hopper the basics of etching).

Lewis came from Australia and settled in New York as a young man. He made a name for himself in the 1920s for haunting black-and-white prints showing the city by night.

These images included rectilinear streets and tall buildings, but rendered with more softness & detail than is to be seen in most true Precisionism and further differing from it by the numbers of ordinary citizens portrayed.

According to the fine selection of prints by Lewis to be seen online, these people ranged all the way from street kids making a bonfire in the back yard of a tenement to a flotilla of fetching young flappers cruising along an avenue in gossamer gowns.

In the 1930s, Lewis fell on hard times, and had to retreat to Connecticut--which explains the topic of the oil in this show. Although the sky at the back of the painting is lightening up, the foreground is dominated by what looks like an early suburban housing development, with darkened rows of identical little gabled, one-family houses.

Most residents are evidently still deep in slumber – but one light already shines from an upstairs window. In the foreground, too, we see one of two early risers is on his way to work, the other lagging far behind him.

2 Comments
Post a comment