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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."



Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), Red Serpent - Version I, 1949. Oil on canvas, 42 x 60 inches, Promised Gift to The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Courtesy Freedmanart.
Every exhibition arouses expectations. Depending on those expectations, gallery-goers may – or may not – decide to go see it. This post is about two exhibitions which have aroused – and may very likely still arouse—different expectations. Yet in neither case did (or do) the expectations correspond to the realities of the shows themselves.


In the first case, my expectation was aroused by the press release I received from the Princeton University Art Museum, announcing “Sacred Caves of the Silk Road: Ways of Knowing and Recreating Dunhuang” (through January 10).

I knew that a friend, Anne FitzRoy, had visited these caves on a walking tour of the Silk Road, which I also (dimly) knew were a web of routes over Asia used for trade between China & Europe for centuries before sea travel took over. According to the press release, hundreds of these Magao Caves are located near the city of Dunhuang in northwestern China, decorated with thousands of ancient Buddhist paintings and sculptures, as well as housing tens of thousands of manuscripts.

Rightly or wrongly, I got the impression from the press release that the show itself would offer a whole “time capsule” of these caves, with art & sculpture incorporated into some sort of big multimedia extravaganza that would enable us “to understand Dunhuang, including a Dunhuang of the imagination.”

When we got to Princeton, however, we found only a chaste and pristine little set of vitrines and glass wall cases, displaying a small number of small (though most entertaining) sculptures, and a larger (though still not very large) group of paintings and manuscripts.

The works dated from the 3rd to the 10th centuries, a period in Chinese art history that I adore. But I was expecting more – and larger – examples of it.

I will say that I was completely enslaved by 29 small (10 x 15 inch) black and white photographs of the caves—or, to be more precise, inkjet prints of digital images made from photographs taken in 1943-44.

The photographs had been taken by James and Lucy Lo, two Chinese photographers who had turned their backs on World War II, and traveled west from Chongqing, partly on horseback, to the caves.

In eighteen months, they took 2590 pictures, inside and out. Lacking electricity, James Lo devised an ingenious system for lighting the interiors with mirrors and cloth screens.

He also seems to have kept his shutters open, for the images sometimes look bleached, with many perspicacious shades of gray – plus white

Not only are these photographs brilliant themselves, but – as my friend Anne pointed out--- they document how the outside of the caves looked before the stairways and platforms that now service the tourist trade obliterated the view.

Best of all, the interior art – not least the sculpture -- can be seen in these photographs maybe even better than it can be seen when you’re there. Anne recalled these interiors as dark and dank. The Lo photographs glow with light.


On the same day, I saw the latest exhibition at Freedmanart, a gallery on the Upper East Side run by Ann Freedman. This gallery has mounted several shows in the past that I greatly admired, so I was expecting another fine show. Nor was I disappointed.

This latest show is “Passion and Commitment: The Art of Luther Brady” (through January 30). It consists of 41 paintings, sculpture and works on paper from the collection of Dr. Luther W. Brady, a distinguished Philadelphia oncologist who has also generously endowed the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery at George Washington University in our nation’s capital.

The many outstanding works from his private collection combine to constitute a superb viewing experience at Freedmanart. However, before I mention some of the most outstanding, I feel a need to point out that this is another case where the expectations of many potential visitors for a show may differ from the reality of the show itself – and to such an degree that they may not come to the show at all.

Before 2011, when Freedman was still president of Knoedler’s, that gallery sold some abstract expressionist paintings which, according to court papers, have since been classed as forgeries. Some clients who bought such pictures have been suing her, including two who will be arguing their cases in a trial set for January.

This ongoing situation has been so heavily covered by the media for the past four years that a very large number of people within the New York art world must be aware of it by now. My fear is that all this adverse publicity may keep some, maybe many of them from going to see this exhibition at Freedmanart.

I too am aware of the situation regarding Knoedler’s—but I still recommend the show at Freedmanart. This is not because I wish to be kind to the gallery, but because I consider it my job as an art critic to tell my readers about art worth seeing.

Some of my readers would, I’m sure, prefer it if I pretended that the Knoedler’s situation didn’t exist. I tend to feel that my recommendations may carry more weight when I present myself as rather more informed than less.

The earliest work in this sterling selection from the Brady collection is a dynamic little 1948 Motherwell entitled “Window” (for no good reason that I could see). The latest is a garden-like 2013 “Guardian” by Larry Poons.

True, there’s much work by artists high on my list of favorites: David Smith, Anthony Caro, Walter Darby Bannard, Friedel Dzubas, Jules Olitski, & Susan Roth. But this show also offers attractions for art-lovers with other tastes.

If you like Sean Scully, you will find three of Scully’s characteristic grid works. Admirers of Howard Hodgkin will find three typically colorful works by Hodgkin.

Other stars: Alexander Calder, Milton Avery, Richard Diebenkorn, Mark di Suvero, Jake Berthot & Frank Stella.

The core is oldies but goodies: a WILD Adolph Gottlieb, “Armature” (1954); a wickedly spiky Hofmann, “Red Serpent – Version I” (1949); a startling later Motherwell “Open No. 92: The Blue Wall” (1969).

Plus an extraordinary untitled Frankenthaler from 1949, done the year she was graduating from Bennington and still drowning herself in late Braque.

All of these oldies are so atypical that no forger could have made them. None are very big: house plants as opposed to trees for botanical gardens, meant primarily to be enjoyed at home (though many are promised gifts to very choosy museums).

Beyond that, the group as a whole has its own personality, that of its owner. Dr. Brady evidently likes works with lots of energy and bounding enthusiasm to them. That is what he has chosen from his chosen flock—and they all glow with life.

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