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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."

 

THREE PIERS INSTEAD OF TWO: THE 2019 ARMORY SHOW

Larry Poons, "Big Purple," 1972.  Acrylic on canvas, 98 x 92 inches (248.9 x 233.7 cm).  LP4777. Courtesy Bernard Jacobson Gallery.

 

 

It looked like curtains for the 2019 Armory Show. Just over a week before it was scheduled to open on Piers 92 and 94 on the Hudson River, a city inspection revealed that Pier 92 was too dilapidated to support the expected crowds, and it looked for a moment as though the whole show would have to be closed down.  However, the show's resourceful organizers managed to oust Volta, a rival art fair, from neighboring Pier 90, and so The Armory Show was able to open on time – with all the 60 booths originally intended for Pier 92 relocated to Pier 90.  The bulk of the show –135 booths – were as they had been in previous years – located on Pier 94. Pier 92 was consigned to a lounge and restaurant area – which presumably wouldn't overtax its weight-bearing potential.

 

THE FIRST DAY

 

I have to confess that I focused first and longest on Pier 90, and specifically the "Insights" section, which is the 30-odd galleries on the far end of it that are more heavily into "classic" art as opposed to "contemporary."

 

To get to this section, it was necessary to walk through what was called the "Focus" section, with 30-odd booths more in the "contemporary" bag than in the "classic" one.  I didn't see anything that forced me to pause at length here, but I did  notice in passing a number of representational paintings that depicted dark-skinned people in either a simplified style or a cartoony one. 

 

They were displayed in booths of galleries from Paris, Rio de Janeiro and indeed from all over the world.  Evidently "diversity" is a global art-world ambition, and I'm all for it myself, as long as it constitutes an addition to, and not a substitute for, innovation and/or quality.

 

Arriving in the "Insight" area, I was delighted to find the booth of Leslie Feely every bit as entrancing as it had promised to be via the email I'd received announcing its wonders. The gallery was dominated by two lovely "pours" by Larry Poons from the 70s, one quite large and one somewhat smaller. Poons is quite the celebrity since his starring role in the documentary movie, "The Price of Everything!" 

 

But that was not all: we also had work by Friedel Dzubas, Kikuo Saito (early and late) and a vigorous Jack Bush from 1975, with stacked forms.

 

My own favorite was an elegant Kenneth Noland.  It was shaped like a diamond, and painted with slanting stripes: pale blue, purple, green, black and lots of pure unpainted canvas.   What color sense that man had! 

 

There was also a crisply persuasive Helen Frankenthaler work on paper, very simple, just a few blues on an open field, but with enough shaping to keep it far from minimal – the shapes looked like wings flying.

 

Moving on, I came to Hollis Taggart, another Manhattan gallery that always puts on a good performance at the Armory Show.  Nor was this year an exception. In addition to a jazzy Hofmann abstracted still life from 1947, there was another Poons "pour," with a lot of blue in it (If I recall correctly – I find I didn't mention it in my notes).

 

I did note the two fine paintings by Adolph Gottlieb, one "pictograph" from 1942 in shades of brown, and a small 1965 untitled "burst"—a meaty blue field, a dark red "sun" above, and below, three small black rectangles on the bottom right.

 

In addition, there were two small late Frankenthalers on paper, and a late (1985-86) Pousette-Dart, as well as a lot of work – both oil sketches and a finished and quite striking 1965 large abstraction, "Orange Sentinel," by Michael (Corinne) West .

 

I'd never heard of West, but it seems she was a contemporary of the first-generation abstract expressionists, born in 1908 and died in 1991.  She studied with Hofmann, had a love affair with Arshile Gorky, adopted "Michael West" as her nom de brosse and even exhibited in New York galleries in 1948 and 1951 – but, alas, there was nothing in the Hollis Taggart booth to tell me what her paintings were like back then.  So the jury is still out on her talents

.

I paused briefly at  Gary Nader Fine Art, as this Miami dealer had a good show of early work by Latin American painters from the 1930s and 1940s last year.  He had much the same artists this year, but almost all with more recent and therefore less valuable work. Still, there was a pleasantly sedate and dignified mood to the booth….

 

I was sorry not to see Crane Kalman from London exhibiting this year, as in years I have usually found work to admire at his booth, and I also looked for, but couldn't find, a Barcelona gallery that in the past has pleased me with little works on paper by Miró and other Spanish modernists.

 

On the other hand, I found an admirable booth by a Toronto gallery that I'd never heard of before: Miriam Schiell Fine Art.  In addition to three examples of  Motherwell's "Open" series (small to medium-sized), she had 2 delicious Matisse aquatints and a grand little Miró ink on paper, "Femme et oiseau dans la nuit" (1971-72). 

 

But the crowning joy was one of the most unusual and striking paintings by Kenneth Noland that I have ever seen. From 1976, the shapes in the picture – large diagonal ones on a rectangular canvas – were totally unfamiliar, but again the colors were so extraordinary that only a master like Noland could have conceived & executed them: pale blue, deep purple, maroon, greige and green.

 

THE SECOND DAY

 

The second day I attended this festival, I devoted my time to Pier 94, though I was able to look carefully at only at only a very small number of its 135 galleries, and only two of the larger of the "Platform" works that the show's organizers had singled out for specially conspicuous exhibition.  Neither of them grabbed me, except by their size. 

 

I might have been more willing to take the time and look more carefully at the booths in the main promenade, stretching westward into the  Hudson, had I been able to sit down once in a while – if only to make notes.  But the organizers of The Armory Show obviously don't want anybody to come to it who isn't fit enough to run the New York Marathon. 

 

This is unlike The Art Show, which I reported on a couple of weeks ago, and where there is plenty of seating.

 

So, you may take the following opinions as the ravings of a lunatic who wanted desperately to be able to sit down without having to pay for the privilege, but having been forced to fork over $3.75 for some coffee in order to get a seat, I made the following notes. 

 

They are made with particular reference to "Presents," which was an area at the very end of the pier dedicated to 26 "young" galleries showing "recent work" by "emerging artists."  I figured here if anywhere I might see something fresh & new….

 

Going in, I saw the booth of Nino Mier of Los Angeles, showing large paintings of large naked women with their bodies blended into dumbbells, and sometimes losing their heads in the process. The artist was Louise Bonnet, a native of Geneva who now makes her home in Los Angeles. Evidently surrealism, one step removed from Magritte and Delvaux, is the newest thing in Los Angeles.

 

After I got my coffee & was perched uncomfortably sipping it, I found myself watching the booth of PSM, this "young" gallery being from Berlin.  It was exhibiting a huge acorn or pine cone-shaped black object, maybe 9 feet high, with a crinkly netlike surface. 

 

According to the handout I later obtained, it was made of thin black metal foil and the handiwork of a Argentinian artist named Eduardo T. Basualdo.

 

Apparently it was hollow, because a lot of young people were lining up to go inside of it.  When I'd finished my coffee, I asked one of the young people who had gone inside of it what there was to see. He said something like, it's wonderful or words to that effect, so I joined the queue.  

 

When I got inside, it was perfectly empty. There was nothing to see. You couldn't even see out. I found myself muttering "It's like the emperor's new clothes,"  and thinking of that delicious tale by Hans Christian Anderson.  Okay, go ahead and call me a philistine…

 

Basualdo had also made a group of "drawings" on paper that lined the partitions surrounding the PSM booth. These "drawings" looked perfectly white, though again the handout explained that Basualdo had dipped hands and torso in glue before he applied them to the paper.

 

Is this a deliberate homage or an accidental re-run of that famous stunt by Yves Klein?  As for the giant pine cone, it made me wonder if maybe late '60s minimal/conceptual was the "newest" thing in Buenos Aires and Berlin……How does the song go…"Everything old is new again?"

  

Having consumed my coffee, I sashayed back to the two extensions of Pier 94 that run north and south from the main axis. In the northern extension, I found the booth of Hales¸ the London-based gallery that represents Frank Bowling. They had two nice early 21st century paintings by him on display, and will be giving him a show of more recent work at their London gallery in May, just before his full-dress retrospective at Tate Britain opens on May 31……

 

However, the largest and most prepossessing Bowling at the Armory Show was at  Michael Rosenfeld,  in the southern extension of Pier 94.  From 1968, this painting was one of his more figurative works but very impressive all the same.

 

Most the canvas was colored a deep rich red, though which a map of South America down the center of it was dimly visible, and stenciled in black and white on the upper left-hand corner was a simplified photo of the dry-goods store that the artist's mother had owned & operated when he was still a child. 

 

Both the map and the image of the store recur in many of Bowling's paintings of the period.

 

The Rosenfeld booth had a number of other paintings by African  Americans, inspired by the traveling museum show, "Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power."  I was particularly impressed by "Walter's Advice" (1970) by William T. Williams, a vividly-colored abstract with diagonals and stripes that suggested a kinship with Frank Stella, and by Sam Gilliam's "Weighed Anchor" (1976), a paler and more painterly abstract than I normally associate with Gilliam….

 

Nor, since we are discussing art in the age of black power, would I want to omit reference to the small, quasi-surrealist but very entertaining show-within-a-show by British-born, Trinidad-based Chris Ofili in the booth of London's Victoria Miró gallery.  Depicting mainly people and mermaids, these little pictures were made exclusively of charcoal and watercolor – without a piece of elephant dung in sight.

 

As is my habit, I saved the best of Pier 94 for last, and checked out the booth of Bernard Jacobson.  And, as usual, he had lovely small work by Matisse -- linocut, etching, aquatint.  And lovelier small and big work by Motherwell – aquatint, small – and a big red "Open" in oil.

 

The Motherwell was hung on the back partition, facing the booth's entrance, and most likely to catch the eye of the passers-by.  However, for me the real star of the show was the larger one of the two paintings by Poons that this gallery was offering, the one hung on the side partition behind the attendants' desk..

 

"Big Purple," it was called and done in 1972, when the "pours" were still a new and therefore an even headier sensation. The paint was thin, just spattered on, with a gradually slanting line of demarcation from left to right. 

 

In the lower right, the colors employed were warm: red, yellow, and lime. In the upper left, the colors were cooler or more acid: gray, blue, mauve and yellow. 

 

On the one hand, this foamy combo conveys the same image as so many of the other "pours" -- of descending water, either a waterfall or rain.  But on the other hand, the diagonal division, with the separation between warm and cool, also suggests a curtain being raised on a new and ineffable scene….

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