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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."



Jules Olitski. Called Upon, circa 1983-84. Acrylic on canvas, 100 1/2 x 111 inches. Courtesy of Babcock Galleries, New York
At this time of year, the Big Apple goes edge-happy. We must needs admire the latest frou-frou in a) the Whitney Biennial; b) the New Museum’s rival triennial (this year called “The Ungovernables”); and c) The Armory Show, with d) its marginally more traditional accompaniment of “The Art Show,” staged by the Art Dealers Association of America in the Park Avenue Armory, and e) its marginally more “avant-garde” offshoots, such as Volta, The Fountain, The Independent, etc. (the Armory Show itself, on the Hudson River, being divided into Edgeville’s “contemporary” on Pier 94, and “modern,” on Pier 92) . It was more than human flesh could stand, or any rate this human’s flesh, so she elected to go middle-of-the-road, and take in only “The Art Show,” Pier 94, and Pier 92. Even this made for three mortal days of art-seeing.


I wouldn’t complain as much if “The Art Show” took the history of art back beyond the almost-immediate present, but in recent years, the market for new & almost-new art has burgeoned to the point where relatively few dealers in older art find it worth their while to take a booth at the Park Avenue Armory. As a result, the earliest work that I saw there was the fascinating booth of Peter Freeman , devoted to late 19th and early 20th century work by James Ensor, including a lot of hypnotically small & detailed works on paper. Pace Prints also had a few handsome (if familiar) School of Paris graphics (Matisse, Picasso, Miró), and the Galerie St. Etienne was plugging its usual German and Austrian Expressionists, but beyond that (plus a hideously campy display of Francis Picabia from the 1920s at Michael Werner), there was relatively little created prior to World War II, and only a bit more from the period between 1945 and 1960 (except for an absolutely stellar display of Robert Motherwell at Manny Silverman, for my money the best display in the show).

A few other standouts were a large, beautiful Oscar Bluemner at Barbara Mathes, a trenchant Alice Neel at Richard L. Feigen, a display of three good-looking Nolands and one small Caro at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, a stunning 1966 Frankenthaler at John Berggruen, and a lovely small, atypical Gottlieb at Valerie Carberry. Washburn had a wall of minor works by Jackson Pollock to celebrate Pollock’s centenary (he was born in 1912), and Tibor de Nagy had a kind of interesting display of photographs by Rudy Burckhardt. Most of them were street scenes, but one wall had art-world celebs, including Pollock, the de Koonings, and Joan Mitchell. Elaine was so thin & so chic when she was young! Most of the rest of “The Art Show” was overrated people like Dorothea Rockburne, Cindy Sherman, Jim Nutt, Lynda Benglis, Sara Sze, John Baldessari, and so on.


Determined to get the trendiest over with, I next tackled the “contemporary” Pier 94 in “The Armory Show.” Both Piers 92 & 94, unlike “The Art Show,” include booths of dealers from outside the U.S., but on the whole, what this demonstrated in Pier 94 was what might charitably be called “a community of interest” (and less charitably described as the lemming-like desire to capitalize upon whatever novelties have caught on elsewhere on the globe). Thus many nations seemed to be caught up in the desire to propagate the two extreme forms of abstract painting. One is the extreme geometric --- not to say mechanical – as practiced, for example, by Dario Escobar, as seen at Joseé Bienvenu of New York, and also by Billy Hare at Galeria Lucia de la Puente of Lima (to name just two examples). The other is the messy-messy, as seen in the work of Wallace Whitney at Horton of New York, and also that of Marianna Uutinen at Galerie Forsblum of Helsinki.

At the other end of the “edgy” spectrum, we had performance art. One such was Clifford Owens, to whom Stellar Rays of New York had devoted its entire booth, with a video, photographs and “abstracts” that looked like those made by Yves Klein’s famous nudes, squirming around on a canvas. In addition, Owens (and/or Stellar Rays) invaded one of the little lounges where tired fair-goers could rest their aching feet & slurp up overpriced snacks & beverages. When I sat down with my $3, 5-oz. bottle of Sprite, my eyes were assaulted by Owens, doing a performance piece which involved photographing a tall, narrow blackboard with scribbling on it, then turning his smart phone on his audience and photographing us, meanwhile lecturing us in gibberish about Birmingham and singing what might conceivably have been an old spiritual. Evidently this is what is considered socially conscious art these days. Not to be outdone, the Luciana Brito Galeria of São Paulo was displaying a real, genuine Marina Abramovic performance piece, consisting of a real live young woman (in white jacket & dark pants) lying flat on her back on a platform, with a good-sized hunk of quartz hanging down over her face. Somehow, it was so sort-of last-year-at-MoMA, nor was I overly impressed by the booths from the Scandinavian countries as a whole. Though they were featured as a special attraction, they appeared to me to be behind the curve, rather than ahead of it.

Two Manhattan photography booths showed some interesting work. Bruce Silverstein had 16 small “Distortion #61” pictures by Andre Kertesz, taken ca. 1933 and printed 1970, showing just that – weirdly distorted female nudes, looking like what one might see in a funhouse mirror. Yossi Milo had a compellingly enormous color photograph by South Africa’s Pieter Hugo of two young Nigerian men, posed standing with their pet monkey and motorcycle against the backdrop of a beaten-up cinder-block compound. Beyond that, there were only three displays that appealed. One was that of Mixografia of Los Angeles, who have patented a curious technique that allows an artist to make three-dimensional or relief prints. Prominently featured here were five good-sized prints made in 1989 by Frankenthaler in this technique, of which “Guadeloupe,” and “Tahiti” were really very good, though they didn’t at first look like Frankenthalers.

Loretta Howard of New York had a shrine-like little display built around film clips taken in 1962 & 1963 by James Salter, who though best-known as a novelist was also skilled as a cameraman, and photographed some of his friends and neighbors at work: Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Larry Rivers and Claes Oldenburg. Accompanying the film clips were small examples of these artists’ early work, the plaster foodstuffs by Oldenburg looking especially tasty. All the artists appeared very young and earnest, though it was difficult to know why they were being featured in a portion of the Armory Show supposedly devoted to “contemporary” art. Maybe it was a tacit admission that “contemporary,” as used in the art world these days, is really only the latest euphemism for “postmodern,” or “dada-descended.”

The other show that really rang my chimes was that of Yang Jiechang at Tang Contemporary Art of Beijing. The theme was “Stranger Than Paradise” and it was composed partly of screen paintings hung around the walls of the booth, and partly of a group of about 150 little glass pedestals of different heights, shapes & sizes in the center, each presenting a little ceramic sculpture or sculptures. The common theme (in both paintings & sculptures) was pairs of different species: a pig with a camel, a lobster with an armadillo, and so on. Most of the time, these mismatched pairs appeared to be Doing It. In fact, the literature at the Tang website says they are all Doing It, though it looked to me as though one horse was nursing two human babies, and some of the animals appeared to be attacking other animals, much like paintings of horses being set upon by lions or tigers by George Stubbs or Delacroix. Whatever. I could hardly take my eyes off of all these goodies. Apparently Yang is quite well known in China and Europe. Like so many of these Chinese, he was educated in the strictest academic traditions, so he really knows how to draw & model.


You all know the story of Goldilocks & the 3 Bears? She tried the papa bear’s porridge, but it was too hot. Then she tried the mama bear’s porridge, but it was too cold. Then she tried the baby bear’s porridge and it was JUST RIGHT, so she ate it all up. This was me, at Pier 92, without the Hot Stuff of Pier 94 or the mostly lukewarm stuff of the Art Show. Pier 92 was like baby bear's porridge: it had a lot to recommend it.

I think even the term “modern” is enjoying a bit of a comeback. How it’s defined leaves more than a little to the imagination, but its connotations somehow seem to be more positive than they were only a few years ago. Some of the “modern” work on view was indeed classical mainstream modernism, from the first half of the twentieth century. The foreign galleries were particularly generous in this respect, especially when featuring their own heritages (as on Pier 94, there were also a number of clones in the foreign galleries, but not as many). The Oriol Galerie d’Art from Barcelona was especially notable, with a terrific Miró drawing, “Danseuse Espagnole” (1926), and an array of beautiful little collages, paintings and small works on paper by Joaquín Torres-Garcia (a Latino, if not a Spaniard) Ludorf, from Düsseldorf, had some worthy German Expressionists (and post-Expressionists), including Beckmann, Nolde, Heckel, Grosz and Kirchner. Best here was a 1910 charcoal drawing on brown paper of “Drei Mädchen im Ateliere” by Kirchner. Much of the good work I saw was being displayed by New York galleries whose names were new to me. Evidently, they don’t maintain regular exhibition schedules, as I never see them advertised in the Gallery Guide or written up in the NY Times

(Most big-ticket older work – both here and at the ADAA show on Park Avenue—was massively labeled with provenances and certificates of authenticity from one or another authority. I do not remember this being nearly as apparent last year. This suggests to me that many buyers (and dealers) have become nervous because of the current situation regarding certain paintings by Motherwell, Pollock, and other first-generation abstract expressionists acquired by Knoedler’s and another gallery in recent years from a mysterious Long Island lady dealer who claimed to be representing a still-more mysterious collector who insisted upon remaining anonymous (making it impossible to establish the provenance of the paintings in question) . The authenticity of some of these paintings is now being challenged, and the F.B.I. is investigating. This whole story was written up at great & absorbing length by Patricia Cohen in the NY Times Sunday Arts & Leisure section for February 26, under the title “Suitable for Suing.” But I digress.)

Some of the work on view on Pier 92 (especially among American galleries) had merely been done during prior to 1960, though expanding upon the usual understandings of modernism — by Jacob Lawrence, Charles Burchfield, or Reginald Marsh, for example (all at DC Moore). Some of what I saw was work only recently from the studio, whether classically modern or not—Odd Nerdrum, most notably, whose Rembrandtian grotesques are currently starring in a show at Forum (through May 5). Elsewhere, we also had recent pomonian celebrities like those photographers/mighty cage builders, the Starn Twins, and fashionably incoherent abstractionists such as Jason Martin and Karin Davie. Passing from booth to booth, I also noticed lots of chubby figures (early and late) from Fernando Botero; I went especially for his large & full-fledged orgy, entitled “Fin de Siesta” (2009), at Tasende, from La Jolla. Inevitably, I also saw a number of large & vacant examples of late Lichtenstein and late Wesselman.

Fortunately, a good deal of modernism (as I understand the term) since 1945 was also on view, even work done since 1960. Crane Kalman of London covered both ends of this spectrum with a sweet little 1972 Dzubas study for a larger painting, a piquant Milton Avery cow (1959), a fine Stamos from his underwater period, “The Viper” (1949), and a not quite-as-fine Hofmann, evidently begun when the artist was still in his earlier, more representational phase, then finished off after he'd moved on into a later, more abstract one (besides the evidence of the image itself, the signature is in blue paint, and the date, ’49, in red). Pace Prints had two big Frankenthaler woodblock prints prominently displayed; one of them, “Snow Pines” (2004) was unusually moving. Also here was a late Noland chevron print, pale, sketchy & very effective.

In addition to its golden oldies, DC Moore also displayed “Cobalt” (2007), an impressive composition by Pat Lipsky, with vertical bands of light blue, medium blue, black and putty-color. James Barron Art, a gallery from Rome, had two elegant, smallish Larry Poons poured paintings, from 1979-80; one had just been sold. Spanierman Modern was showing a number of my favorites, including three paintings by Dan Christensen, three by Frank Bowling, and at least one large one by Stanley Boxer, plus a small, blue-green Stamos from 1950 and a neat spidery little sculpture by Ibram Lassaw from 1966. Elsewhere I saw a lot of Motherwell, though Bernard Jacobson – of New York & London -- had the outstanding one, a large salmon-colored “Open” (1974). James Goodman (of New York) was offering a long, graceful horizontal Caro table sculpture, “CCXXXVIII” (1975), and one of several paintings by Gottlieb that I noticed—the best one, in fact, an atypical “Festival” (1973). Work by Esteban Vicente was on view at several locations.

Gary Snyder, whose booth for the second year enjoyed a prime position, next to the restaurant, was using the partition that faced onto the dining area to display a new painting on wood by John Griefen: long, vertical, pale blue and as challenging as his work usually is. Somewhere (though I can’t remember exactly where) I noticed a large & very attractive late painting by John Ferren, just about the only abstractionist who managed the difficult transition from hard-edged in the 1930s to painterly in the 1950s to post-painterly in the 1960s. Hollis Taggart, right near the entrance to the pier, had a splendid, colorful 1939 abstraction by another pioneer in abstraction, Arthur B. Carles, as well as a memorable, very complex large Dzubas, “Minerva” (1976). Hackett/Mill, of San Francisco, had an haunting early Olitski, “The Patutsky Golem” (1964). Simon Capstick-Dale Fine Art of New York, had a very pretty, horizontally-shaped Noland, “Gravimetric” (1981). The best painting on the entire pier, however, was a late, huge (100½ x 111 inches) Olitski, entitled “Called Upon” (ca. 1983-84) and featured by another New York gallery, Babcock. With its raised, sweeping and swirling field of pale olive on black, sprays of black atop it, dabs of blue and spritzes of purple, this monumental painting positively glowed.
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