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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 5-7 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

"THE ART SHOW:" MORE CIVILIZED THAN POLITICAL

Yares Art at "The Art Show:" left, Jules Olitski, "Patutsky Passion;" right, Kenneth Noland, "Bue-Green Confluence"

 

I do enjoy "The Art Show" sponsored by the Art Dealers Association of America and staged in the roomy but blessedly not overwhelming Park Avenue Armory at 67th Street (through Sunday, March 3). True, I can unreservedly recommend only four of the displays offered by its 72 dealers, but I also saw individual works of note at several others.  And it's so civilized, with lots of visitor seating, and predominantly two- and three-dimensional art:  paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures and (mostly little) objets d'art.  No need to steel oneself against an onslaught of supposedly "hot" dada, though certainly the visitor in search of that could find traces of it, too.

 

PROBLEMS WITH LANGUAGE

 

Or should I say "cool" dada? I am sadly behind in the latest adjectives to describe what we in the '60s would have called "trendy" or "with-it" art. I don't seem to hear the various adaptations of "cutting edge" around much these days, but I don't know what's replaced it—

 

unless it's identity politics, by which I mean the wholesale abandonment of looking at the art for guidance and basing one's evaluations of it solely on the racial or sexual characteristics of the artist making the art: female artists to be praised, no matter how inferior the art/male artists to be ignored unless gay or belonging to an ethnic minority or suffering from some disability.

 

This form of standard-lowering has been growing for some time, of course, but it does seem to be reaching new highs – or lows – these days. And not even good female artists are necessarily flattered by such homage – Helen Frankenthaler (to the best of my knowledge) never participated in all-female shows. 

 

Like me, she seems to have felt that unless her work could compete on a level playing field with that of men, superlatives proved nothing. 

 

Moreover, if the Oscars are any indication, some African-Americans are not necessarily flattered either by being condescended to.  Writer-Director Spike Lee, I understand, nearly bolted for the door when "The Green Book" won the Academy Award for best picture.

 

Although I haven't seen this movie myself yet, it has been called a rather cliché-ridden buddy movie that sentimentalizes race relations, and could only have been chosen because it dealt at all with that subject, and not because it was a good movie.

 

 Lee, who had won his first Oscar earlier in the evening for best adapted screenplay (of "Black KkKlansman"), might have felt (as I see it) that awarding the top honor to this second-rate movie in a sense vitiated his own achievement—the carry-over implication  being that he, too, had been given his award not because he was a top-notch script writer but only because he was an African-American.

 

(Postscript added after the rest of this review went online: Now that I've seen the movie myself, I can understand Lee's dismay maybe a little better.  I enjoyed it, I confess, because I go for feel-good movies with happy endings, but this is my own middlebrow taste -- any true highbrow knows that Life doesn't always end happily so why should a movie that claims to be true to life? 

 

(In this case, part of the feel-good feeling came from  seeing how horribly African-Americans were treated, especially (thoiugh not exclusively) in the South, back in 1962. It allows Caucasians at least to feel that we  have made progress in this department over the past 57 years, but to African Americans, there is still too much discrimination and prejudice, so they may not be impressed by the same indications of progress that impressed a Caucasian like myself and may even be suspicious of any movie which underlines them.

 

(The other thing that saved this movie for me was all the music in it. This is really a very middlebrow thing of mine, but I've so far seen three feel-good movies this year which derived a large part of their feel-good quality from the delightfully cheerful music in them: "The Green Book," "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Mary Poppins Returns"  Yes, gentle reader, I even enjoyed "Mary Poppins Returns."  Now go ahead and shoot me and put me out of competition for the role of movie critic).

 

At any rate, as far as I am concerned, there are plenty of African-American painters and sculptors who are very well known and much admired, but if I don't think well of their work myself, I don't praise them. 

 

The same goes for women artists.  Even in "the year of the woman" I will only praise the work of a woman artist when I think it's good.

 

This is more than I can say for Will Heinrich, who reviewed "The Art Show" for The New York Times this morning (March 1). The headline to his review: "Women Dominate This Year's Art Show Fair."

 

He then proceeds to itemize and discuss quite a number of what to me are really inferior works of art by female artists– meanwhile ignoring even the better work of women artists -- and men artists --in the show.  

 

Oh, he wasn't entirely wrong all the time – I too could, for example, work up a certain amount of enthusiasm for the beach-side nudes of Joan Semmel at Alexander Gray Associates (though I was more intrigued by the small semi-surrealist abstracts of that legendary dealer, Betty Parsons¸ at the same booth -- which Heinrich didn't mention).

 

 And I was fascinated by the joint exhibition of San Francisco's Fraenkel Gallery and New York's David Zwirner, who combined the photographs of Diane Arbus with the paintings of Alice Neel to produce a really astounding convocation of harmonies. 

 

Not were only the media of these two artists different, but (as the labels point out) Neel knew her subjects and posed them at will, while Arbus liked to choose subjects at random, off the street. 

 

Nevertheless, they shared the same Upper West Side neurasthenic and voyeuristic female sensibility, so some amazing parallels emerge with the juxtaposition of some of their (carefully-selected) images.

 

This is the third out of the four displays that I can unreservedly recommend.

 

Among the other work all or predominantly by women that I found worth looking at – although they escaped Heinrich's eagle eye – were the stately slab-like abstracts by Sam Moyer at Sean Kelly, and the pure little green-and-yellow painting by Anne Truitt at Matthew Marks. (Incidentally, I didn't realize Sam Moyer was a woman until I looked the booth up in my press kit.  So much for characteristically "feminine" art.)

 

Nor could I overlook the playful little felines and canines at Mary-Anne Martin, whose "Reigning Cats and Dogs, 200 B.C to 2019 A.D." featured small two-and-three dimensional work by both men and women from Mexico (the knockout is a reproduction of a painting by Frida Kahlo, but I noticed lots of other amusing pieces as well).

 

Well, now, and how about the men?  I should say that what I liked among the men in terms of numbers was mostly the handiwork of Dead White Males.  True, they were mostly Americans and mostly from the 20th century, but Jill Newhouse reached bravely back to 19th century France to offer "The Enduring Power of Image," a show that juxtaposed sketches and oil studies by Eugène Delacroix with more recent representational artists. 

 

She tried the same thing, last year I believe it was, with Vuillard, and  my reaction to it was the same as my reaction to this year's effort: in both cases, the old guys were better.

 

Two galleries were offering early 20th-century Americans with often very handsome results: Meredith Ward and Thomas Colville Fine Art.  

 

At Colville, the emphasis was on the American Abstract Artists, the group that was carrying the ball in America for modernism in the 1930s, with work by George L. K. Morris, Werner Drewes, Charles Green Shaw, Emil Bisttram & John Ferren – some of this work even dating back to the 1930s. 

 

My own favorite in this booth, however, was a hilarious 1947 work on paper, "Figures at Curtain," by the abstract expressionist William Baziotes.

 

At Ward, the accent was on even earlier work, with a sweet little selection of early John Marin – from before, during &  after World War I (I didn't ask this time around, but the last time I did, this gallery represented the Marin estate).

 

Also on view here were some other early Americans, not only Charles Green Shaw & Charles Biederman from the American Abstract Artists, but also curiously primitivistic cityscapes by Edward C. Tiffin, Glenn Coleman and others.

 

Not a DWM but also belonging to an earlier era is the moving show at Michael Rosenfeld of small-to-medium-sized oils and studies by Henry Ossawa Tanner, the African-American academic artist who achieved fame in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th century for his religious paintings. 

 

This is my fourth most favorite booth at The Art Show – it is so quiet and restful, with soothing colors and simple compositions.  The centerpiece, "Sodom and Gomorrah (ca. 1920-24) is mostly built up of towering blue clouds, against which the small figures of Lot and his family, fleeing the wickedness of those twin cities, serve as no more than accent notes down at the bottom of the canvas (Lot's wife has already turned to a pillar of salt because she looked back).

 

In photography, Pace McGill has a nice, large color photograph (measuring 60 x 74 inches) of "Yosemite in Smog"(1988)  by Richard Misrach (of whom I'd never heard). 

 

Gordon Parks, on the other hand, is so well-known that it didn't surprise me to see that Howard Greenberg had his whole booth dedicated to him.  Once again, I got to see his lovely picture of Helen Frankenthaler in her studio, taken for Life in the early mid-1950s, and unsurprisingly there were many photos of African-American worthies, but the image which stayed with me longest was the shot of Ingrid Bergman from 1947 I think it was, and entitled "Stromboli." 

 

This was the famous moment when she was turning from saint to whore in the eyes of Hollywood because she'd gone to Italy to make a movie with the director, Roberto Rossellini, and become his mistress, then pregnant, and finally his wife (having had to divorce her prim-and-proper Swedish husband in order to do so).

 

The photograph shows Bergman's pure face in the lower right; in the background is a group of witch-like female figures clad in black shawls and clearly about to cast stones at her.  The whole story of her "degradation" is captured in that image – a masterpiece of story-telling.

 

Checking out the first generation of abstract expressionism, I found it in short supply (beyond the Baziotes drawing).  I did see a lively, very abstract and brightly-colored image on paper by Hans Hofmann from 1946 hanging outside the booth of Donald Morris of Birmingham, Michigan. 

 

And there was a piquant pale blue-and-white "Blue Elegy"" by Robert Motherwell hanging front and center in the booth of Susan Sheehan.  Sheehan's a New York print dealer and this Motherwell, done in 1981, is a lithograph and etching.  The whole gallery was prints, and done in spring-like colors of pale blue and green.  Very pretty.

 

It was also one of the three booths facing the entrance to "The Art Show." It was to the left of center.  In the center was a large Sperone Westwater booth devoted to a display of works on paper by Susan Rothenberg, best known for her participation in the neo-expressionist craze of the late 70s and early 80s.  Not my thing.  And I wonder whether it will be anybody's thing. 

 

Why should Rothenberg be anything beyond yesterday's newspapers, when all her male contemporaries are pretty much forgotten?  But admittedly this is a market I know nothing about….

 

To the right of the entrance is the third booth in this lineup, and it's my second most-favorite booth.   Here June Kelly has an absolutely beautiful display of the abstract paintings of James Little.

 

Four of the works on display are the "Slants," composed of diagonal bands of color, and four are the "White Paintings," in which little circles on white fields open onto colored circles of underpainting. 

 

Both of these types were featured in Little's last show but the slants in particular here have been carefully selected to show the variety of their color schemes and composition, with one of them in warm colors, one in cool colors, and two in various blends of warm and cool. 

 

A member of the Class of 1974 at the Memphis Academy of Design, Little followed that up with an MFA from Syracuse University. He is therefore not exactly a spring chicken, but he does belong to a generation of gifted abstract painters who have yet to receive the recognition they deserve.

 

The generation immediately preceding them did receive recognition in the 1960s, and their appeal – for me at least – has worn exceedingly well.   They are in command at my Number One choice for excellence at The Art Show: Yares Art. 

 

It has handsome examples of work by Larry Poons, both recent and from 1978. Morris Louis is represented by a flaming stripe painting, "Number 9" from 1961.  There are not one but two Kenneth Nolands,  a delicate, smaller 1961 "target" and a muscular big chevron, "Blue-Green Confluence" (1963).

 

Finally, the show includes a tough but melodious Jules Olitski, "Patutsky Passion" (1963), and a big Helen Frankenthaler, "Pavillion."

 

This last in some ways is the most challenging of the lot – if only because it was done in 1971 and I often have trouble with Frankenthaler's work from this decade. 

 

This one I think I am fascinated by, but as Yares is about to open a whole show of work at its Fifth Avenue gallery by this artist, and I plan to review it, I am going to forego reproducing "Pavillion" and entertain you instead with an installation shot of Olitski's looming "Patutsky" and  Noland's towering chevron.

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