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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."



Carolanna Parlato. Red Sky. 2012. Acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 24" x 24" Courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery.
Well, and so we are off and running with the new season. I began my immersion on the evening of Thursday, September 6, when legions of galleries in Chelsea held opening receptions for their new shows. The streets of that neighborhood were crowded with people dressed festively, sometimes standing out on the pavement, chatting, and sometimes carrying their plastic glasses filled with wine from one venue to another.

Working my way downtown, I had four galleries on my list to get to: “Rob Van Erve: Operae Pretium Est” at Accola Griefen (on West 27th Street; through October 13); “The Lure of Paris” at Loretta Howard (on West 26th Street; through November 3); “Marcus Linnenbrink: THERE-WERE-SONGS-BEFORE-RADIO,” at Ameringer / McEnery / Yohe (on West 22nd Street; through October 6), and ”Carolanna Parlato: behind the sun…new paintings” (on West 20th Street; through October 6).

As it happened, I never did get to the last two openings. Transfixed, as I was, by “The Lure of Paris,” I found myself unable to stop taking notes about it—except when consuming its deliciously appropriate Parisian fare— real French wine (a young white Bordeaux), plus huge wheels of delectably gooey, aromatic Brie, served on tiny rounds of narrow, crusty sliced baguettes.

I was also transfixed by the way this well-dressed crowd was standing in a long line in front of the paintings, holding their wine glasses and talking—you could get a wonderful panoramic view of them from the entry to the gallery. I was vividly reminded of “The Opening” (1967) by Howard Kanovitz, that pioneer of Photorealism. "The Opening" shows a lot of famous art world types of that era attending a gallery (or possibly museum) reception -- though, upon summoning up that painting, afterward, via google, I realized that nearly half-a-century later, dress is much more casual at today’s openings, and hair (especially on the women) far more free-flowing. Back in the Swinging 60s, we thought we were so uninhibited--but in retrospect, we seem to have been relatively uptight.

I did go back the day after the openings, to take in the two shows that I’d not gotten to, the evening before, and in the process managed to work in two more shows ---“Tony Smith/Jackson Pollock” at Matthew Marks (502 West 22nd Street; through October 20). And “Carol Robertson: Color Stream” at Flowers (West 20th Street; through October 13).


It was certainly pleasant to clink glasses at Accola Griefen (where the “Griefen” is Kat, daughter of John), but I was primarily concerned with seeing to what extent I’d been accurate in describing the work there in an advance blurb for it that I’d contributed to a “coming attractions” list at artcritical.com.

Advance blurbs are always chancy, because one hasn’t seen the show and therefore one can’t be sure one is describing it accurately—plus, of course, no value judgments are possible on work that is still unseen (beyond the implied blanket endorsement that comes from merely writing about the show).

Upon seeing this one, I found that the materials used in Van Erve’s central objet d’art, a full-scale staircase, weren’t quite as luxurious as they had appeared to be in the online photo of it I’d seen, but that the color in the three “sculptures” (or, to be more accurate, the three assemblages) was far crisper & livelier than I’d expected. I must confess that this isn’t exactly my kind of art, but of its kind, I would nonetheless say that it’s well-made & attractive.

I’m also afraid I have even less to say about the shows at Ameringer and Flower. In both cases, I felt that these younger artists were attempting to work off & out of color-field painting of the 1960s -- without even coming close to achieving the sensitivity & magnificence of its finest practitioners. But the other three shows turned out to be very much worth discussing.


The gallery of Loretta Howard has developed a following of its own because instead of group shows that merely showcase its stable of artists, it puts together group shows with interesting & original themes. While these shows do manage to showcase all or at any rate most of the gallery’s stable, they have included work from other artists upon occasion, and stand on their own merits as well.

In 2010, the theme was “Max’s Kansas City ;” in 2011, it was “Black Mountain College.” This year, it’s “The Lure of Paris,” and is an exploration of paintings & sculpture made by American artists (including one Canadian, Jean-Michel Riopelle) in The City of Light during the first 15 years or so after World War II.

Most of these artists, especially the white male ones, had gone to Paris to study at its various art schools and ateliers 1) because it had for so long been the art capital of the world, 2) because they could afford to, under the G.I. Bill of Rights, 3) because of the great reputation that Paris had for being such a glamorous and exciting place to live, and not least 4) because of a highly favorable exchange rate which meant that their dollars went a lot further than they would have in the States.

Paris was additionally a Mecca for African-American artists because they didn’t have to deal with the kind of racism they would have been up against in the States, and the show includes work by three of them—Ed Clark, Beauford Delaney and Harold Cousins.

Of the four women in this exhibition, three —Shirley Jaffe, Shirley Goldfarb and [Janice] Biala --- came with their husbands. Goldfarb & Jaffe were married to men planning to study in Paris under the G. I. Bill as well, and Biala (an older woman, & the lone figurative artist in this show) was married to an artist already established as a successful New Yorker cartoonist (“Alain”) The fourth woman, Joan Mitchell, came by herself (though for a while she would be romantically linked with Riopelle).

The white male U.S. artists in this exhibition include Norman Bluhm, Sam Francis, Cleve Gray, Al Held, Conrad Marca-Relli, Jules Olitski, Milton Resnick, George Sugarman and Jack Youngerman. This is not all the American artists who were living and working in Paris during this period—for one reason or another, Ellsworth Kelly, Paul Jenkins, Kimber Smith and Kenneth Noland are among those not here (Noland most understandably, as he was only in Paris for a year in 1948-49).

However, the artists who are here offer an absorbing panoply of work.

Nor are the participants in this show limited to painters and sculptors. A vitrine displays books & magazines, both by “ex-pats” and native French writers, including Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, James Salter, Frank O’Hara, Irwin Shaw, John Ashbury and three copies of The Paris Review.

It would have been nice to include Mordecai Richler and\or Mavis Gallant, two ex-pat Canadians who also made Paris their home during this period, but again one cannot expect a show of this kind to be encyclopedic, and there is already more than enough of this literature to provoke thought.

On a nearby wall are two small screens playing clips from movies about American ex-pats in Paris during this period: “An American in Paris” (1951), starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron with music by George Gershwin, and “Paris Blues” (1961), starring Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, Diahann Carroll and Joanne Woodward, with music by Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.

To say that this show is absorbing as a whole is not to say that the art in it is all that great. Most of these artists were still immature, not yet having developed a mature style of their own. Many, if not most, of these paintings, therefore, are generic second-generation abstract expressionist gestural paintings, without much individuality and with only the barest hints of what was to come. Broad slabs of paint are slathered on all anyhow, with lots of verve but not much organization. Colors are smeared together to create mostly heavy and often dark & dismal surfaces.

Most of these paintings are not even that distinctively French. Instead, they more nearly resemble the illustrations for stories about New York School abstractionists that were (sporadically) appearing in Art News, the American magazine, at about that time. Nobody in this show seems to have been pouring paint onto a canvas laid on a floor, as had Pollock in the 40s and as were Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis in the 50s back home. Virtually everybody in this show seems to have been working on upright canvases, and mostly with brushes, just as de Kooning was, in New York (and attracting legions of followers there as well).

Next to each painting at Loretta Howard is posted a text block quoting the artist telling what he or she liked about Paris. The collective picture that emerges from these quotes is that of a group of people who loved the sights, sounds & life style of the city, but weren’t doing much of anything to look at contemporary French art or mingle with the French artists there (aside from those few to be met through attending schools or ateliers). There aren’t even too many references to the Old Masters to be seen in the Louvre, or Parisian moderns from earlier decades – Picasso, say, Matisse or Miró.

There are notable exceptions. Jules Olitski seems to have been one of the few Americans actually looking at the better postwar French painters practicing the French equivalents to American abstract expressionism known as tachisme or l’art informel. He was evidently taking in not only the large, simple forms of Soulages, but also the fascination with matière that distinguished the work of Jean Fautrier and Dubuffet -- the former having built up the surfaces of his massive abstractions with paint & plaster, and the latter creating tendentious semi-abstractions with combinations of paint and sand (according to Kenworth Moffett's 1981 book on Olitski, the artist's interest in Dubuffet was sparked by reading an essay by Clement Greenberg, "School of Paris, 1946," but that's not to say he wasn't looking at other contemporary French artists, too). The result of all Olitski’s application to these artists is a stunning, profoundly simple yet texturally rich composition in pale browns, grays, and creams with a rough-and-ready surface built up with dry pigment, acryic resin and spackle.

It’s called “In Memory of Slain Demikovski” (1958), this having been the name of the artist’s father, a commissar who in the wake of the Russian Revolution had been killed by the Soviets months before the artist was born (“Olitski” is derived from the name of his mother’s second husband, Hyman Olitsky). The picture is so powerful it gave me a small quiver, comparable to the big quiver I so often get at the sight of a late Cézanne. In 1958, Olitski was only 36, but this was already the work of a master.

The text block next to the painting quotes the artist most amusingly on the experience of having studied (briefly) in the atelier of Ossip Zadkine, the Russian-born sculptor who was making serious money for the first time in his life from all the Americans studying with him under the G.I. Bill. Zadkine had hired a young French model for his classes who told all the Americans they were cultural boobs, and Olitski left off attending classes to paint on his own.

Another standout painting in “The Lure of Paris” is “Winter Bitch” (1959) by Ed Clark. Born in 1926 in New Orleans, Clark joined the U.S. Air Corps and was stationed in Guam during WW II. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago School before coming to Paris, and continued to shuttle back & forth between Paris and New York for some years, becoming one of the first African-Americans to exhibit in Manhattan’s Tenth Street galleries, and, later on, to experiment with shaped canvases.

He is also known for having painted with push brooms instead of brushes, and, though it’s not clear that this is how “Winter Bitch” was made, it – like the Olitski --- benefits from the use of large, sweepingly simple forms and clear, vigorous colors, wisely limited & separated from each other -- much livelier than the blackened, bush-like center in the Joan Mitchell on display, or the muddy, overdone creation of Al Held.

Clark himself was on hand for the opening at Loretta Howard, and posed (not looking his age) with “Winter Bitch.” You can view that picture at the Howard website. Though the image doesn’t properly capture the brilliance of the picture's blues and pinks, it does give some idea of the painting’s openness & freedom.

A third painting I liked was “Black White” (1955) by Jack Youngerman -- another artist who seems to have learned the basic rule of large, simple shapes from Soulages and who knows where else? What is striking about the composition is that it is already recognizable as being a Youngerman, in other words with the same jagged, angular and sail-like flat shapes that would become a constant in his work on through the 1960s (which is when I first became aware of it).

The big differences between “Black White” and later Youngermans are 1) that by the 60s, he had become much more of a colorist, and 2) that in the 60s (if not earlier) his paint thinned out so that it sat on the surface of a canvas like a thin film of color. In “Black White,” which is an oil painted on burlap, there is at least a hint of the sort of texture that so distinguishes the Olitski.

The two sculptors in this show are represented by modestly-scaled work. I was particularly taken with “Four Forms in Walnut” (1959) by George Sugarman, a ground-hugging floor piece made of carved walnut whose simple dark brown coloration struck me as much warmer and less artificial than the artist’s better-known brightly-colored, larger works from the 1960s I also liked the cluster of vertical welded & patinated thin bronze spikes set on a wood panel by Harold Cousins and appropriately entitled “La Forêt” (1960).


Returning to Chelsea on Friday, September 7, the morning after the night before, I was able to catch “Jackson Pollock & Tony Smith: Sculpture” at Matthew Marks (their small space at 502 West 22nd Street; through October 27). This had also opened on Thursday evening, but the opening has evidently been a private one, since the public had not been notified. I was only alerted to the show itself through a listing in the Gallery Guide saying that it was opening on September.7, plus a squib in Carol Vogel’s art news column in the Times, also on September 7.

It’s a very small show, both in numbers of works on view & size of the work—2 small sculptures by Pollock & 3 small sculptures by Smith. All date from the 1950s, with both of the Pollocks & one of the Smiths having been made over the same weekend in July 1956, only weeks before Pollock’s death. But that is to say this show is not illuminating – if only in its clear demonstration of the difference between greater & lesser talent.

Vogel’s item quoted Mr. Marks saying that Jane Smith, Tony’s widow, had called him in 2003 to say that she’d found a box in her closet with “Pollock” written on it in Smith’s handwriting. Whether this is a good enough provenance to establish the 2 works on view attributed to Pollock as genuine Pollocks may be debatable. This is, after all, not the first time work in a parcel labeled “Pollock” has been found in storage, and the last time – when it was the son of Herbert & Mercedes Matter discovering a parcel labeled “Pollock” in his deceased parents’ storage locker – has been subject to considerable debate.

Still, the quality of the “Pollocks” in this show argues for their authenticity. They look like genius next to the Smiths, especially the Smith created on that same weekend. The Pollocks, created out of wire, gauze and plaster, are a delicate beige & white in color and freely formed -- sinuous, graceful, & imaginative in shape, especially the smaller of the two, which measures only 9” x 12” x 5”. (My notes on it read, “Tickles me – rhythmic combo of flat forms and wire.”) Neither sculpture rests securely on a base; rather, they seem to float in mid-air. One could say these forms are biomorphic rather than geometric, but even that isn’t really an adequate description. They need to be seen.

By comparison, Smith’s bright idea on that long-ago weekend was to make a concrete casting of the interior of an egg carton. This is a gimmick, substituting appropriation for creation (a paradigm shift that would come into its own in the 1960s). One of the other Smiths in the show, dated 1954 and made of short boards of wood, is at least an attempt to create an original composition (though not ---for me, anyway-- particularly remarkable).

The other Smith, dated ca.1956, is a upright, thin, narrow & completely regular little construction made of wire and canvas, a column built up into canvas triangles interspersed with the negative spaces of diamonds. This is more distinctive than the egg carton cast and more predictive of Smith’s large black architectural shapes of the ‘60s, but still the work of a conscientious craftsman as opposed to a free spirit.

Which is not to dismiss Smith altogether. When I initially encountered his work – in 1967, with a story I wrote the first week I took over the art section of Time – I thought he was terrific, and I’d still say he was the best of the minimalists to come to fame in the later 60s, better than Richard Serra, Robert Morris, Carl Andre, Robert Smithson, or Sol LeWitt. (Though even that may not be saying awfully much.)


Seven or eight years ago, Carolanna Parlato was first mentioned to me by an artist whose own art I admire. Since then, I’ve seen and commented favorably many times upon her contributions to group exhibitions, but this exhibition at Elizabeth Harris is the first time I’m reviewing a solo exhibition by her.

Not that she’s a neophyte; on the contrary, she’s been exhibiting in New York since the later 1990s and is old enough so that James Kalm, that veteran conceptualist painter & video reporter, not long ago referred to her as a “veteran” painter. This is her third show at this gallery, and, though her MFA is from the San Francisco Art Institute, at present she lives & works in Brooklyn.

Initially, the paintings that I saw by her had been made by pouring and puddling paint, suggesting that she had worked at least in part upon the floor. The current show, however, looks to be predominantly painted with the artist’s canvas vertical, or at least finished off that way. I say this because, although the undercoats may have been swabbed on with less traditional implements, the familiar sight of brush strokes appears on the uppermost surface of these paintings.

This naturally invites comparison with the abstract painters from the 1950s in “The Lure of Paris,” but Parlato has updated this hardy holdover style from the last era in which abstract painting was said to be the reigning avant-garde (regardless of the many representational painters who in the 50s were also exhibiting, and by all accounts selling as well as, or even better than, the abstractionists).

The result is a highly agreeable, if not precisely radical, exhibition (except to the extent that abstract painting is still the most radical art form that we have). Parlato’s updating takes the form of lighter, brighter colors, and her intuitive color sense is one of the strong points of the current show (including the fact that she doesn’t try to ladle too many different colors onto one canvas).

Also, her paint is a lot thinner than the hallmark smears of the 50s, sometimes transparent in fact, when an almost dry brush appears to have been stroked across the canvas, depositing only hair-like lines of paint, as opposed to solid areas, and allowing the complimentary undercoat to shine through.

Finally, at its best her organization is a lot stronger than most of the tyros at work in “The Lure of Paris.” Many (though not all) of the paintings on view at Elizabeth Harris simply hang together far better. Parlato is especially fond of building her compositions around a large, centrally placed rectangle, freely formed & with irregular outlines but still lending a welcome coherence to the composition. She is also adept at employing diagonal bars of color to tie together disparate color areas beneath the bars on the canvas.

Four paintings in particular stand out for me. The first, facing the entrance to the gallery, is “High Summer” (2012), with a big, happy yellow central rectangle in the center plus horizontal sky-blue strokes at the bottom, vertical orange/red strokes at the right, and a narrow edge of green at the left. This is a good sized acrylic, measuring 64¼” x 78”.

The second, also in the front gallery, is “Orbit’ (2012), made with acrylic and spray paint (though the “spray” aspect of the spray paint isn’t at all obvious, either in this picture or in most of the others employing it). “Orbit” is much smaller, only 24” square, but a fine illustration of the transparency in Parlato’s technique, with only light bands of yellow superimposed upon a field of blackish gray. The painting is further embellished with narrow strokes of Kelly green and white around the edges.

Third, in the back gallery, is “Red Sky” (2012), another small one (24” square) that is notable for its use of diagonal strokes to tie together disparate areas underneath them – in this case, using white, black & red diagonals to tie together undercoat shapes mostly in reds and pinks. The drips in this canvas don’t look like a reference to Pollock, just a natural byproduct of using paint this particular way. It's one of the most adventurous paintings in the show because its use of spray paint is evident, and because of the admirable economy in the color scheme, with only whites, reds, pinks & grays.

Fourth, also in the back gallery, I liked “Above and Below” (2012), a larger painting (52” x 55”) with a large pink cloud-like, jewel-like area hovering in the top center of the canvas. Below it are horizontal curved sweeps of cinnamon, yellow and cream and straight vertical poles of related colors to the right and left—so that the pink form in the center becomes like a star performer on a little stage.
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