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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."



On two steamy days last week, I visited five galleries, all with reasons to recommend them. First was “Images of Dance: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Evidence Dance Company” at Peg Alston Fine Arts (through July 15). Founded in 1985 by Ronald K. Brown, Evidence is a Brooklyn-based dance company that focuses on the seamless integration of traditional African dance with contemporary choreography and the spoken word. It now travels to some 25 communities in the U.S. and abroad to perform, teach master classes and conduct lecture/demonstrations. Part of the year-long celebration of Evidence’s 25th anniversary, the show at Alston is built around images of the dance on paper by Oliver Johnson, Pheoris West, and Richard Yarde (though Alston has added other artists from her repertoire, most notably the costume and stage designer, Ves Harper). Johnson’s small watercolors of ballet dancers admirably convey both their grace and the muscular demands that the art makes on their bodies. I especially liked his sinewy “Untitled (Dancers)” (2008), showing a solo female dancer, and his fine drawing of ballet slippers. Yarde’s lively larger prints look like watercolors and depict what looks to my antique eye like jitterbugging to jazz. I was particularly taken with his “Savoy Series: Heel and Toe” (2006). West’s cheerful small collages combine little figurative images of classical dancers with larger abstract patterns made by paint spattered on pieces of paper. The one which comes off best is “Dancing in the Sun” (2010).

Dropping by Katharina Rich Perlow, I found “Summer 2010” in session (through August). The invitation lists 32 artists, among them Frankenthaler, Robert Goodnough, John Ferren and Jacob Kainen, but I found none of these four on view, as it’s a revolving show and no more than a handful of artists are displayed at any one time. Among work I did see, I liked best the large painting by Fred Danziger, a new addition to the gallery. This painting is a somewhat photorealist view of Eighth Avenue in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood; it centers upon brightly-lit shop signs, plus a large, shiny yellow taxicab in the foreground.

On the same floor with Perlow, I found Jan Krugier, which is displaying “A Century of Picasso: Paintings, Sculptures and Works on Paper 1902-1971” (through mid-July). This is a small but classy show, far better than one might think from the ugly 1971 self portrait that hangs directly across from the entrance. Making a hard left from this entrance, one encounters not only a neat little oil-on-wood “Reclining Woman” (1908), but also a handful of drawings in ink or pencil from 1906 to 1911, just the period when the artist was evolving into cubism. The rest of the show is later work, but with an emphasis on prints and sculpture, genres in which Picasso maintained his quality long after his painting had mostly deteriorated. Especially charming are a tiny etching of the “Three Graces” (1923), and two delicious little sculptures, one a terracotta “Bull” (1957), only 3 1/8 inches high, and one a weirdly abbreviated “Woman” (1948), also terracotta, all head, legs and eyes, no torso at all except for boobs. The man was such a genius: he could make marvelous little objects like these out of next to nothing! For the collector who has everything, there are oddments such as a canceled linoleum block (1959) and a canceled copper plate for an etching (1971). The show also contains a handful of other later paintings. None are particularly inspired, but neither are they overtly bad and at least their subdued color schemes keep the show as a whole on a more elevated plane.


On a second steamy day, I investigated two galleries offering summery representational art. One was Michael Rosenfeld, presenting two shows at once. In his main gallery, he has “Fairfield Porter (1907-1975): A Selection of Paintings” (through August 13). A contemporary of the first-generation abstract expressionists, Porter was a militant realist, but seems to be one that formalists are allowed to like; at any rate, Kenworth Moffett organized a show of his work for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1983. I saw the show when it came to the Whitney with a friend who knows little about art. The show was much more crowded than the Olitski show that Moffett also organized, and that I also saw at the Whitney, but the knowledgeable-sounding people around me and my friend were discussing Porter’s paintings in terms of their formal values – composition, color, etc. My friend looked at these pictures and said, “They’re very preppy, aren’t they?” They are: white-bread affluent-looking WASP-y people dressed in understated casual attire, right out of L. L. Bean or Brooks Brothers, either in tasteful interiors or outside of Colonial-style houses with neatly-trimmed lawns. Whether the scene is Maine or Southampton (Porter’s two places of residence) the social class is the same, nor is there the slightest hint of mockery in their rendition – rather, the soft, late-impressionist brushwork endorses the status quo. The show at Rosenfeld is almost all work from the ‘50s through the ‘70s, including two typical preppy group scenes, two more preppy-ish portraits, two pleasant still lifes and three very likeable landscapes: “Primroses” (1962), “Daffodils and Pear Tree” (1973), and “Snow on South Main Street” (1974). But the real star here is “Ile au Haut,” a watercolor of the rockbound coast of this isolated Maine islet. The date is 1927; the artist can have been only 20 when he painted it, and it sings.

In Rosenfeld’s back gallery is “Marguerite Zorach and William Zorach: A Selection of Watercolors” (also through August 13). I found it the sprightlier show, though no thanks to William (1887-1966). Better known than his wife, William was celebrated as a sculptor – about as radical as “The Eight” were in painting, which is to say “modern” without being abstract or even particularly cubist. His big thing, as I recall it, was “truth to materials,” but the watercolors at Rosenfeld bear no relation to this achievement, and on the whole are conventional. The best, “Stonington Harbor, Maine” (ca. 1920), comes closest to a structured view of reality; it reminds me vaguely of views of buildings or New England docks by Stuart Davis, after he stopped being fully representational, but before he went completely abstract. The watercolors of Marguerite (1887-1968) are something else. I got a kick out of them. Both Marguerite and William went to Paris in the early years of the century. That’s where they met, but Marguerite was the one who took the message of fauvism to heart, with its bold simplifications of form and dramatic flattening of perspective. Marguerite’s watercolors in this show were done in 1915, during a summer excursion to Randolph, NH, a hamlet in the White Mountains. The people in them are forebears of Fairfield Porter’s New England preppies, but not as bland. They do interesting things like reading or attending a church social, sitting in an old kitchen with a wood stove, or reclining on a couch not unlike one Sigmund Freud’s patients might have used. The technique is simple: an outline in pencil, filled in with watercolor, an hommage to Matisse --- and the results have the thrill of discovery.


Another worthy show of summertime representational art is “Portrayal” at Lohin Geduld, organized by Marianne Gagnier and Ro Lohin (through July 10). The 33 works in this show, all portraits of one kind or another, are mostly small to medium-sized paintings, but there are also drawings, prints, photographs, and sculpture. The earliest piece is a 1945 drawing by Franz Kline of his wife. The most with-it is a photorealist black-and-white pencil study of Barack Obama by Phong Bui (2008). Two-thirds of the works on view were done in the 21st century, but with senior figures having made many of them, the prevailing mood falls somewhere in the ‘50s or maybe the ‘60s, with a certain sameness between many of the pictures, marked as they are by pale colors, more late-impressionist brushwork and sincerity as opposed to satire. (If there were an Alice Neel in this congregation, she would stand out like a sore thumb.) Lennart Anderson (b. 1928), one of the many representational artists who kept the figurative tradition alive and well throughout the nominal hegemony of abstract expressionism in the ‘50s, is more the model here. Among the better pictures are small studies of Temma Bell by her father, Leland Bell (1922-1991), and her mother, Louisa Matthiasdottir (1917-2000). Temma Bell herself is seen to even better advantage in a full-scale painting of her daughter Ulla with a pet bird. A second domestic situation is represented by two charcoal drawings from the 1970s of Robert Phelps, writer-husband of the artist Rosemarie Beck (1923-2003) One is by her & one is by Philip Guston, a family friend. Next to them, tacked on the wall, is a photocopy of a third sketch done at the same time by Guston of Beck (Beck kept the original). In my perverse way, the picture that stays in my memory, along with the study of Ulla, is an energetic semi-primitive painting that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with portraiture. It’s by Ed Rath, called “Old Man Tending a Tomato Plant,” and its presence in this show is sort of like a shaggy dog story — the seeming irrelevance of it makes it hilarious.


On March 19, James Barron reported in the New York Times that Lawrence B. Salander, former director of Salander-O’Reilly, had pleaded guilty to 29 charges of grand larceny and scheming to defraud investors (among them, John McEnroe, the tennis player, and the estate of Robert De Niro, the painter who fathered the movie star of the same name). The story also said that Salander had to be steadied by another man as he walked to the defense table in State Supreme Court, that he’d had a stroke recently and that he’d been hospitalized. He faces a prison sentence of 8 to 16 years. I can’t help suspecting that the state of his health may have been the incentive to plead guilty, rather than face the rigors of a long and strenuous trial. Certainly, the last time I saw him (in December 2009), he was planning to plead not guilty, and expressed a belief that he would be able to make that plea stick.

On June 9, Christie’s offered works from the gallery inventory for sale. The news media covering this event (the New York Observer, before the sale, and Bloomberg News, after) made much of the fact that the works offered were low-priced, inferior specimens and implied that Salander had been endeavoring to pass them all off as masterpieces. However, comparing the list of offerings at the Christie’s website with my own recollections of what I saw at the gallery leads me to wonder if these were indeed everything in the gallery’s inventory. My suspicion is that the better and more valuable work has already been disposed of by Salander’s creditors through private sales to dealers, etc., since auction prices commonly set a floor, not a ceiling on prices and private sales normally bring higher ones.

On June 4, Joseph Plambeck reported in the New York Times that Paige Rense Noland, who has been editor of Architectural Digest since 1975, now plans to retire from that job. During the period of her editorship, the magazine became a must-read for the design world, and increased its circulation from 50,000 to more than 850,000. Ms. Rense Noland said that she now plans to write a book about Kenneth Noland, her late husband……Incidentally, “Kenneth Noland, 1924-2010: A Tribute” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was a fine little show (closed June 20). Although it had only four paintings, at least two of them were knockouts. The first, “And Half’ (1959) was a very beautiful target, in red, yellow, mauve & black (loaned by Stephen and Nan Swid). The second, “Trans Shift” (1964), was a huge and powerful chevron in blues and greens, purchased by the museum in 1981.

Roy Lerner, Peter Reginato and Francine Tint will all be represented by Gallery Sam at ArtHamptons, the fine art fair in Sayre Park, Bridgehampton on July 9-11. Tint will also be represented by Tria on the same occasion, while Reginato's work also appears in the summer group show of Adelson in Manhattan (through August 27).

Arthur Yanoff and Marcia Stamell were honored guests at The Ambassador’s Ball: “A Celebration of Israel’s Independence,” on June 13 in Washington DC, sponsored by the Washington Committee, State of Israel Bonds. Yanoff’s paintings, which owe much of their inspiration to his Chasidic heritage, were reproduced in color throughout the programme, including details from his series on “The Western Wall” and “Steerage to Ellis Island”….

A mouth-watering catalogue that has come my way is “Jules Olitski: Embracing Circles 1959-1964,” for an exhibition at Hackett Mill in San Francisco (July 9 – October 1, 2010) The show is a collaboration between Hackett Mill and Freedman Art of New York. The plan is for it to come to Freedman Art after it closes in San Francisco.

And a show in the Big Apple that I am really looking forward to: “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917,” at the Museum of Modern Art (July 18 through October 11). Previously shown at the Art Institute of Chicago, the show was co-curated by John Elderfield, emeritus at MoMA, and Stephanie D’Alessandro of Chicago; it has nearly 120 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings from this five-year period, and immediately preceding years. Looks as though they’re expecting a capacity crowd, though, as they’re selling timed tickets….. (© Copyright 2010 by Piri Halasz)
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