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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



At Mitchell-Innes & Nash in Chelsea, one may see “Anthony Caro: Upright Sculptures” (through December 11). If you have never seen a Caro exhibition, this is well worth a visit, but only occasionally does the work on view achieve the unbearable lightness of being that so astonishes and delights the viewer of many of this artist’s earlier steel sculptures --- which, despite weighing an equal if not greater number of pounds, nonetheless look as though they are about to take off for outer space. There is one sculpture in the current show which also achieves this, a slender, sleek and elegant pale olive-painted work named “Up Landscape” (2009). It is so good, in fact, that I plan to reproduce it in the supplement to the DeLuxe edition of my hard-copy column, but in the meantime, it is right there to admire on West 26th Street, along with seven other works that are predominantly made of rusted steel (with occasional pieces of wood) and look as heavy, impressive, massive and workmanlike as they can.

Press release and accompanying book make much of the fugitive figurative allusions that this show is supposed to have, but such allusiveness becomes an irritant in only two of the works on view, “Head” and “Up A Note” (both 2008/2009). The latter is only a tad cute, with two round elements in its upper half suggesting eyes, and other elements below equating to nose & mouth. The former is terminally cute, with two round shapes at the top suggesting one open & one closed eye, or perhaps twin boobs, while a rounded, projecting element below them implies either nose or pregnant belly. (I never said that multireferentiality necessarily makes a work of art good!) Of the remaining five works on view, “Three Up” (2009-2010) appealed to a knowledgeable friend of mine, being smaller and built around three forward-facing segments of large pipes, while I liked “End Up” (2010), a larger but not overly allusive combination of slanted rectangles and trapezoids. I also liked “Up Avon” (2009), a good-sized combination of curled steel and found objects that manages to remain a sculpture (as opposed to an assemblage).

Across the street, “Larry Poons, Radical Surface: 1985-1989” is at Loretta Howard (through December 23). Poons, I sometimes think, is like the history of art in miniature. He had his archaic period in the ‘60s, with his elemental, dancing “coin-dot” paintings. Starting in the early ‘70s, he evolved into his classic period, with his beautifully simple, at once superbly free and subtly regimented channels of thrown rivulets of paint coursing straight down his canvases. Around 1980, he evolved still further, into what can be called his baroque style. In it, the paint was splashed upon an ever-thickening foundation of tufts of plastic cotton, wrinkled bits or folded tubes of paper, slices of foam rubber and other diverse elements to create a thicket or field or forest of muted, warm and gracious colors. The flamboyance and theatricality of this form of expression reminds me of dashing cavaliers and fretting, foaming steeds, and it is not to everybody’s taste. Certain purists still cling to the simpler works of the ‘70s. If so, they may not like the current exhibition, since it has only a couple of lesser large paintings from that period, in the upstairs gallery, and the real focus of the show is work from the ‘80s, with seven large paintings from this period commanding the downstairs (entry level) space. If you can relate to this later work, however, the show is a triumph.

Not all the seven large paintings on the lower level are of equal quality, of course. With “The Cry Room” (1990), the objects beneath the paint are too prominent, and the whole falls apart. But balanced against it must be listed at least four canvases in which paint and substrata fuse into first-class, truly exciting presentations: “Southern Exposure” (1986), “Brahms in Rio” (1988), “Rogue Stadium” (1987), and “The Unknown” (1985). All of these paintings are meant to be viewed from a distance. Close-up, they dissolve into their component parts, but so does “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Poons developed a new kind of pointillism for a new and more radical audience. Not the least reason for the effectiveness of the current display is the harmoniousness of the color schemes. All seven large paintings from the ‘80s are dominated by myriad greens, creams, golds and whites, so the ensemble is indeed a bit more than the sum of its parts.

Jill Nathanson is an artist of dual ambitions. On the one hand, she aspires to express deep religious feelings; on the other, she strives to create professionally viable abstract art. Both aspects of her work are on view. In the Derfner Judaica Museum, at the Hebrew Home [for the aged] in Riverdale, she is displaying “Sacred Presence/Painterly Process” (through December 19), and at Messineo Art Projects/Wyman Contemporary in Chelsea, she is showing “No Blue Without Yellow” (through December 22). The latter exhibition consists of ten small- to medium-sized square panels painted with abstract designs (all in 2010) made of broad sweeps of acrylic and resin or polymer resin and pigment. The latter, especially, are semi-transparent and look like collages of clear plastic or cellophane. While not especially adventurous, they are perfectly pleasant and maintain a consistent standard of quality. Best are #6,”Red in the Time of Aqua,” and #8, “Time of Tan.”

The show in Riverdale is a nuisance to get to: not only is it an hour’s ride via express bus from midtown Manhattan, but when you get to the Home, you are confronted with a barrier and a guard on duty & forced to show photo ID if you want to get on the grounds at all. Still, I’m glad I went. There is an engaging amateurishness about Nathanson’s proceedings there, which shows up in two ways. On the negative side, it means very uneven levels of quality, but on the positive side, it leads to a freshness and spontaneity absent from the Chelsea show. “Sacred Presence” refers to three paintings, all done in 2005, combining abstract designs with Hebrew lettering, and meant to accompany a commentary by Arnold Eisen, head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, on the relationship of Moses to God. The colors of all three are charming, but the organization of only one is at all effective, the one titled “Please grant me a vision”/“Behold There is a Place with Me” (Exodus 33: 18, 21). Similarly, “Painterly Process,” which is meant to correlate with God creating the world in 6 days in Chapter 1 of Genesis, consists of 7 abstract mixed-media collages fastened to the walls. The progression goes from less good to very much less good. Then (with Day 6, the creation of Man) it suddenly improves, to a tall, narrow, graceful column of colored papers and clear plastics & paint that somehow manages to come off, and is quite powerful. I also liked Day 7 (when God rested), though it was only a collage of sheets of clear plastic or cellophane. There is, to be sure, an elaborate explanation posted for why Days 1 through 5 are so unappealing (Nathanson was seeking to portray primordial chaos, or whatever), but this is of interest only to pomonians, of which I am not one.
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