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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."

 

6 SOLOS—2 SPECIOUS, 1 STATELY, 3 WHIMSICAL

Hedda Sterne, Machine Motor Light Blue, 1951. Oil on linen, 39 x 31 3/4 inches (99.1 x 80.6 cm). "Hedda Sterne" lower right on reverse, HS 134. © The Hedda Sterne Foundation, Inc. / Licensed by ARS, New York, NY.
On recent strolls through Chelsea & environs, I saw six shows, featuring three living artists (Carrie Moyer, Landon Metz & Tai-Shan Schierenberg), and three dead ones (Gaston Lachaise, Theodore Roszak, & Hedda Sterne). By a twist of fate, all the shows by the living artists have closed, while you can still get to those of the dead ones. Something here about how life may end, but art goes on…

THE YOUNGSTERS

Two of the living artists, Carrie Moyer at DC Moore (closed March 26) and Landon Metz at Paul Kasmin (closed April 9) were billed in the literature accompanying their exhibitions as devotees of color-field painting, and/or influenced by it.

Evidently the word is out that those color-field painters of the 60s were pretty damn good artists (even if that old devil Clement Greenberg did admire them). Thus the galleries promote these younger artists as color-field descendants.

However, to judge from the handiwork of Moyer and Metz, neither has really looked very closely at the color-field painters they are said to admire and/or be influenced by, for clearly neither has learned anything of substance from them.

Everything has been filtered through a postmodernist frame of reference, which confuses minimalism with modernism, and opts for chaos & garishness over clarity & calm.

The more mystifying of these two was Phoenix-born, New York-based Landon Metz (b.1985), since Kasmin showed his “paintings” in conjunction with an early – and genuine – color-field painting by Morris Louis, “Tzadik”(1958).

But the elegantly subtle “Tzadik,” executed in shades of bronze and green, with touches of red, is one of Louis’s “veil” paintings, and to the extent that Metz’s work in this show had anything in common with Louis, it was closer to his “unfurled” series.

In Louis’s “unfurled” paintings, groups of multicolored narrow stripes snake up diagonally across the lower side edges of the canvas. And one of Metz’s two “paintings” includes large blue “stripes” floating diagonally upward across the white canvas.

The other “painting” substitutes large blue blobs, arrayed on a white canvas wrapped around a towering column so that it becomes more of a “sculpture” than a “painting.”

Since both works seem to have been especially created for this show, they are better described as “site-specific installations” than painting or sculpture—and accordingly, more minimal-conceptual than color-field, not least because of the paucity of color.

On the other hand, we have the paintings of Detroit-born, New York-based Carrie Moyer (b. 1960). Far from hesitating to lather her paintings with color, she didn’t seem to know when to stop.

This attitude is very much in style this season, and Moyer’s show was greeted with the same blizzard of publicity that accompanied those of Keltie Ferris & Jackie Saccoccio last fall.

Moyer drew rave reviews or “conversations” in the NY Times (by Martha Schwendener), Artforum, the Brooklyn Rail and Time Out, plus a brief effusion in The New Yorker
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Most of these critics saw more than one influence in Moyer’s work, but all included Helen Frankenthaler on their shopping lists (Schwendener also threw in Jules Olitski). I don’t think either of these two artists would have been flattered by the comparison,

Moyer’s palette, as seen in this show, totally lacked Frankenthaler’s magnificent color sense, let alone its subtlety. Colors here were loud, simplistic and obvious.

Moyer also doesn’t seem to have Frankenthaler’s skill at building a picture. Areas of paint were slopped on top of each other, to create what to me looked more like messy disorganization.

Then again, this is the sort of color and composition that led The New Yorker to call these paintings “unabashedly beautiful.” So much has taste evolved (one might even say, become corrupted) in Pomonia.

After having Moyer’s work inflicted upon me, it was a relief to wander into Flowers and encounter the stately land- and seascapes of the British painter Tai-Shan Schierenberg (closed April 2).

Born in 1962 to a Chinese mother and a German father, Schierenberg studied art in Paris as well as at St. Martin’s and the Slade in London. He currently divides his time between London, Norfolk and the Black Forest in Germany, and is best known as a portraitist.

However, this show consisted of large, broadly-brushed, close-up views of 1) rocks 2) water and/or 3) trees, all at various locations.

Very simple, unpretentious, just the majesty of nature, and, you know, no nonsense (this is a euphemism). Very refreshing!

THE OLDSTERS

If you want fantasy, humor, imagination and even (on occasion) a touch of the machine esthetic, I can recommend these three shows.

Two of the three artists are represented by works on paper, though better known as sculptors. The third is best known as a painter, and is represented by oils on linen as well as monotypes, but, like the other two, is seen on a smaller, more intimate scale.

Chronologically, the first here is Gaston Lachaise (1882-1935)—oldest but most joyous and uninhibited.

The show is “Exuberance on Paper: The Drawings of Gaston Lachaise” at the New York Studio School (through April 24).

A Frenchman who studied traditional sculptural techniques in his native Paris, Lachaise as a young man fell in love with an American woman, Isabel Dutaud Nagle.

He followed her to her home in America, persuaded her to divorce her first husband, married her in 1917 and settled down in Little Old New York

A decade or so his senior, Isabel seems to have had a Gay Nineties figure, with a wasp waist, broad hips and big breasts. Lachaise immortalized this body type in his many sculptures of nude women (cheerfully ignoring the change in ladies’ fashions in the 1920s, when the narrow-hipped, flat-chested flapper became all the rage).

However, Lachaise’s sculptures are almost always dignified and at least recognizable simulations of reality – whereas the drawings of women in this wild show are often anything but.

Most are of women, but not necessarily of Isabel. A number seem to have been inspired by the strippers and “dancing girls” to be found in the town’s burlesque houses before Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia closed the last of them down in the later 1930s.

Lachaise was fond of attending these gaudy establishments with his poet friend, e. e. cummings, or perhaps artist buddies (they ranged from Joseph Stella and John Marin to Marsden Hartley).

He himself was a towering figure in the Manhattan modernist art scene, and the subject of the first retrospective of a sculptor by MoMA, in 1935 – months before he died of leukemia at the age of only 53.

Anyway, some of the drawings of women in this show stretch the boundaries of reality in a most entertaining way.

A lot are sedate, but “Nude in a Hat” (1935) has ferocious facial features, while “Pair of Women Dancing” (ca. 1931) shows two fierce-looking nudes in implausibly elaborate headdresses.

“Dancing Nude” (ca. 1932-35) has boobs so pendulous that they hang down to her knees, while “Dancing Nude, Breast Thrown Behind” (ca.1933-35) shows a woman in profile with one boob tossed back over her shoulder like a feather boa.

If I were more politically correct, I might find these testaments to testosterone offensive. Instead, I just found them fun. They are somehow so good-humored, so bereft of anger or aggression.

And they were clearly intended as private amusements, not public show.

Rather more strenuous, but at its best, equally rewarding is “Theodore Roszak: Propulsive Transfiguration, A Survey of Drawings from 1928 to 1980” at Michael Rosenfeld (through May 21).

Born in Poland and raised in Chicago, Theodore Roszak (1907-1981) studied art in Prague, where he learned about constructivism and the Bauhaus from Czech avant-gardists.

Settling in New York in the early 1930s, he made a name for himself as a painter, and then switched to sculpture later in the decade. Although he didn’t exhibit with the American Abstract Artists, his sleek plastic and wood sculptures shared the group’s constructivist orientation and optimistic faith in technology.

During the 1940s, the destruction wrought by World War II made Roszak more pessimistic. Stylistically his work was also influenced by working as a welder in an airplane factory in New Jersey (recalling the experience of David Smith as a welder in an Indiana automobile factory in the 1920s).

The result, for Roszak, was an evolution into more jagged & spikier, angrier sculpture, often if not always suggesting oversized, stinging insects—Dionysian as opposed to Apollonian.

And, with that orientation he -- with Smith, Herbert Ferber, Seymour Lipton, Ibram Lassaw, David Hare and some others – became identified as abstract expressionist sculptors, some of them at least seeming like the counterparts to such Dionysian abstract expressionist painters as de Kooning, Rothko or perhaps Motherwell.

The exhibition at Rosenfeld, of about 50 of Roszak’s moody, predominantly black, white and sepia drawings, covers his entire career, right up to his death in 1981.

In addition to smaller and/or less formal pictures, it includes larger and more ambitious ones.

The larger and most ambitious ones often seem intended to stand by themselves, but other, almost equally large and well-worked-out ones are studies for sculpture, and no less impressive for it.

I found the best work done from the later 1930s to the mid-1950s. I could really see Roszak’ s imagery evolving from the neat little toy-like “machines” of the 30s into the angst-ridden chasms of the abstract expressionist 40s and 50s.

After 1960, the artist slid back into an inconclusive surrealist “representation” that did nothing for me, but many works in the earlier periods are remarkable.

Particularly magnificent are three untitled studies, presumably related to sculpture -- one for “Invocation” (1947), one for “Invocation #2” (1947) and one for “Firebird” (ca. 1949).

Also well worth your attention are “Western Star (Pterodactyl)” (ca, 1954), an untitled study for “The Great Moth” (ca. 1955), and “Untitled (Guardian of the Sea)” (ca.1955)—the last-named being the spikiest in a grandly spiky show.

Youngest of my three whimsical or fantastic oldsters – and the last to develop artistically – is Hedda Sterne (1910-2011). She is the subject of “Hedda Sterne: Machines 1947 – 1951” at Van Doren Waxter (through April 29).

Sterne’s main claim to fame is her inclusion as the sole woman in a photograph taken by Nina Leen and published by Life magazine in 1951. It showed 15 artists, all of whom had signed a letter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, accusing it of overly conservative practices in selecting contemporary paintings for exhibitions.

These 15 were called “the Irascibles” and many would go on to become the leaders of abstract expressionism. As they became famous, so did the photograph.

But Sterne – at least upon the basis of this current show – wasn’t an abstract expressionist at all.

Born in Bucharest, she was educated in Eastern Europe, but managed to exhibit in a couple of large avant-garde exhibitions in Paris in the late 1930s, and came to the US in 1941.

Here she was able to continue gaining exhibitions, included in the big “First Papers of Surrealism,” as organized in 1942 by Duchamp & André Breton and in 4 group shows at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in ’43 and ’44.

She appears to have become fast friends with Betty Parsons. Parsons gave Sterne shows in the mid-40s at the Wakefield and Mortimer Brandt galleries, where Parsons was working before opening her own gallery.

Once the Parsons gallery opened, Sterne exhibited there regularly until the 1970s, and thereafter at CDS (among other places). But she never became a star.

Her obituary in the NY Times tried to explain this by saying she was always experimenting, and never managed to develop a “marketable”” style. Other sources suggest that she was so “independent” that she never wanted to be identified with any one movement.

On the basis of this show, however, I’d say that she was simply a bit behind the times. The ostensible source for all the whimsical, humanoid machines on display is a postwar trip to Vermont that she had taken with her second husband, the cartoonist Saul Steinberg, and the farm machinery that she’d seen there.

However, I find her still exploring a vein of expression that had been a staple of modern artists for decades before World War II, whether we’re talking Klee’s “Twittering Machine” (1922), the “rayographs” of Man Ray, the mechanized fantasies of Francis Picabia, or….but you get the idea….

That said, I still found the exhibition at least moderately diverting. The checklist includes 14 items, mostly small, a few medium-sized, and all either oil on linen or traced monotype on paper.

All depict fantasy machinery, but I didn’t see anything that reminded me of agricultural machinery.

Numbers 1 & 2 on the checklist (untitled and “Anthropograph #19”) reminded me more of portable home meat grinders, and also of the modernistic meat slicer designed by Egmont Arens that I saw in a Philadelphia historical design show some years ago.

Number 4, ”Monument” (quite a large painting) has architectural elements below, with a “machine” soaring above them, suggestive of a helicopter, with wings.

Number 8, an untitled one, has a Venetian-like balcony sketched up at the top, hung with tapestries bearing coats of arms. The “machine” down below combines qualities of giant insect with a racing car, and has a long, sharp proboscis out front.

But who’s complaining? Not me. I enjoyed all this somewhat surrealist imagination, even if it represents only a preliminary phase of the abstract expressionism already flourishing concurrently on the New York scene, and representing the true avant-garde of that moment.

As my image, I have chosen to reproduce “Machine Motor Light Blue,” which has more color than most of the works in the show, and is most fully worked-out.

To me, it has little to do with motors, instead resembling a giant old-fashioned milk bottle combined with a furnace. But in this ambiguity, at least, it resembles an abstraction.
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