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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."



Peter Plagens, A Literary Sensibility, 2017. Mixed media on canvas, 72 x 66 inches. Courtesy Nancy Hoffman Gallery, New York.
Early March is a time of madness in Manhattan, with art fairs proliferating like rabbits. This year, the granddaddy of them all, “The Art Show,” as mounted in the Park Avenue Armory by the Art Dealers’ Association of America, staged its event the week before everybody else. I went, and will report on it. However, I also saw three Chelsea gallery shows closing this weekend (on March 10) – at Berry Campbell, on John Opper; at Luhring Augustine, on late medieval/early Renaissance paintings and sculpture; and at Nancy Hoffman, on Peter Plagens.


With 72 booths, showcasing the offerings of dealers from throughout the U.S., there was enough on view to draw me back on two successive days, but not such an appalling quantity of work that all generalizations seemed parlous….

So here is my general impression: although there was a lot of very handsome art on view, the show as a whole was relatively conservative – if you happen to believe, as I do, that abstraction is the most radical art form that we have, and that the most daring radicals are still the first generation of abstract expressionists, and the color-field painters of the 60s and since.

As far as the first generation was concerned, I only spotted one small Motherwell and two small Hofmanns, both at the booth of James Goodman (the best of the three was the smeary but livelier Hofmann).

The only color-field painting I saw was “Came and Went,” (2017), a medium-sized Larry Poons painting in pale, floral colors, included at Jill Newhouse as part of a presentation of “Pierre Bonnard: Affinities.”

This show had many very pleasing though mostly small Bonnards, especially works on paper, plus a few newer works by other artists whom Newhouse presumably considers soul-mates to Bonnard, though none of them (except for the Poons) lived up to the Bonnards, in my opinion.

Some other, almost equally adventurous galleries gave solo shows of abstract pictures that eschewed the trendy modes.

I am thinking of June Walker with her exhibition of strikingly jagged compositions by Nola Zirin, a mid-career artist who studied at NYU with Milton Resnick; and Miles McEnery (formerly Ameringer & Yohe), with Kevin Appel, a California artist (b. 1967) who bases his complex paintings on collages.

Also Michael Rosenfeld, with a display of the impastoed tile-style paintings by the veteran New York painter William T. Williams (b. 1942); and Washburn, with a very likeable selection of small, feathery, quasi-abstract landscape drawings by Myron Stout (1908-1987), best known for black & white proto-minimalist paintings.

And of course, we had the Old Masters, which is to say, artists I enthused about back in the 1960s, when I was writing for Time: Tony Smith at Pace, and those remarkable photographers, Berndt & Hilla Becher at Fraenkel of San Francisco.

We had the trendies: Mary Heilman at 303, Jackie Saccoccio at Van Doren Wexter; and too-pretty drawings by Warhol (from the ‘50s, when he was still doing illustrations for shoe ads and fashion magazines).

These Warhols were combined with more recent and not-pretty-enough drawings by Nicole Eisenman, all at Anton Kern (seems Andy once said “If only one day my work could be shown in an art fair booth alongside the work of a radical lesbian!”).

Most of the work in “The Art Show” was by Americans, though with occasional nods to other nationalities: at Salon 94, small fanciful ink drawings by Ibrahim el-Salahi, an 87-year-old Sudanese modernist, and big shiny biomorphic bronzes by the German-born French national Jean (or Hans) Arp (1886-1966) at Hauser & Wirth
And most of the work is 20th or 21st Century, though with occasional toe-in-the-water forays as far back as the 19th century: two exquisite little still lifes done in 1810 by Philadelphia’s Raphaelle Peale, part of an attempt to recreate a 1943 MoMA exhibition of “realists and magic realists” at Hirschl & Adler;

Also, at Thomas Colville Fine Art, a kitty-cat behind the slats of a wooden crate so realistically painted around 1887 by D. Scott Evans that I thought at first it was an assemblage, with a real stuffed cat!


There was, however, one area of art history that seemed to be the center of gravity for the entire show, the hottest area of interest.

That was American modernism from the first part of the 20th century, with four (count ‘em, 4) major galleries all showcasing stellar examples of work by John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Oscar Bluemner and/or other members of this same charmed generation.

(Indeed, Marin came across as almost the most abstract artist in "The Art Show," and, with the excellence of his work on view, amply justified the 1948 judgment on him by Clement Greenberg: “…if it is not beyond all doubt that he is the best painter in America alive at this moment, he assuredly has to be taken into consideration when we ask who is.”)

In the order in which I encountered these four galleries showcasing early American modernism, they were 1) Menconi + Schoelkopf Fine Art; 2) Meredith Ward; 3) Debra Force Fine Art; and 4) James Reinish & Associates, all of Manhattan.

In the first, in addition to the charmed three I mentioned above, we had paintings by Milton Avery (another popular figure – Yares devoted their entire booth to his work); Charles Burchfield; Max Weber; & Edward Hopper.

In the second, in addition to Marin & Hartley, we had paintings by Alfred Maurer; Arthur B. Carles; Robert Henri; Everett Shinn (a truly well-done little picture of a dancer entitled “The Fan”); Manierre Dawson & Marguerite Zorach, as well as sculpture by Gaston Lachaise; Alexander Archipenko; and John Storrs.

In the third, in addition to Marin, we had a splendid early, representational Stuart Davis, “Bleecker Street” (1912-13); a statuesque gouache figure study from 1910 by Max Weber; a colorful Matissean landscape by Hugh Henry Breckinridge (1870-1937), and a curious experiment in cubism by Man Ray, “Still Life with a Banjo” (1925).

For me, however, the fourth was the one that for me took the cake -- being organized, as it was, as “The Stieglitz Revolution.”

So we had – besides the American painters (Marin, Hartley, Bluemner) -- photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen & Alvin Langdon Coburn.

Best of all – we had the Europeans whom Stieglitz showed in his galleries and reproduced in Camera Work & just generally held up a models for the Americans.

True, Picasso is only represented by a tiny drypoint, Matisse by a small drawing, and Cézanne by a lithograph (“The Bathers”) but these are all lovely examples of their mighty creators’ work.

Most importantly, they are there, and thus serve to put all the Americans in their proper context.


The first of the three shows that I went down to Chelsea to investigate was “John Opper: Paintings from the 1960s and 1970s” at Berry Campbell.

This gallery exhibits many abstract painters from the 1960s and 1970s who fall, in a general way, into the category of color-field painting; it has recently taken on this artist’s estate.

Opper (1908 – 1994) was born in Chicago, and studied there and in Cleveland before coming to New York in the early 1930s. Following the advice of Hans Hofmann, he began to work “in a more modern vein,” and wound up as one of the founders of the American Abstract Artists in 1936.

He had his first solo exhibition at a gallery in 1937.Over the years, he seems to have moved in the orbit of the New York avant-garde, showing with Grace Borgenicht without attracting enormous amounts of attention.

He evolved from his cubist style of the 1930s – first, into gestural abstraction in the 40s and 50s and then into the “post-painterly” mode of the1960s.

In this evolution, Opper reminds me of John Ferren, another pioneer of modernist abstraction in the 1930s who by the 60s had evolved into a “post-painterly” style.

Unlike Ferren, he wasn’t included in “Post-Painterly Abstraction,” the show of that movement organized by Clement Greenberg for the Los Angeles County Museum in 1964.

To the extent that Opper’s work is represented in Manhattan’s museums, they seem to have been most interested in his 1930s work.

The Met owns a 1933 Opper watercolor and both the Whitney and MoMA own a 1937 Opper lithograph included in a portfolio of lithographs by members of the AAA (MoMA also owns a 1960 painting).

The Opper show at Berry Campbell, of work from the late 1960s into the 1970s, is very colorful. The artist’s image is a series of irregularly-shaped vertical bars of different hues in a style that is post-painterly without being offensively hard-edged.

Several of these pictures stood out for me, including the largest, “Untitled (5-71).” It is hung on the west wall of the front gallery area and painted as the title implies in 1971.

Made up mostly of hot colors – broad verticals of reds, oranges, and yellows – it has only a couple of narrow vertical bars of green and blue to set them off.

Even better are three small painted paper collages hung in the hindermost gallery space.

The largest is only 9 x 6, but all boast vivid but not obstreperous bars of color, and are neatly, crisply done. Two are dated 1966; one was done around 1967.

I would be very interested to see a show of Opper’s work from the 1930s.


Right across the street from Berry Campbell is Luhring Augustine, with “Of Earth and Heaven: Art from the Middle Ages, in conjunction with Sam Fogg.”

This show seems to be a great success, to judge from the tour groups of school children and middle-aged out-of-towners who helped to keep a steady hum of conversation going when I was there.

Apparently Sam Fogg, who operates out of London, is the world’s leading dealer in medieval European art.

This show, which presumably all comes from his inventory, has many outsized examples of painting, sculpture and stained glass from the 12th to the 16th centuries (i.e., from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance).

Virtually all the art in this show is religious.

Among the works on view are Madonnas, painted &/or carved; a life-sized carved crucifix, a nearly life-size Pieta, a huge painting of Saint Christopher and another of the archangel Michael vanquishing something evil.

There are also three over-sized stained-glass windows depicting the Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise, and two enormous segments of a limestone arch from Canterbury Cathedral in England.

Snob that I am, I have to confess that I felt that some, maybe much of the work was not quite up to the standards of what I have seen at the Metropolitan Museum’s Cloisters and at other museums. But Luhring Augustine has guarded against such complaints by inserting a carefully-worded qualification into its press release.

It doesn’t say that these are the finest masterpieces of medieval and Renaissance art in the world. It just says that that “these are many of the finest masterpieces of Medieval and Renaissance art still in private hands.”


The New York Times, which reviewed the Luhring Augustine show, also reviewed this one, of work by Peter Plagens, but to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much.

The last time I reviewed an exhibition of Plagens’ work was maybe 15 years ago, and I didn’t relate to it at all. This time, I enjoyed myself.Not at first, to be sure, but I found myself warming up to the work.

One reason I’d come to this show is because Plagens is better known to me as a critic than he is as an artist, and as a critic with a pretty good eye.

Moreover, he and I are both graduates of the major media: he used to write about art for Newsweek, just as I used to write about art for Time.

Our terms in office didn’t coincide, as he is somewhat younger than I am, but he goes about his business as a critic in some essential ways much I do (I won’t elaborate).

I only regret that at the moment, he seems to do most of his reviews for the Wall Street Journal, and I am damned before I’ll put a nickel in the pocket of its owner, Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch has sworn to put the New York Times out of business, and I’m not about to help him in that.

Anyway, this show of Plagens at Nancy Hoffman is mostly paintings, but with a couple of collages.

According to the gallery’s press release, only the collages are “a nod to his literary side.” I think that the paintings are, too – even if they are all abstract.

I walked into the gallery and first surveyed the paintings, which are all very similar in composition, though the colors vary widely. I also glanced at the collages, whose compositions are very similar, too.

I said to myself, this is an artist who likes to have it both ways – or perhaps to reconcile opposites.

In the case of the paintings, it’s a question of combining painterly with hard-edge. In the case of the collages, it’s a question of combining abstract with representational.

At the center of each abstract painting is a geometric, multi-sectional, hard-edged shape, which is mounted on a field of a solid contrasting color.

This field, however, disintegrates around its perimeter into a flurry of painterly smearing, scratching and drips, all of it bleeding onto a larger field that is ultimately white.

At the center of each collage is a small (tall & narrow) representational image (both a combination of two photographs, in the two examples I saw).

This image is surrounded by concentric rectangles that form a frame, but with all manner of extra little squares of color inserted or contrasts (once again) between an inner hard-edged frame and an outer painterly one.

Once I understood this, I could relax and enjoy the colors in the abstracts—which are idiosyncratic, to say the least, but at their best, are surprisingly touching.

Two of the best, I thought, were “The Ides of October” (2017) and “A Literary Sensibility” (2017).

“The Ides of October” employs primarily brighter colors in the hard-edge shape at the center (bright mustard, Kelly green, bright brown, deep blue & peachy orange). The surrounding field is a deep muddy purple, and the framing splatters are mostly blacks, grays, browns and an occasional watery pink.

“A Literary Sensibility” employs a gentler, more restrained palette. The hard-edged shape at the center has a selection of warm and cool grays, one brownish pink (or pinkish brown) and one grayish green (or greenish gray).

The surrounding field is a strong blue- green, and the surrounding splatters and drawings are black, blue, brown, yellow and rust.

I’m choosing “A Literary Sensibility” to reproduce because I think that the title, combined with the softer, more reticent palette, suggests a further modest thought: namely that writing about art must always take second place to the art itself…..

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