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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."


History's Mysteries & Contemporary Soupçons

Down in the bowels of West 21st Street, Larry Gagosian, who is to Chelsea what P. T. Barnum was to circuses, has mounted what he obviously hopes will be the same kind of historical blockbuster that his big late Picasso show was last season. “Claude Monet: Late Work,” curated by Paul Hayes Tucker, brings together 27 works by the revered impressionist dating from 1904 to 1922 (through June 26). To judge from the Gagosian website, it looks like a lovely show, but not as comprehensive as the magnificent “Monet’s Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism,” which was staged at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1978, and included 81 works. To be sure, that show was 32 years ago, but its scope was so broad, & with such marvelous paintings of every size and shape, that it lingers in my memory still. Then again, the Museum of Modern Art has just finished a year’s worth of showing us “Monet’s Water Lilies,” with four huge paintings of its very own, plus two handsome loans from the Met. One can’t help feeling that Larry Baby went up to MoMA, looked at the crowds milling around in that show, and said to himself, “Hmm, there’s an idea for me.” All the Monets in his show are loans from museums and private collectors, and he is saying that none of them are for sale. Holland Cotter, of the New York Times, evidently hasn’t heard this one from Larry before, but that’s always the song & dance he gives, and somehow he still manages to stay in business. How does he do it, if he never sells a thing? I suspect that if I wandered in with $30 or $40 million in my pocket, one or more of the collectors included in this show might be persuaded to part with their darlings. Don’t get me wrong. I do love Monet, and I’m sure this is a lovely show. I’d like to see it if I’m in Chelsea again on a weekday morning. But when I wandered by the gallery a week ago Saturday, around 4:30 p.m., there was a medium-sized line of art-lovers with that “typical-tourist” look about them, and I was hot and bothered & not in a mood to wait in line.

Besides, I’d just seen a couple of shows I liked. The first was a two-person show at André Zarre, with “Peter Reginato: Recent Sculpture,” and “Dee Shapiro: The Hudson Line; Paintings” (closed May 29). The paintings (from 2009 & 2010) were small, precise, brightly-painted and horizontal views of sights along the Hudson River: houses, train stations, villages, bridges, piers, boats, always with the river as background and participant. Kind of bringing the Hudson River School of Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand up to date, though in a simplified and not-quite-primitive style. Charming, in their way. So were the six small sculptures by Reginato, all made of shiny stainless steel and dated 2010. The first group was in a newish style, with simple armatures of straight slender steel rods surrounded by abundantly twisted and looped curls of equally slender steel rods. The effect was reminiscent of a tangle of hair or thread, or perhaps a three-dimensional poured Pollock. The best was the smallest, “Handyman,” only 19 inches high, but carefully thought-out despite its seeming chaos. The other three works were in one of Reginato’s more familiar styles, with mostly straight rods of steel defining a central space and combined with cut-out pieces of burnished steel in discs, ovals or other shapes, sometimes vaguely reminiscent of cartoon characters. The best & cleanest in this group was again the smallest: “The Poet Elazar,” only 17 inches high.


The highlight of my day in Chelsea, though, was the wondrous exhibition at Matthew Marks (22nd Street location) of “Anne Truitt Sculpture 1962 – 2004” (through June 26). If you haven’t yet seen this show, run – do not walk – to it. I wouldn’t wish to denigrate the very worthy and handsome Truitt retrospective staged at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden last fall, but its impact was cumulative, building up gradually from gallery to gallery and even going on a bit too long. This show hits you over the head from the moment you enter it. Matthew Marks represents the Truitt Estate and this is their first exhibition of it. After passing the receptionist’s desk, you arrive in a large white square soaring space with a whole little forest of ten simple narrow four-sided (square) columns, all slightly different in size, shape and coloration. The earliest is “Sun Flower” (1971), and, as the name suggests, it’s yellow. The most recent are “Amaranth” and “Return” (both 2004); the first is among the tallest in this group (at 81”) and off-white, while the second is thinner and a deep maroon. Visitors are free to wander through this fabulous little forest, comparing and contrasting. Three of the four corners of the gallery are also blocked off into separate spaces. Each displays one distinctively different sculpture, all earlier than the central convocation, and each, in its particular way, more massive. Earliest is “White: Four” (1962), a tall, thin, flat slab on a small pedestal, completely white and CLASSIC. “Gloucester” (1963) is a stockier broad slab that looks like two flat rectangles put together: the smaller one is a deep, deep purple while the larger one is black. “Pith” (1969) is a very thick and tall olive green column, floating slightly off the ground. All three of these are individually the best in the show, but that grouping of ten in the center is – well, magical.


Back in the ‘60s, the Upper East Side was still chic with the in-crowd (not until the ’70 did the Upper West Side muscle it aside, with all those Jewish intellectuals like Nora Ephron). In the ‘60s, Leo Castelli was still showing Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Poons, and you know, like that, at 4 East 77th Street, while the rest of the red-hot galleries were either up and down Madison Avenue, or else across 57th Street, from the Fuller Building west to Richard Bellamy’s Green Gallery at 15 West 57th Street and beyond. Nevertheless, no address was more with-it than 1010 Fifth Avenue, right across from the Met. There Robert and Ethel Scull, known to art-world devotees as “Bob “and “Spike,” held court with their vast and showy collection of pop art -- as celebrated in Time by my predecessor, Jon Borgzinner (in 1964 and 1965), and by Tom Wolfe in “The Pump House Gang” (in 1968). Nowadays, the galleries in that part of town mostly display the works of Dead White Males, but the artists in the original Scull collection increasingly fall into this category. Therefore, what could be more appropriate than to try & re-assemble the collection (now long since dispersed to museums, foundations and other private collectors) in the elegant, ornate town house designed by Ogden Codman (1863-1951) and presently occupied by Acquavella on East 79th Street? After all, it’s only three-and-a-half blocks from the Sculls’ onetime hangout.

As curated by Judith Goldman, this cornucopia of goodies was styled “Robert and Ethel Scull: Portrait of a Collection,” and included 44 paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs from a collection that once totaled something like 300 works (the $75 catalogue reproduces about 100 works, in addition to what was actually on view). I got there on the show’s last day (May 27), and was happy to see that at least two of the most famous works from the collection were displayed: Andy Warhol’s “Ethel Scull 36 Times” (1963), and “Portrait of Robert and Ethel Scull” (1965), in which George Segal, the Master Plasterer, immortalized the happy couple -- Spike seated on a sofa in a $45 copy of a Courrèges dress and genuine Courrèges boots, Bob standing proudly behind her. Jasper Johns was also well represented, with a large map of the U.S., a double American flag, a big encaustic target, and oh yes, one of my favorites, "The Critic Sees" (1964), the pair of silver metallic spectacles with mouths instead of eyes that to me look exactly like Greenberg's spectacles & mouth (I've heard that he was once invited to Johns's studio, but took a dismissive view of what he saw there, even if in later years he did maintain that Johns was better than other pop artists).

Frank Stella had a shaped brown pinstriped chevron canvas, and Poons was seen at his peak of flashy ‘60s coin dots (eye-popping magenta on an orange field). The works on view by Claes Oldenburg and Rauschenberg were minor, though the Sculls owned major pieces by them, Lichtenstein was absent, though the Sculls acquired his work, too, and obviously there would have been no way to include the Sculls’ biggest possession, James Rosenquist’s monumental “F-111.” Still, considering that the market value of most of these works is now in the stratosphere and some (especially the Rauschenbergs) are probably too fragile to travel, Goldman did an exemplary job of assembling what she could. Other artists with works in evidence, of varying size, quality & importance, included de Kooning, Still, Philip Guston, John Chamberlain, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Tom Wesselman, Rosenquist, Walter de Maria, Lucas Samaras and Mark di Suvero.


At Harcourt House Arts Centre, in Edmonton: "Retro-Active: New Paintings by Mitchel Smith & Sheila Luck, Curated by Peter Hide" (April 29 to June 5).... Craig F. Starr (5 East 73rd Street), “Helen Frankenthaler: Prints and Proofs of the 1960s from the Artist’s Archive” (June 4 – August 13)…..At the North Main Gallery and Studio in Salem NY (zip code: 12865), “New Work: Craig Barnes, George Hofmann, Michael L. Williams,” June 12 through July 31; opening reception, June 12, 3 – 6 pm....Franklin Einspruch's "artblog" is now a journal. Here's the website: http://www.einspruch.com/journal/
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