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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."



Sumer is icumen in, lhude sing cuccu! It’s time for summer group shows, and two Chelsea ones have recently grabbed my interest --- one because of the largest piece in it, the other because of very nearly the smallest.


The first show is at Paul Kasmin on Tenth Avenue, main drag of Chelsea. The gallery isn’t a barn like Gagosian, but it has three sizeable viewing spaces, and the show is “Process/Abstraction” (through July 2). The artists, a mix of older & younger, are Walead Bashty, Daniel Buren, Ian Davenport, Simon Hantaï, Nathan Hylden, Morris Louis, James Nares, Kenneth Noland, Zak Prekop, David Ratcliff, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol and Christopher Wool. The rationale, according to the gallery press release, is that “many of these artists begin with deliberate and well-defined parameters and then introduce an element of chance. In their final forms, these works present a record of the processes employed while outlining new directions in pictorial abstraction.” This is pure postmodernist dogma, from the shibboleth of “chance” to the notion that process, or the act, is as important as, if not more important than, the result.

Of course, nobody (but me) calls it “postmodernism” any longer. The less-highbrow art mags mostly like to dub it “contemporary,” while according to a recent article on artnet by Ben Davis, highbrow theoreticians have been arguing that postmodernism is over, and what we now have are “altermodernism,” “off-modernism,” or “continuance of modernism.” (You will note that “modernism” appears in all these compounds, testimony to the staying power of that much-derided tradition, plus the fact that what we are really --- and still – talking about is anti-modernism, aka dada.) Franklin Einspruch, whose online “journal” first brought Davis’s article to my attention, comes up with a coinage of his own, “interactionism,” to describe what he considers a new emphasis on performance art and talk about art, as opposed to art itself, but Davis, in my opinion, is nearer the mark. He concedes that all we really have is “a minor inflection in the dominant ideology, not any full-blown change of direction,” and his name for it is “semi-post-postmodernism.” To me, it’s almost all old wine in new bottles. What the average Chelsea gallery displays is pretty much the same sort of irritatingly intellectual art that has been shown for the past 40 or 50 years (with occasional ventures into second-rate abstraction & only rarely inspired forms of representational painting). Giving such art a new name is a merchandising gimmick, ultimately (if not immediately) designed to keep viewers, critics, curators & collectors bellying up to the trough.

Actually, the Kasmin show offers a continuum, ranging from art where haphazardness & process are the main attractions (and results are negligible) to art where “chance” has been replaced by intuition and the result justifies the method (not the reverse.) At the first end of the continuum, we have Hylden’s “Untitled”(2009), which is smears of white paint on aluminum, plus two of Warhol’s “Rorschach paintings.” I have long suspected that these programmatically abstract Warhol paintings, dating as they do from 1984, were inspired by my comparison of Rorschach blots to abstract paintings in my 1983 article on multireferential imagery, though Warhol claimed he had somehow suddenly remembered his childhood experience of Rorschach tests. I also once read that Warhol said he’d tried abstractions as a young man, and quit making them because they were “too easy.” Sure, it’s easy to paint abstractions as poor as these are. Hanging next to them, though, is one of the better paintings in the show, Ratcliff’s “Second Painting Mirror I” (2008), an acrylic & spray paint on canvas. Like Warhol’s Rorschach paintings, it may have been made by folding the canvas in half (so that the paint on one side of it forms the mirror image of the paint on the other). And the imagery is aggressively angular, full of spiky, vaguely threatening or insectoid shapes, all black on white, not beautiful in the ordinary sense of the word, but with a certain something.

Still, the painting which impressed me most was Noland’s huge “Inner Blue” (1968). Measuring 55” x 360”, its pale horizontal stripes stretch the full length of one wall, and are exquisitely modulated, both in color (raw beige canvas, white, pale blues and greens) and in the varied width of the stripes, ranging from broad to narrow and back again. This is very sophisticated, very subtle painting. It may not be peak Noland, but it still towers over nearly everything else at Kasmin.


At the other end of the spatial & ideological food chain, we have mdh fine arts, a pocket-sized gallery located at 233 West 19th Street, down the block from where Marlborough Chelsea used to be. Its proprietor, Michael Henry, doesn’t trouble himself with explications. His modest announcement for “Pick 6,” an exhibition offered in conjunction with the gallerist Corrine Robbins, says only that it is “A collaborative show featuring the work of Jeffrey Bye, James O. Clark, Risa Glickman, Michael Henry, Michael Miller, Gabriella Mlynarczyk, John-Paul Philippe, Rachel Press, Corinne Robbins, Donna Senger, Jimmy Shack and Ann Walsh” (through June 19, though individual pieces may remain on view longer). Actually, after the invite was printed, the artist Kenneth Hayden came in with his provocative little paintings of birds, and Henry was so taken with them that he omitted his own work from the show in order to include Hayden’s.

No work in this show appears to rely on “chance,” or be more significant for its manner of creation than its results. On the contrary, it is all straightforward and well-crafted painting, sculpture, works on paper and ceramics (with materials & methods ranging from very traditional to very up-to-date, and all created within the past few years). No artwork is large; everything is small (though needless to say, there are degrees of smallness). I particularly liked Bye’s sensitive oil painting entitled “FDR,” with its aerial view of small cars trundling alongside the East River and skyscrapers in the background, ceramic bowls by Press, ceramic cubes by Shack, mixed-media constructions by Clark, and the four handsome & good-sized tree studies by Glickman, made with pastel, acrylic, and charcoal on paper. However, the star of the show is Walsh, whose brightly colored blocks & free-standing panels, made of vinyl and cast acrylic, are among the smallest works on view, but stand out for their especial verve and vigor. The display in the window facing the street is a still life that easily surpasses anything by Morandi and approaches Cézanne in perfection --- a particularly delightful combination of shapes, colors & textures. A white block stands next to a slender vase of white gladioli on their pale green stalks. Atop the white block stands Walsh’s “Button,” a rectilinear, three-dimensional shape measuring only 8” x 7” x 5.5” and combining a mostly-electric-blue surface with one upper corner of the hottest pink in town.


While in Chelsea, I also took in “Gene Davis” at Ameringer McEnery Yohe (through July 17). This is a good-looking show. The gallery represents the estate of Davis, who died in 1985 at the age of 64, and it has done well by him. Davis was known as a leader of the Washington Color Field School, and he definitely was talented; his thing was vertical stripes, as opposed to the horizontal ones of Noland, but anybody who confuses the two doesn’t have what Greenberg would have called an eye. Where Noland was super-subtle, Davis was hearty; where Noland was sophisticated, Davis was robust, and where Noland had sometimes appalling vitality, Davis can often seem staid. Still, this can make for enjoyable viewing. The current show includes a huge example of the artist’s multicolored stripes: “Saratoga Springboard” (1969), measuring 113” x 280”, but I preferred the more refined large canvas “Wigwam” (1969), in the back gallery, with alternating broad and narrow stripes, and a more restrained palette --- only blue and white on the left-hand side of the canvas, and only green and white on the right. Two small untitled pieces of colored pencil on paper, both dated 1984, are delicate and appealing.

I have also been to see Gagosian’s latest extravaganza, “Claude Monet: Late Work” (through June 26, at the 21st Street space). This, too, is a very likeable show, tastefully installed and chockablock with 26 paintings, 21 of them borrowed either from private collections or from the Museé Marmottan Monet in Paris. Almost all of these paintings are masterfully done. All depict sights the aging artist saw in his gardens at Giverny between 1904 and 1924 (he died in 1926 at the age of 86). The first three of four galleries display paintings of water, water lilies and other pond life, chronologically arranged – therefore also progressively larger and more abstract, symphonies of blues & greens. The last & smallest gallery displays smaller and mostly more hotly-colored paintings of the Japanese bridge, the rosebush arcade, a weeping willow and the foliage overlooking the water lily pond. All this work was done sometime between 1918 and 1924, and I’m afraid for me it’s the least interesting. At this stage of his life, Monet’s vision was really failing him and the results are sometimes too muddy to be esthetically rewarding. Even here, though, there’s one last flare-up of brilliance, in the smallest and most golden view of the Japanese bridge.

A third show that I visited was in its last day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was “The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry” (closed June 13). This exceptionally beautiful illuminated manuscript Book of Hours, as I said in my May 20 blog, was created in the first decade of the 15th century by three of the greatest illuminators of Europe for one of its greatest patrons. Owned by the Met, it is normally displayed as a bound volume, but on this occasion had been unbound, so that museum-goers could appreciate every page at one time. Assuredly, the intricately illuminated pages are enchanting, but they and the manifold details within them are almost always so small that one really needs a magnifying glass to get their full impact. The Met did provide magnifying glasses, but when you consider that this “Belles Heures” contains 172 pages, you can appreciate the fact that it took real stamina to examine them all. Moreover, I kept looking for the full-page calendar scenes that I thought I remembered from the course I took in college, all those years ago, on the art of the Northern European Renaissance. Nowhere did I find them – until I got back to my own apartment & consulted my dog-eared “History of Art” by H. W. Janson. There I learned that the full-page calendar scenes are from another (and far more famous) Book of Hours that was also made for the Duc de Berry by the Limbourg Brothers, and is in the collection of the Museé Condé in Chantilly, France. It’s called not the “Les Très Belles Heures du Duc de Berry” but “Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.” Why am I reminded of that fine old French saying, you can’t be too thin or too rich?

... (© Copyright 2010 by Piri Halasz)

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