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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."



As you can see, gentle readers, From the Mayor’s Doorstep is now a blog, with sporadic entries and (one hopes) some feedback from my readers. At the moment, life is rich and full for me, so I don’t know when my next entry will be, but at the moment, I have four shows to report upon. Two are of younger artists whose work I found amusing though not outstanding. I include them mainly so that new visitors to this column can see that I do get to Chelsea. The other two shows are admittedly on the Upper East Side, home of the Dead White Male, and as such usually bypassed by younger critics. For me, art is art and if it merits looking at, I go to look at it –and tell my readers about it, in hopes that they will want to go and look at it, too. Both of these shows on the Upper East Side thoroughly deserve visits, even though both display work done by these two well-known artists when they were still young, and as a result, struggling to find voices of their own.

To begin, in Chelsea I saw “Kyle Staver: Recent Works” at Lohin Geduld (closed March 20) Staver, I believe, once painted under another surname decades ago, but I’ve forgotten what it was & nobody I spoke with can remember it, either (if any reader can help me with this, please write in). Anyway, the work in this show is smallish to largish whimsical paintings of figure skaters, nude boys hunting turtles, mythological figures (Danaë), “historical” figures (Lady Godiva), etc. Body types (especially that of the nude Godiva) are vaguely 30s Picasso, palette is late Braque (browns and beiges, though heightened by whites), feeling very much Bonnard, though some subjects (e. g. boys with turtles) are a direct homage to Matisse. The birds flying all over the place are a distinctive feature. Of the paintings on view, I especially liked the “Godiva” and “Birdcage,” the latter a somewhat Alice Neel-y bedroom scene showing a nude woman (with birds) and a man in briefs, putting on his socks. The big and prominently featured “Canada Geese,” showing a woman on a bicycle and many huge birds, was overly cluttered & busy & didn’t come off. I was mildly amused & pleased with this show, though it also reminded me of Milton Avery – until I got uptown and saw how much better the real Avery could be.

In Chelsea, I also saw “Daniel Rozin: X + Y,” at Bitforms (closed March 27). This show had been highly recommended by Chris Rywalt, a younger critic with a blog of his own who also shares his opinions with the world on artblog.net, which is created by Franklin Einspruch. Rozin’s was a show of kinetic art, featuring one piece shaped like a window, hanging free from the ceiling and ornamented with slats like Venetian blinds that opened and closed. The second and third pieces were interactive, with passageways leading up to them (one carpeted, one of gravel) and free-standing human-sized panels at the end, composed of littler panels that shifted about as the viewer stepped on the passageways. Ay me! If I hadn’t been taken to Coney Island as a child, I might think interactive art was new, but weren’t those fun-house mirrors which showed the viewer as tall & thin, or short & fat, depending on how s/he moved, pretty much the same idea? (One of the large panels in Rozin’s show even reflected the viewer in little mirrored panels). To be sure, the whole show was beautifully installed and theatrically lighted, in a very dignified, highbrow way. All the same, I was reminded of the kinetic art which was still big in Manhattan galleries in 1967, when I started writing the Art page for Time. Kinetic had been the last new “avant-garde” movement to sweep across the scene prior to the advent on minimal art in the galleries. Minimal had been given a big push into the public eye with the Jewish Museum’s “Primary Structures” show of 1966, but in 1967, there was still a lot of kinetic art in the galleries, and a kinetic artist from South America, Julio Le Parc, had won the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale. I did a whole story on Le Parc, but then in 1967, I was a much younger person, still easily wowed by every passing novelty. Sometimes I wish I was like Peter Pan, a perennial child. It might make my life as an art critic easier. As it is, Rozin’s show came across to me only as a very good example of entertainment, as opposed to high art – somehow lacking in soul.

Moving on up to the East Side, I saw “Milton Avery: Industrial Revelations” at Knoedler’s (through May 1). Avery (1885-1965) is best known for his simplified, semi-abstract New England seascapes and landscapes, figure studies and still lifes of the 1940s and 50s, but this show is of work almost all done in the 1930s, not too long after he’d arrived in New York from his home town of Hartford CT. During this period, he was still moving in the orbit of other, older artists, and so he was painting industrial scenes in and around New York: coal silos, bridges, warehouses, barges, boats, docks and the like. Such subjects had been popular with Charles Sheeler and other Precisionists since the 1920s, but they were also subjects for other younger artists, among them Clyfford Still, Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about going to see this show. I’ve always slightly resented Avery for being so goddamned popular, even with abstract artists, when he didn’t have whatever it took to paint abstractions himself. Besides, I had lots of other stuff on my plate, but dutifully, I dragged myself over – and boy, was I glad I did! Avery, it turns out, had a singular capacity to discover beauty in the ordinary, even the sordid. His fascination with form led him to portray his humdrum subjects as big, free-flowing shapes -- bending, swooping, sweeping, standing, and soaring though still firmly rooted in the earth. His sense of color led him to sound decisions – employing lots of deep blues & other subdued hues to suggest the poetry of dawn or dusk, what the French call le crepuscule. Roberta Smith of the NYTimes, who also reviewed this show, thought it was gloomy, but then she’s a pomonian, with a distressed view of life anyway. I didn’t see any gloom.

On the contrary, this show reminded me of what a vital industrial behemoth New York was back in the 20s and even the 30s, despite the Great Depression. Also it was a mighty port. A lot of that power shows through in these majestic simplifications of form. Still, the show isn’t all masterpieces, by a long shot. Avery was still experimenting with different media, and not all worked equally well for him. The exhibition includes watercolors, oils and gouaches. Although the watercolors are technically the most proficient, they lack individuality & character, reminding me overmuch of Winslow Homer, who first developed his skills in the 1860s. The oils are much more successful, drawing upon Matisse and Bonnard but without replicating those masters in the slightest. Most of the oils are impressive, and some are particularly lovely, including “Industry” (1933) and “Drawbridge” (1932). But the real highlights of the show are to be found in the gallery with the gouaches (the front gallery, facing the street). Somehow with gouache Avery was in his element at this stage of his life, having found in it a medium that enabled him to combine the massiveness of the oils with the lightness of the watercolors. The best painting in the show is “Dietz Coal Company” (ca. 1930s), a gouache whose tall white coal silos are ever so dizzily colored in, then complemented by a tiny horse & cart in the foreground, down at the bottom. Also notable among the gouaches are “Barge No. 14” and “Tugboats in Harbor” (both ca. 1930s).

Finally, to “Friedel Dzubas: Paintings of the 1950s” at Jacobson Howard (through May 15). Here we have another case of a younger artist, coming along a generation later, and in this case brimming over with enthusiasm for abstract expressionism, the newest form of his day. Dzubas had been born in Berlin in 1915. He fled the Nazis in 1939, and settled in New York, where he was to live until 1961. He’d met Pollock in 1948. He’d met Frankenthaler in 1951, in the apartment of Clement Greenberg, and shared a studio with Frankenthaler in 1952/53, when she painted “Mountains and Sea” (later he sublet the studios of Esteban Vicente and Alex Katz). Dzubas had already had his first solo exhibition, at Tibor de Nagy, in 1952, and others would follow, throughout the decade --- but he would not attain his mature style until the 1970s (he died in Auburndale MA in 1994). During the 50s, there was lots of experimentation and brio in his painting, but – like Avery -- he was still searching for a balanced approach that would be distinctively his own.

As one enters Jacobson Howard from the elevator, one first sees towering straight ahead one of the show’s very best paintings. This is “Untitled, 1953,” a vertical panoply of smears and catlike scratches of paint, dabs and whorls, lots of bare canvas and lots of colors: white, blue, brown, black, gray, brown & ochre – also lots of energy, though also displaying a somewhat disorganized, scattershot approach. On the wall to the right hangs another, very interesting painting, “In Case I Die” (1949). A narrower vertical, it utilizes a kind of stain painting – for the field, anyway, which is a golden brown. In its center is a narrow stack of Chinese-y looking black designs, suggesting calligraphy and embellished with touches of red & white. Though remarkable for its early date, it’s nonetheless vaguely familiar. Next to it is a small, sweet, completely traditional landscape on paper – just to show that Dzubas was an abstractionist by choice, not necessity.

The first full gallery of the show includes three big paintings, all dominated by heavy applications of paint so that the gallery looks crowded & a bit claustrophobic. The central, largest painting, “Over the Hill” (1954-55), looks as though the artist kept on adding paint and adding it in a vain attempt to make it come off, so there’s too much going on here, too many heavily drawn-on little forms in the center. “Omen” (1959), the painting to the right, has maybe not quite enough going on instead, but is still not bad, with a restrained color scheme – almost entirely grays and blue, with little touches of pink and a fair amount of white canvas showing through. The painting to the left, “Untitled #77, 1954” is like Baby Bear’s porridge in “Goldilocks:” not too hot, not too cold, just right. Although the canvas is pretty thoroughly covered with paint, it has a good balance of lights (yellows, whites, bits of bare canvas) and darks (dabs of gray, red & blue on one side, red, green and gray on the other). A fine picture.

The second, larger gallery had seven paintings on display when I was there. “Stone Flower” (1961) was out of the gallery on approval, so I can’t comment on it, beyond saying that I glanced at it when I attended the opening reception, and that the reproduction in the catalogue looks nice. What I did see instead was a variety of approaches, not least showing how much Dzubas was learning from the thinly stained paintings of his studio mate, Frankenthaler. In fact, one of the paintings here, “Untitled, 1959,” is too Frankenthalery for my taste (though this is a drawback for me, it might be an asset to a collector who wants a Frankenthaler but doesn’t want to pay Frankenthaler prices). The other large painting utilizing Frankenthaler’s method of thin stains, however, comes off completely successfully, and is one of the top paintings in the show. This is “Fallen Angel” (1959). It’s built around a large, softly rounded brown shape at its left center, upon which are superimposed modest reds and green, and splats! of light blue, plus a large olive green rectangle to the right of the brown globe, and peach-colored sweeps at the top. Another standout in this gallery is “Polaris” (1959). Here Dzubas exercised good restraint, with enough light colors and bare space left to counterbalance the thicker paint and lots of little brush strokes that are most distinctively Dzubas-like at this stage of his career. Characteristic, too, are his choice of colors – an area of yellow at the top, deep blue in the middle (plus a mingling of grays and taupe), and finally a band with pink and black finishing off the composition at the bottom. My favorite painting in this very rewarding exhibition, however, is also the smallest: “Agora” (1959), only 7¾ “x 24.” Its wonderfully complete black design, touched up with rust, blue and white upon a gray field, shows the artist already capable of a mature approach to painting and anticipates the masterworks of the 70s.

© Copyright 2010 by Piri Halasz
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