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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."



KENNETH NOLAND. Time Lift, 1966. Acrylic on canvas (can hang both ways). 96 x 24 inches. Courtesy of Loretta Howard Gallery
As temperatures rose, I remembered that summer is a season for group shows, so I made a point of getting to some exhibitions featuring more than one artist. First was “New Paintings: Dana Gordon, John Mendelsohn” at Sideshow in Williamsburg (closed May 10). Both Gordon & Mendelsohn are mid-career abstractionists making paintings that recall Pollock in their all-over-ness, but all-over-ness in itself doesn’t guarantee interest or quality; I found both artists’ paintings overly regular, though clearly well made……

Not even “well-made” is an adjective that I can apply to everybody in the group of 9 artists included in the exhibition entitled “Pour,” held jointly at Aysa Geisberg in Chelsea and Leslie Heller on the Lower East Side (closed May 24--both galleries showed work by the same artists). Because I’d made a point of getting to “Dripping! Pouring! Staining!” at Spanierman, I thought I’d better check on how Downtown handles this method of painting, another legacy of Pollock. Once again, I found that merely because a picture has been poured doesn’t put it on a level with his work, or even close. The only painting I liked at Heller was that of Carolana Parlato, whose praises I have sung elsewhere; at Geisberg, I thought the painting by Jackie Saccaccio at least looked better than her entry in the Heller show…..

A third group show of contemporary work was “ASC Projects: Inaugural Show” (closed June 29). It was at Gallery 304, a new tenant in that huge double-honeycomb of galleries and studios on the south side of West 26th Street; the space in it numbered 304 is a gallery (up front) and a studio (in back). The proprietor of both is an artist called Ayn S. Choi. I had come to this show because it included a painting by Peter Reginato, and Reginato’s was the best painting in it, a tall, very narrow wood panel with brightly-colored enamels poured onto it. It was far better than any of the paintings in “Pour,” though it still looked more like a three-dimensional object with paint poured onto it than a painting: possibly because the paint had dripped down the sides of it, possibly because of its unusual shape. As for Choi, I thought her contribution to the show, an all-yellow panel embellished with wiggly little bits of copper wire, was pleasantly cheerful—though abstract, it reminded me of the little wire figures in the 1930s circus of Alexander Calder….

A partially successful group show with a landscape bent to it is “Woods, Lovely, Dark, and Deep” at DC Moore (through August 15). I went to it hoping for some golden oldies. There were some—good work by Romare Bearden, Andrew Wyeth & Marsden Hartley---but most of the show was recent pictures by younger artists, all too often with an unfortunate tendency to emphasize the “dark” and “deep.” I did like the three contributions of Daniel Heidecamp, the one by Whitfield Lovell, and one of the two by Claire Sherman—to say nothing of a delectable little abstract by Max Jansons that is a landscape in name only (“Into the Trees”).

In the end, of the group shows that I saw, only two recommended themselves in their entirety-– one a historical show and one that mingles classic modernism with contemporary. The historical exhibition is in the new Chelsea quarters of Michael Rosenfeld (through August 2). Featured are many of the abstract expressionist artists Rosenfeld has shown for so many years in his 57th Street gallery. The show has one of the longest titles I've ever seen. It is called “Abstract Expressionism, featuring a selection of major Seymour Lipton sculptures in context with Charles Alston, Norman Bluhm, Beauford Delaney, Willem de Kooning, Jay DeFeo, Michael Goldberg, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Lee Krasner, Norman Lewis, Conrad Marca-Relli, Boris Margo, Alfonso Ossorio, Richard Pousette-Dart, Milton Resnick, Charles Seliger, AlmaThomas, Mark Tobey, JackTworkov, and Hale Woodruff.”

Needless to say, not all of these artists are represented by their best work, but you may find something here to suit your fancy, and really this is one of those rare occasions when the whole is much more than the sum of its parts: the show is worth seeing for its installation alone. The new gallery is spacious but semi-circular, with what’s almost like a single wide corridor leading around the core of the building, though intercepted as you go by a succession of partial partitions. You can never see the whole show at one time—instead, what you get is a succession of “views,” and the Lipton sculptures, all of which are late and most of which are large, are positioned so that each work plays off against the paintings hung in nearest proximity to it. Sounds weird, but it works, it really works.

The show that mingles classic modernism with contemporary modernism is “DNA: Strands of Abstraction,” curated by Paul Sinclaire and staged by Loretta Howard (also through August 2). The first painting that hit me as I walked through the door was a very striking, though somewhat minimal, yellow painting by Shirley Goldfarb, “Yellow Painting #7” (1968). I remembered that Goldfarb had been included in Howard’s “young Americans in Paris” show last fall, but I hadn’t been impressed by her work in this show – so unimpressed that I passed up the solo exhibition of her work staged by Howard this spring. Now I’m sorry.

And there is other, even better vintage work here, too, from the 60s & 70s by Frankenthaler, Olitski, Noland, Dzubas & Poons. The Noland is particularly lovely—a lozenge from 1966 with green, blue & white diagonal stripes. It can be hung either vertically or horizontally (though actually, I preferred the vertical hanging in the show). Also, a host of younger artists whose names were unfamiliar to me, but whose pictures (all done within the last few years) are clean, crisp, neat, outstandingly decent and sometimes even more: the pieces by Jonathan Allmaier, Noam Rappaport & N. Dash were unusually nice. Again, this is a case where the overall impression created by this show is at least equal to the sum of its parts, and maybe more—light, airy, pretty, Apollonian as opposed to Dionysian, modern utopianism as opposed to pomonian dystopia. The kind of show that leaves you with a happy feeling inside.

Two more group shows that I didn’t see until after all I’d seen all the others just mentioned are “Cross Currents: A Treasury Through Time,” at ACA (through August 16), and, at Artifact, on the Lower East Side, five small “solo” exhibitions (through July 28). Work by Francine Tint is included in the first show, which was why I went to see it originally, while work by Irene Neal was the reason I went to Artifact, but in both cases, once I got there, I found other work also worthy of comment.

The ACA show was put together in the expectation that a PBS crew will be filming a documentary about the gallery, so it emphasizes at least three different aspects of its activities over the years (it’s been in business since 1932). As presently set up, it has an abstract section, an African-American section and a section devoted to what it calls the “social realism” that it was particularly known for in the 1930s and 1940s. However, at present the “social realism” section consists of seven paintings by Philip Evergood, plus two by James Chapin, and the proprietors of the gallery would like to “tweak” this selection by cutting back on the Evergood in order to include more of the artists from the 30s and 40s whom it thinks of as social realists, including William Gropper, Reginald Marsh and the Soyer brothers, Raphael & Moses.

Although Milton Brown, in his trailblazing history of American painting from the Armory Show to the Depression, classed the Soyers & Marsh as members of the “14th Street School” rather than social realists, Gropper’s acid political comment clearly belongs in the “social realist” camp. So do the two canvases by Chapin, though they came as a surprise to me, since my prior acquaintance with his art dates back to my early days on Time, in the 1950s. At that time, I knew Chapin as the creator of warmly human portraits of those special individuals who would grace the covers of Time—at least 18 that Bill Hooper, keeper of the Time Incorporated Archives, and I have been able to identify by name, plus who knows how many more (Chapin’s obituary in Time said he was responsible for “dozens” of covers). He did everybody from Thurgood Marshall & Boris Pasternak to Prince Philip, Edward Hopper, and an especially noble portrait of President Eisenhower & Vice President Nixon, both seen in profile, freshly re-elected in 1956. But it turns out that Chapin had another side as well—or perhaps one that he evolved into, as the placid 50s gave way to the turbulent 60s, for the two paintings at the ACA both done in the 60s, are as anti-establishment as anything Gropper or Evergood ever painted.

One is somewhat dated: a relic of 60s anti-Vietnam sentiment. It’s called “A Medal for Charlie” and depicts a sinister-looking--indeed, positively ghoulish-- Lyndon B. Johnson and his vice-president, Hubert Horatio Humphrey, treated as LBJ’s puppet, together with the mangled corpse of a Vietnam vet. The other, an even more surprising one, is just as timely today as it was in the 60s. It portrays a red-jacketed, truculent “Deer Hunter – Picture of a Sportsman,” armed with a big gun and looking for all the world like an admirer of, and symbol for, the NRA. Back in the 60s, people were already concerned about gun violence—the assassinations of two Kennedys were just the tip of the iceberg. How far have we come in 50 years? Chapin seems to have become so disenchanted with the American political scene that he emigrated from the U .S. to Canada, and became a Canadian citizen, dying in Toronto in 1975 at the age of 88.

But I digress from assessing the rest of the exhibition. The best Evergood is “Artist’s Fantasy” (1932-1958), even – or perhaps because – it’s not at all political. In the African-American section, I liked especially “On Such a Night as This” (1975), a painting/collage by Romare Bearden, though it was also nice to re-encounter work by Faith Ringgold, whom I wrote about back in the 1970s, when I was covering the New Jersey art & culture scene for the NY Times. A name that was new to me (though I understand it’s quite well known) was that of Aminah Robinson.

In the abstract section, four generations are represented. The first generation represented is that of the American abstract artists of the 1930s, as seen in a tondo, filled with geometric abstraction, by Ilya Bolotowsky (1907-1981) – though the actual painting is dated 1950.

Next, in terms of when, historically, he came to the fore, is Theodoros Stamos (1922-1997), associated with first-generation abstract expressionism, and exhibiting since the 1940s; his style is seen in two canvases—“Untitled (Columns of Fire)” (1956), and “Ascent for Ritual” . T(1947). The latter is of greater historical significance. It is one of those early canvases with muted colors which have often been interpreted as “under water” in subject matter and/or submarine colors, but which in this case seems to be taking place in midair, as it is built around bird forms.

Older than Stamos, but not emerging into the limelight until the 1960s, is Leon Berkowitz, a senior member of the Washington Color Field School (his birth year has been reported as 1911, 1915 and 1919, but all sources agree that he died in 1987). His two canvases in this show, dated 1973 & 1983-84, are composed of shimmering clouds of color that suggest (to me, at any rate) the spray paintings that Jules Olitski made in the 1960s, though I understand that they were made by more conventional means.

Finally, we have Francine Tint, whose “Indian Summer” was executed just last year. It is provocative, piquant—more discrete than many other paintings by her that I’ve seen, with black lines dividing it up into a sort of grid, but the colors are as radiant as ever, with peach, mint green, gray & chartreuse. Clearly, this is a tradition that continues to demonstrate its vitality.

Downtown, at Artifact, a gallery less than a year old, work by five painters (plus a small group show) is neatly divided up into six clean, well-lighted spaces. Abstraction is also the order of the day here. Only one of the painters, Jonathan Frank, is representational, and the group show is also all-abstract. All of the artists with spaces to themselves come from out of town: Frank comes from Colorado, Jim Hillegass is based in Minnesota, Matt Anzak lives in Dallas, Hans Mazenauer is Austrian, and Irene Neal, though for many years a resident of Connecticut, now has become a Floridian.

All of five of these artists contribute at least a couple of paintings worth looking at, but I can’t say the same for the group show, which has only one canvas that impressed me: the large “Upper Crust,” by Dorothy Robinson.

Of the remainder, Jonathan Frank showed watercolors depicting rock formations, canyons and other geographic phenomena of Western deserts & national parks, using what might be called a “paint by numbers” technique, in that each color area is surrounded by very narrow little black lines. From a distance these blend in, making for a less studied effect. The picture which stood out for me was “Shadows Fall” (2012), a tall, narrow picture with towering rock formations building to a climax in the top center, and the color scheme limited to red, beiges & browns for the rocks, plus blue for the sky & white for the similarly towering clouds.

The abstracts by Hans Mazenauer I found mostly rather crude and correspondingly less rewarding, though three small paintings with a lot of deep blue & a little white in them came off quite well: all done in 2012, they are entitled “Space Trilogie 1,” “Space Trilogie 2,” and “Space Trilogie 3.”

The paintings by Jim Hillegass are, I felt, more sensitive than some of the other paintings displayed at Artifact, but this very sensitivity meant that most were so delicate that they came across as tentative & unprepossessing—at first, at least, though if you study them more carefully, they could begin to grow on you. All except one are composed of narrow, softly brushed horizontal stripes, though one had the stripes running vertically. Color choices were mostly for paler shades of blue, gray, pink, white and yellow. Two in pale blue, white, pale purple, and grays are entitled “#282” and “#283” (both 2013): they are both 36” square, hung as pendants, and the most assured, the most accomplished in this display.

Matt Anzak, who was present at the artist’s reception that I attended, explained that his abstracts employ a lot of disparate materials, including chicken wire, burlap, plastic, and resin coating. A few years back, he even went through a stage where he threw painted spaghetti at the canvas and let it drip down (some of the spaghetti still adheres). I’m afraid the spaghetti picture in this display was too smeary & disorganized for me. The other paintings were better, being composed of a multitude of small forms & soft combinations of colors finished off with a shiny resin coating for the surface, and loops or squiggles of black enamel loosely decorating the work for a finishing touch.

Anzak doesn’t use a stick, though, to drip on the paint, the way that Pollock did: that’s Stone Age technology by now. Anzak gets a much more reliable stream of black enamel by putting the paint in those plastic ketchup & mustard bottles you can find in restaurants & buy in supermarkets with squeegee type tops—though I must say that, even though he doesn’t think of himself as painting like Pollock, his debt to Pollock is obvious. Whatever. The pictures by him that I thought came off best are “Reunion” (2013) and “Cosmos” (2012).

Which brings us to Irene Neal, who had invited me to the artist’s reception in the first place. This show differs differs from other work by her I’ve seen, since it’s watercolors on paper instead of the globs of acrylic and gel for which she is better known. But, being the old-fashioned person I am, I maybe liked it even better—certainly, I felt that Neal had a better command of her medium, and so was able to achieve bold and yet contained effects. To say the works are in watercolor isn’t enough in the sense that watercolors are usually applied with brushes, and these paintings are poured, but not like Pollock and not like Frankenthaler and not like Poons or anybody else.

What she achieves is clouds of color, twirling and whirling around the paint surface in essentially circular or oval shapes, but sometimes disparate and sometimes flowing & sometimes something yet in between. Colors are rich & strong, mostly on the deeper side, to create a luxurious appearance, though these images are modestly scaled – all horizontal or vertical on paper either 22” x 28” (28” x 22”). One of the three best paintings is “Becoming” (2011), compact, organized but luscious with purples, deep red, and ocher in an outer circle, with a center of pale blue, touched with a deeper blue. A second is “I Spy” (2011), which spills over the top and bottom of the picture surface and becomes a bit overwhelming, but again with attractive colors: olive, purple, brown and pink. The third, “Floating”(2012) is the only pale picture in the show—with the widest range of colors (pale red, pale blue, pale purple, pale green & yellow), but because none of them are full strength, they all go together.


Inevitably, I also visited several solo exhibitions. At Bowery, a cooperative gallery, I saw paintings by Temma Bell (closed May 28). Bell, whom I know as a friend of a daughter of friends, also comes from a distinguished painting family (her father was Leland Bell, her mother, Louisa Matthíasdóttir). Like them,she paints perfectly straightforward representational pictures --- of her husband, four daughters, and their pets, as well as still lifes, farm animals and landscapes both of the farm where they live in upstate New York and of the scenery around Reykjavík (which has familial ties: both her mother and her husband came from Iceland). I found this show very refreshing. There is something just so relaxing about simple, ordinary painting. I’m not sure I’d want it as a exclusive diet but it makes a great change of pace…..

Slightly more elaborate (if also perhaps a tad more pretentious) are the enjoyable & highly-successful landscapes of 85-year-old Wolf Kahn at Ameringer-McEnery-Yohe (through July 26). Kahn paints thickets of thin, spidery trees with scanty foliage in his Manhattan studio in the winter, all based in the Vermont countryside where he has a house & spends summers and falls. The colors in this show are fantasy colors, and very striking ones, too. “Green Landscape with Greenhouses” (2012) combines orange mountains in the background with chartreuse trees in the foreground, while “Greenhouses in a Green Landscape” (2011) has a purple mountain behind deep green foliage. I would have said the compositions were fantasies, too, but after this show I spent a weekend in northeast Connecticut, and on the train coming back to New York saw just exactly the same sorts of trees alongside the railroad bed, all growing in swampy areas where – what with all the rains we’d been having – they were up to their ankles in water.

Dutifully, I took in one of the biggest luminaries for people who think Roberta Smith tells it like it is. In her lead article in the NY Times on May 17, entitled “Gladatorial Combat: The Battle of the Big,” she headlined “Jeff Koons: Gazing Ball” at David Zwirner (closed June 29), Jeff Koons: New Paintings and Sculpture” at Gagosian (closed June 29), “Paul McCarthy: Sculptures” at Hauser & Wirth in Chelsea (closed June 1), and “Paul McCarthy: Life Cast” at Hauser & Wirth on the Upper East Side (through July 26). The illustrations in the Times for the McCarthy shows were such a turnoff that I couldn’t force myself to see the shows themselves (perhaps another time).

I did take in both of the Jeff Koons exhibitions, and am no wiser about what their mysterious appeal may be. The “Gazing Ball” consisted of outsized plaster versions of a number of reasonably well-known Greco-Roman sculptures, all denuded of whatever admirable qualities the originals might have by adding one large, shiny blue globe or ball atop each. Despite all the hoopla in the press release, about these balls having to do with “transcendence” and “the realization of one’s mortality,” the basic idea was silly.

There is a fundamental difference between making fun WITH art (as Daumier, Jacques Callot, & Hogarth, among so many others, managed to do), and making fun OF art (which is the essence of Duchamp and his legions of descendants, including Koons). I have never been fond of what Freud called “tendentious” humor, which is to say, humor with a target, at any rate when I identify with the target, and, since with Duchampians, the target is art, I am only rarely amused by them. As for the Gagosian show of Koons, I thought the sculptures were both overly familiar and sickeningly cutesy, while the paintings were messy and incoherent, but then the pomonian critical ideal (to which Smith must subscribe most of the time, or lose her franchise) is to elevate poor art (and, in the process, make life yet more difficult for the good).


Seeking a remedy for all this, I headed over to the Morgan Library and Museum, there to see “Old Masters, Newly Acquired,” a show of more than 100 drawings that have come into the museum’s permanent collections in the past four years (through August 11). It is a sumptuous display, with memorable work by both famous and little-known artists from the Renaissance on through post-impressionism, but the biggest single reason I wanted to see it was that its advance publicity indicated that a sizable number of the works on display had been given to the museum by Eugene V. Thaw, and I have the utmost admiration for his eye. Nor was I disappointed in my expectations, for Thaw is the single biggest donor represented in this show, with nearly a third of the works on view donated by him.

They are all wonderful, but I shall just single out three of outstanding beauty. One has to be the Cézanne, a masterly late watercolor over graphite called “The Terrace at the Garden of Les Lauves” (1902-06). The second is a crystalline classic from the Golden Age of The Netherlands, by Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, “Interior of the New Church at Haarlem” (1650), done in pen, brown ink, watercolor and red chalk, over traces of graphite. The third is an effervescently serene watercolor over graphite by the seriously underrated Briton, Thomas Jones, showing a “View from Chiai to Pizzofalcone, Naples” (1783).

It galls me to report that this gem of an exhibition is consigned to the Morgan’s upstairs gallery, while prime space on the ground floor is occupied by a nasty show devoted to Matthew Barney, with large numbers of his pathetically inept drawings (through September 2). This is just the latest & saddest of many sad attempts by the Morgan to appear “sceney” or “edgy.” Since Mr. Thaw is also a trustee of the Morgan, can’t he do anything to dissuade them from this unnecessary policy? It isn’t as though every other museum in town wasn’t already running after all these pomonians. They get more than enough exposure as it is, but I suppose Mr. Thaw, like every other sensible participant in the art scene, has been terrorized into tolerating this sort of nonsense out of fear that if he protests, he will be dismissed as “old-fashioned” or “out of touch.”
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