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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."



“Three strong women” is how Darryl Hughto, fond husband of Susan Roth, describes the participants in “Color & Edge: Lauren Olitski Susan Roth Ann Walsh,” at Sideshow (through May 20). The catalogue essay, by Sarah K. Rich, further ties together these three artists through their common concern with color, which, as “painting’s most defining feature…is not necessarily a claim to purity. Rather, it is a gleeful claim to purity’s opposite—unruliness, abundance, gorgeousness.” There is, however, a third tie that binds these artists (though given the current artistic climate, maybe they’d rather I didn’t mention it): all three, in early stages of their development, were influenced by the color & facture of Jules Olitski. It is a measure of their determined striving and present maturity that their work has developed in such radically different directions.


As the daughter of Jules, and a major custodian of his estate, Lauren Olitski is still closest to the accomplishments of her father—and, specifically to the landscapes that he began to exhibit in the mid- to later 1990s. Like him, she is fond of what were known in his work as “orbs,” meaning --- in the case of her landscapes --- setting suns and rising moons. Her choice of colors – subdued greens, cloudy purples, rich blues and deep browns – likewise recall his palette, not only in the 90s, but also the 70s and 80s, and like him, she builds up the surfaces of her canvases a bit. Still, as any postmodernist can tell you, the originality of the avant-garde may be a myth, and a very eminent modernist used to say that the best new painting doesn’t surprise by its newness, but by its goodness. These paintings, too, are larger than any I can remember the elder Olitski as having exhibited in New York. They are also more sensitive to the environment they depict, with what seems to me an extra almost elegiac elegance. My favorites tend to be those in which the sun or moon is hidden – most notably, in the haunting “Pine” (2012), where a single tree dominates the scene, and “Nyaminyami Rampage” (2011), where maroon clouds hide the sun, the wind has blown up a foamy white sea below, and the shoreline is blackish green. Still, “Ancient Africa” (2011), with its brilliant orange sun, has a voluptuousness that may appeal to a wider audience.


Achieving maturity earlier than either Lauren Olitski or Ann Walsh, Susan Roth was also the first to differentiate herself from Jules Olitski, while at the same time taking herself a stage beyond him. His abstract canvases of the 70s and 80s were characterized by increasingly raised surfaces created with impastos and gels. Roth built up her also abstract paintings still further by collaging loose pieces of painted canvas to her picture surfaces. She has also added glass, ceramics, and other elements, sometimes very attractive in their jewel-like glitter. In the current show, Roth’s canvases are all shaped, sometimes more conspicuously than others. She is still collaging pieces of canvas onto her picture surfaces, but also adding contrasting sweeps of paint, flat clear rectangular plastic accretions shaped like box tops, and/or clear plastic box tops themselves, with tangled little gobbets of multicolored paints scattered around. The box tops and tangled gobbets derive perhaps, ultimately from Schwitters or Miró, but they also recall more recent collagists (Roth’s vertical, pale magenta “Asbury Park” in the current show reminds me, ever so slightly, of Robert Rauschenberg’s “Bed”). Sometimes these gobbets are too tangled & multicolored for me, but sometimes these paintings are very effective, and the color schemes are very individual and pleasing, with pale, light-filled colors predominating. I was particularly impressed by “Magic Flute” (2011), a peaceful horizontal of pale gray on gray, and the box top this time limiting itself primarily to harmonious dabs of blue, white and black. “Coney Island” (2010) is another relatively restrained painting. With an orange field, and orange canvas glued on, it has a hint of humor to it, in the form of a tiny seashell added on. Also admirable is “Prince of Darkness” (2011), where the orange is combined with gray, and the accretions are held to a minimum.


Of all three artists, Ann Walsh has evolved most from her Julian incubation period – in fact, so much that one might never know she had one (were it not for works such as “Iota” (1986) in the Clement Greenberg Collection). The evolution is only partly a matter of having evolved from the two-dimensional to freestanding works, since she still sees herself primarily – and understandably – as painter, not sculptor. This identification remains because her forms – of square or rectangular rectilinear slabs of Plexiglas or wood --- do not argue for subtlety or complexity, but rather serve merely as supports for her colors, currently sheets of signage vinyl laid on in almost minimal patterns – concentric rectangles, stripes and squares. An even more dramatic evolution is from subdued, close-valued color to hues that not only contrast with each other, but contrast to such an extent that they shout their independence. If Walsh would acknowledge any ancestor in the realm of color-field painting, it might be Kenneth Noland, but by comparison with her color contrasts, those of Noland seem laid back & mellow. Walsh’s contrasts pierce and scream, whether we’re talking the chartreuse, deep purple and Kelly green of “Miss” (2011), a smaller square, or the fire-engine red, orange and chartreuse of “ Block” (2012), at 8 feet one of Walsh’s tallest projects. Only occasionally does she turn down the volume, as in “Spread,” a low-slung piece divided into three squares with different shades of blue. I find all this work very beautiful, though I realize that I'm not exactly staking out a claim to the artist's "relevance" by using such an unfashionable adjective. Still, what else can I say? I calls 'em as I sees 'em..


A fourth strong woman in the news this spring is Janice Van Horne, who has published a memoir entitled “A Complicated Marriage: My Life with Clement Greenberg” (Counterpoint, 352 pages, $27). An exquisitely written chronicle of the 39 years between the time that the author, fresh out of Bennington, met our most distinguished art critic in 1955, and the year of his death in 1994, it should be of interest both to Clemophiles and Clemophobes. The Clemophiles will revel in the vivid descriptions of the couple’s original meeting (at a party in Greenwich Village), their courtship and marriage, and their first tumultuous summer together in East Hampton (climaxed by the death & funeral of Jackson Pollock), to say nothing of all the fascinating little details of their lives together – from what they ate for breakfast and Greenberg’s antiquated shaving materials right on through to all the agonizing details of his final illness and death. The Clemophobes may conceivably be more interested in his many infidelities, and the grief they caused Van Horne, but they may also be appeased by the portrait she presents of him as a kindly, considerate, genial and somewhat passive gentleman who spent most of his spare time reading, and who was at least on cordial personal terms with Jasper Johns and Frank Stella (whatever he may have said about their art in public).

From the standpoint of art history, the early chapters are the most comprehensive, dealing as they do with the couple’s friendships with many stars of the first generation of abstract expressionists, and the merry times they all enjoyed together in the 1950s at the Cedar Bar, the jazz clubs, and the restaurants (as well as in their homes & even their studios). There are separate chapters on Hans & ‘Miz’ Hofmann, Barnett & Annalee Newman, Jack & Mabel Bush, Clyfford & Pat Still, Franz Kline, Pollock & Lee Krasner, David Smith, and the three-month trip through Europe that the Greenbergs took together in 1959. The single chapter on the 1960s is more diverse, dealing with the couple’s move from Greenwich Village to Central Park West, the birth and upbringing of their lovely daughter Sarah, and Van Horne’s growing interest in the theater, which led her to study acting at two famous acting schools, and to perform in and/or direct a number of Off- and Off-Off Broadway productions. Because her social life seems to have increasingly revolved around these activities, there is only a relatively brief (though affectionate) amount of space devoted to activities shared by the Greenbergs & the artist-stars of this period (and their families), Anthony Caro, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski (as well as telling earlier vignettes regarding Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler).

In 1970, Van Horne moved out of the apartment she & Greenberg had shared, and in 1977 they were legally divorced. (This was her idea entirely; despite his many flings, he didn’t see why she wanted a divorce, and continued to regard her as his wife--as I well know, since the laws of full disclosure oblige me to report that during this period -- mostly --- I dated Greenberg myself). Van Horne, however, continued to pay the household bills, cut Greenberg's hair, arrange birthday parties for him every five years and annual Christmas festivities for him, herself and Sarah, but she also engaged in her own relationships, became editor-in-chief of Madison Avenue Magazine in the 70s, and in the 80s settled in Los Angeles to concentrate on playwriting. In 1989, the couple remarried . Though they lived together thereafter until his death, Van Horne seems to have been relatively uninvolved with Greenberg’s artistic activities from the 70s onward . At any rate, a number of the artists he was closest to in his last decades aren’t mentioned, among them Larry Poons, Darby Bannard, Terry Fenton, Darryl Hughto and Susan Roth. True, Jim & Ann Walsh, Dan Christensen & Elaine Grove come in for passing references at the very end of the book, but primarily as “friends, “ not artists.

Still, this book isn’t meant to be art history. It is intended to be the story of a woman’s life, as she passes through the history of our present era, and to speak to a broader audience than merely that of the art world—in a word, to women in all walks of life. The story begins with the buttoned-down 50s, where even in the relatively unconventional world of art, women were expected to be little more than pretty housewife-types (even if they were daring enough to be artists as well). It continues through the 60s, when the indissolubly-wedded pair of sexual freedom and women’s liberation would come to dominate society, and shows how Van Horne adapted herself to this new environment, maturing in the process (and, in later life, getting involved in broader women’s movements). Most of all, this is meant to be a love story, the tale of an unusually complex & mutually rewarding relationship that seems – in the end --- to have survived.
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