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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."


10 Reviews & 1 Advisory

Thornton Willis. Love at First Sight. 2012. Oil on canvas, 83 x 68 inches. Courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery
In the following post, I will offer reviews of ten (count them, 10) gallery exhibitions, around about Manhattan & in Williamsburg. I also offer a briefer advisory about “Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959,” at Gagosian on 21st Street (through April 13). I don’t yet know what I’ll say about this show, but I’ve seen enough of it to know it’s dazzling, and – though it may offend a lot of my artist friends -- I can’t remember seeing any gallery show in the 21st century that I liked better. It is so good that if you live out of town, it’s worth coming in town for. Don’t be put off by the unsatisfactory review of it by Roberta Smith in the March 22 NY Times, or the miserable quality of the color reproductions accompanying that story. At least Smith had the wit to know this was a major, major show and to give it the placement & space that it deserves.


To market, to market, to buy a fat pig, home again, home again, jiggety jig….isn’t that how the nursery rhyme goes? Indeed, Chelsea – being a mart, like the one in the rhyme – offers a bit of everything or at least nearly everything (though I know a number of deserving artists whom it hasn’t favored with its attention in some time). Pace, being one of its major vendors, was offering twin exhibitions of abstractions from artists whom it represents: “Jim Dine” and “Thomas Nozkowski” (both closed March 23).

Dine, a latter-day neo-dada who made a name for himself back in the 60s for canvasses portraying bathrobes and collage/assemblages incorporating hardware, seems to have decided in his old age that abstraction is so easy that anyone can do it. He’s wrong, as his sadly wobbly abstract canvases proved. One, called “A Fingerprint of Stars” (2011-2012) at first glance suggested a hint of talent, but when I tried to analyze it (in visual terms) it fell apart. The oversized scale (60 x 14) was also typical of Pace in Chelsea, where aging pop artists time & again seem to have fallen victim to elephantiasis--and gotten gargantuan shows as a result.

Nozkowski I liked better than I did the last time I looked at him (in 2010). Or rather, I liked better half of his show, which was divided into two parts. At 505 West 25th Street, he was displaying 20 oils on linen, all but two of them 22 x 28, the remaining two slightly larger. Across the street, at 511 West 25th Street (another Pace gallery), he was displaying works on paper, in various media (graphite, crayon, colored pencil, gouache & combinations of these four). 44 of them were 8½ x 11 (the size of copy paper), plus 4 larger ones, approximately 22 x 30. All the works were (as nearly as I could tell) were in the trademark style Nozkowski has perfected, and (so I understand) has enjoyed considerable success with. They were very crisp, professional, businesslike little hard-edged abstract designs combining geometric with organic shapes, occasionally suggestive of figures or eyes or some such, but closer to cartoons than to academic surrealism, and with colors curiously nondescript and close to unfeeling.

Having two whole galleries displaying works all or mostly all the same size underscored the artist’s cookie-cutter approach to art, or maybe the metaphor I want is with a sausage machine--a certain amount of ground-up meat being stuffed into an animal’s small intestine, then the intestine sutured at a certain length, and the process repeated so as to create a string of identical salami or bratwurst or what-have-you. This artist seems to have felt he should keep going until he had ground out just enough pieces for a show. That said, I thought the paper pieces were a lot better than the works on linen—fresher looking. Some of their imagery vaguely resembled hands or little personages (though with their heads cut off), and there was one that reminded me of two dogs, one atop the other. The overall effect was cute, I guess, even moderately witty, and, on rare occasions, even quite powerful. In their small scale, imagery, grounds & media, these paper pieces were reminiscent of Klee. Still, it’s awfully hard to paint like Klee after Roy Lichtenstein has had his way with art history, so the final effect was more of regimented Klee. Lightweight – Nozkowski, in my opinion, is not cut out to be a heavyweight – but, within his limitations, reasonably enjoyable.


The Painting Center has moved from what I recall as a reasonably spacious gallery in SoHo to a more modestly scaled one in Chelsea (where I suppose rents are higher). The show here was “Going Into the Dark” (closed March 23). Its purpose was to display dark-colored works that “stand in clear opposition to the coloristic tradition dominating the contemporary art scene,” and the four artists in it were Charles Hinman, Ronnie Landfield, Amalia Piccinini, and Peter Reginato. The three guys are all senior figures, and relatively well-known—Reginato & Landfield especially to my readers, and Hinman to folks interested in shaped canvases—my predecessor on Time celebrated his work back in 1966.

Piccinini, however, was the one who organized this show, and she’s a lot younger—in fact, I became acquainted with her work, if memory serves correctly, when she was still studying at the Art Students League and one of her teachers, Paula De Luccia, included her in a group show. I thought she had talent then, but she seriously dismayed me with her first solo exhibition, in 2008, when she felt obliged to take some quite decent paintings & gussy them up with an “installation” that included a lot of chairs & I forget what else—anyway, I am happy to see that she is once more focusing on painting to the exclusion of interior decorating.

Admittedly, I did have a feeling of history repeating itself with the theme of this show. Being an antique, I still remember the large number of darker and/or more closely-valued paintings being made by Olitski, Poons and so many of the younger artists who admired Olitski and Poons, back in the 1970s and 1980s. Still, I suppose every generation has to re-invent the wheel for itself, and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as the work in question is worth looking at. I did find that this show had a good deal to recommend it.

Landfield’s “For Goya” (2004) had an interesting black band across the top and a maroon band below. It was a welcome departure from Landfield’s landscape-y paintings I’ve seen so much of recently. Reginato (to judge from Facebook) seems to be enjoying his hobby of painting lately. His long, narrow paintings in this show combined black fields with brilliant colors splashed on. At least one, “Garden of Earthly Delights” (2013), came off very creditably (though I hope Reginato isn’t planning to give up his day job as sculptor any time soon). Hinman’s four suave canvases were all shaped, with blacks and grays and purples on their exteriors, and brighter colors hidden in their under-folds. I thought “Jet” (2012) came off best, but I would give the award for “best painting in show” to Piccinini’s “The Lamentation of Time”(2012). Although it was the least typical of the show’s theme, with palpable dark greens mingled with blacks in it, it was a lovely picture. In fact, the whole show was most engaging.


This year is the centennial of the original Armory Show, and all sorts of festivities have been, are and will be organized to commemorate it. The Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey is staging “The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show” (through June 16). While the American artists in the Armory Show were, on the whole, much more conservative than the Europeans, that doesn’t mean there may not be some good work in the show – especially since it is accompanied by “Oscar Bluemner’s America: Picturing Paterson, New Jersey,” with work by one of my favorite early American modernist painters (also through June 16). The big show in New York, however, seems to be coming up in the fall at the New York Historical Society. It is billed as “a major exhibition” titled “The Armory Show at 100: When New York Exploded into the Modern World,” and plans to reunite some ninety works of art from the show, including European artists ranging from the post-impressionists through to the cubists, as well as Americans (October 11 through February 23, 2014).

Meanwhile, we have had at DC Moore (now in Chelsea) “Walt Kuhn: American Modern” (closed March 16). Kuhn (1877-1949) was one of the three original organizers for the Armory Show (the others having been Arthur B. Davies and Walter Pach), but it was apparent, from this worthy but middle-of-the-road show of his work at Moore, that his appetite for the radical in viewing was accompanied by a much more circumspect orientation in making.

To be sure, there were a few tentative experiments of working little bits of sort-of cubism into some of his portraits of showgirls and circus performers during the decade immediately after the Armory Show, but most of such portraits and especially the later ones are “modern” only in the sense that they depict large, simple, generalized bodies and simple, rather stylized or even mask-like faces. These are modernist only in the sense that they employ “bold simplicity and psychological intensity,” to quote the gallery brochure (the only face that looked like a real, individual person was the little head shot of Kuhn’s daughter Brenda).

Put another way, this show underlined what a radical Cézanne was, by the standards of 1913. (What the hell, there are a great many art-lovers even today who aren’t up to rugged mastery of Cézanne, preferring the easier art of Van Gogh, Seurat or Gauguin instead.) But Kuhn obviously greatly admired the Master of Aix, and, even if his own style was tamer than that of the French artist, he paid homage to him, especially in his still lifes of apples (Cézanne’s still lifes of apples having been like that artist's signature).

Kuhn was still alive in the 1940s, and while I was working on my dissertation (about painting in New York in the 1940s), I frequently came across reproductions of little Kuhn still lifes of apples. There were a couple of medium-sized still lifes in the Moore show, but they had other objects in them besides the apples. I saw none of the smaller still lifes, with apples and only apples. I would liked to have seen some of them, even if in their style they don't quite match Cézanne's radicalism.


Swinging around to Forsyth Street, I took in “Marina Adams: Coming Through Strange” at Hionas (closed March 24) The show had been featured in artcritical.com so I wanted to see what it was all about. These, too, are abstract paintings, good – sized and with pleasantly soft and mellow paint application – not hard and slick like Thomas Nozkowski, for example. Inoffensive. The artist combines large areas of color in plant-like forms and a tendency for these forms to rotate around the center of the canvas. The color was pleasant, too, but the paintings as a whole reminded me of a cross-section of the abstraction (not necessarily color-field) in circulation in the 60s—a little Jack Youngerman here, a little Jack Bush there, and a little John McLean into the bargain.

I don’t see any direct or conscious influences here. Rather, I suspect that Adams has never heard of McLean, as he’s English, and maybe she hasn’t heard of Bush either, as he’s Canadian. Youngerman, come to think of it, is a pretty specialized taste, too, though he is at least an American. The situation merely illustrates the difficulty of making something entirely new --- not that it matters terribly, and there were at least two very decent paintings here, both 74 inches square & acrylic on linen. “Queen of Hearts” (2012) is a concerto in reds, pinks, blacks and browns, while “The Black Sea conversing with the Atlantic Ocean an hour before dawn” (2011) is a trio in blue, black, lime green and beige (I could have done with a shorter title, though).


Moving on up to the East Village, on March 1, I attended the opening of ”Walter Robinson: Indulgences, Recent Paintings & Works on Paper” at Dorian Gray (through April 7). I’d never met the artist, and don’t know why I received an email invite to this opening (unless every editor & critic in the Greater New York area was so honored—which, to judge from the eminent writers who did turn up, may well have been the case). I do know of Robinson’s fine reputation as founder & longtime editor of artnet, a webzine of more than ordinary distinction (at least as long as he was editing it).

Anyway, his pictures, mostly on the smallish side, turned out to be highly enjoyable if not world-shatteringly original. They were all representational and depicted mainly food & drink, though with a few nude models thrown in for good measure. One friend of mine was reminded (perhaps by the nudes) of Eric Fischl, but to me the show was more like a celebration of the 60s: the food and drink pix reminded me in equal measure of “The Store” of Claes Oldenburg and Wayne Thiebaud’s cakes and pies, though the style was more linear and conservative than Thiebaud, and lacking in the improvisational élan of Oldenburg. Anyway, good fun.


Actually, I am getting my order reversed here, as I’d been to Sidney Mishkin at Baruch College on East 22nd Street before going to Robinson’s vernissage (and didn’t get to Forsyth Street until days later). I went to Mishkin then because it was (I thought) the last day I could see “Franz Kline: Coal and Steel” there. As it turned out, Roberta Smith had only just seen the show, and was writing a magnum opus about it, so the gallery director, Sandra Kraskin, was busy while I was there answering Smith’s questions on the telephone; she also told me that the show was being extended until the following Thursday (March 7). It was definitely an interesting show, and I’m glad I saw it, though I’m not sure I would have dealt with it at the length that Smith chose to, in the March 1 NY Times.

Maybe my problem is that I’ve always been a tad ambivalent about Kline (1910-1962), tending to see his stark, slashing black-and-white paintings as flashy but superficial. Maybe it’s that people like Irving Sandler class him as one of the first generation of abstract expressionists even though he was painting landscapes in the tradition of American Scene painters like Thomas Hart Benton and cityscapes not unlike those of the Fourteenth Street School‘s Reginald Marsh throughout most of the 1940s.

True, Kline was friends in Manhattan with the likes of de Kooning, but he himself only evolved into abstraction toward the end of the decade, and didn’t get his first solo exhibition of it until October 1950. I sort of resented this belated climbing upon the ab-ex bandwagon only after it had begun to gather speed—not that plenty of others didn’t do the same, but almost all of these others are known today as the second generation..

Still, I liked Kline a lot better after this show, not only because of the presence of so many unpretentious but moving works in it, but also because it offered persuasive evidence of a consistent development from Kline’s American Scene paintings to his abstractions. The fact that he skipped immersing himself in European modernism in his youth seems less important here than how his mature abstract paintings can trace their lineage back to the gritty, melancholy views he painted as a young man of the worn houses, trestle bridges, railroad yards and coal breaker buildings of the sooty coal country in Pennsylvania where he’d spent the better part of his youth and adolescence.

Halfway between these early paintings of coal country and the abstractions of the 50s come Manhattan cityscapes of the mid-40s, including some fascinating views of those old Manhattan El (elevated train) stations, with the geometry of their descending staircases laid out like a book. Initially, it seems that the abstractions evolved out of sketches of women: only later does Kline seem to have become aware of their industrial ancestry, and began giving them titles like “Chief” and “Cardinal,” in tribute to famous old coal-driven trains.

Being only a small gallery which cannot afford stratospheric insurance costs, the Mishkin version of this show didn’t include any of the big abstractions of the 50s. I believe, however, that some were part of the original exhibition, as mounted last year by the Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley, and accompanied by an exemplary catalogue by Robert S. Mattison. Now, there is a show I really wish I’d seen!


Sashaying out to Williamsburg, I took in the two-person show at Ellen Rand’s Art 101. In the front gallery we had “Common Ground,” with Christine Hughes paying tribute to garden compost with both representational and presentational art, but I was more interested in the back gallery, which had “Climbing Kawa Carpo,” by Fran Kornfeld (both closed March 17). The title of Kornfeld’s show refers to a holy Tibetan mountain, and the show itself is un hommage to a deceased Buddhist friend, but the work itself was more familiar, as it resembled Kornfeld’s last show, in 2010 at the 210 gallery in the Greenwood section of Brooklyn.

Both Kornfeld’s exhibitions were “installations,” with a cornucopia of similar small rounded flower-like forms (made from hand-made papers painted with wet paint while themselves still wet) arrayed over walls and ceilings (at Art 101, they shared space with the dining /kitchen/office areas of the gallery, though displayed in an unencumbered end of the space). The biggest difference between the two shows was in their color schemes: from the show in Greenwood, I remembered most vividly the blue-tinted forms, while at Art 101, none were dominated by blue. Rather, they combined reds and yellows with blues to present an image suggestive of bouquets of many different flowers. Nice!


Revisiting Chelsea the following week, I attended two shows that demonstrated the truth of Clement Greenberg’s oft-repeated assertion that “You can’t choose what art you’ll like—the art chooses you.” First I shall deal with “Jean-Michel Basquiat” at Gagosian on 24th Street (through April 6). This show I wanted to like, because I’d been advised by a good friend of Greenberg’s that you should always go into a show “wanting to like;” also because another friend of Greenberg’s had been urging me to see it & telling me enthusiastically that it resembled Frankenthaler’s show with its youth and energy.

This was not the first time that this second friend had praised Basquiat to me, however. At an earlier date, she had told me that she admired his color, so as I marched into Gagosian, I was prepared for marvelous color. Alas, what assaulted my eyes was a near-universal display of soiled or dirty-looking color. It was as though every tube or jar of bright or pale paint that the artist had opened had then had black or brown mixed into it before it was applied to the canvas. It is, of course, possible that the works have simply aged over the years (born in 1960, the artist died of a drug overdose in 1988 at the tragically early age of 27). But, since the premise of Basquiat’s art is that it’s a flower of the streets, I am inclined to suspect that street dirt was part of the original mix.

The Gagosian press release treats him as a divine guttersnipe, who left his family home in Brooklyn at 15, made his dwelling in the streets, and moved in proletarian circles of hip-hop musicians. Nothing is said about the fact that his father was an accountant, while his mother took him to museums, and enrolled him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum—behaviors which suggest that, although Basquiat was of African descent, and obviously had his emotional problems, he wasn’t born a slum kid, but rather a child of the educated middle class.

Another fable which seems to have helped him along was the notion that he alone invented graffiti art in the late 70s and early 80s. Actually, there were others---too many others. Senior New Yorkers will recall the proliferation of graffiti which settled like a blight upon what seemed like the entirety of the Big Apple in the 70s--defacing its buildings, fences, retainer walls, subways, busses and so on with shrill, jagged scrawls. It was all symptomatic of the crack epidemic, rising crime, fiscal crises and other negative experiences that made New York such an unenviable third-world open city in the 70s. Though arty types defended these graffiti as creative expressions of free speech, most New Yorkers considered them vandalism and were relieved when the fad waned.

Basquiat was more unusual in that he managed the transition from subway decorator to gallery darling, though Keith Haring also managed the transition successfully, and neither did it by themselves. Basquiat in particular was aided, in general terms, by the closely-related fad for neo-expressionist painting, which swept over the art world in the later 70s and early 80s, bringing a whole new generation of artists (and Artspeak) to the fore. Neo-expressionism combined the sloppy brushwork of those second-generation abstract expressionists who had taken their cues from de Kooning in the 1950s with the gimmicks and mannerisms of neo-dada & the pop art of the early 60s.

In the case of the German Anselm Kiefer, the borrowing of gimmicks was more from Rauschenberg & Johns, with their use of found objects in their art, while with Georg Baselitz, Kiefer’s countryman, and Italians like Francesco Clemente and Sandro Chia, the cartoon style originally set in motion by Roy Lichtenstein (and, to a lesser extent, by Andy Warhol)was more prominent. Basquiat combined the messy brushwork with the cartoon imagery, making it a trifecta by incorporating cryptic writings into many of his pictures, as had the conceptualists of the later 60s (a practice which enabled his admirers to prattle on about how “learned” he was). He also hooked up early with Larry Gagosian and attracted the patronage and support of Warhol as well.

Basquiat does seem to be better remembered than most of the other neo-expressionists from the 80s. And I suppose, were I capable of looking down upon him from some immense height, I would find merely amusing and entertaining his smears of soiled paint, meaningless or at most politically correct written scribbles and grotesque, sticklike cartoon figures with skulls for heads and eyes staring out. If I came down to their level, and tried to take them more seriously, I might be disturbed by all the imperfectly sublimated anger that they express. But what mystified me was the quiet reverence with which this exhibition was being greeted when I visited it, these crowds of people (mostly on the young side) contemplating all this ugly rage as though it were as peaceful & beautiful as a landscape by Claude. I guess after you’ve killed enough people in violent video games, any painting will lower your stress, staying as it does in one place and emitting no noise


I originally went to “Thornton Willis: Steps” at Elizabeth Harris (through April 13) because a) I like the gallery b) Willis and I have some mutual friends, who will want to know what I thought about the show, and c) I’ve thought for some time that I ought to do something about Thornton Willis—being as he is a fairly well-known & established abstract painter, and myself making something of a specialty of abstraction. Trouble was, ought is not the same as want (duty is never the same as pleasure), and I’d never in the past been able to work up a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the Willis paintings that I’d seen. I remembered them as worthy and eminently respectable but lacking that vital spark. So when I dragged myself into Harris this time, I was already trying to think up excuses for not writing about the show. In short, I was expecting not to like—but wow, was I surprised! As Greenberg might have said, the art chose me.

This is a very lively, cheerful show, with delightfully bright colors and a graphic motif that—at its best-- offers just enough variety without become overly fussy or confused. The motif in question is “steps” (as the show’s title suggests) This turns out to mean paintings with a flat field of color and rectilinear areas of another contrasting color, the rectilinear areas being a) solid bars of color, b) L-shaped bars of color, and c) a step-like shape with alternating vertical and horizontal bars. I get distant echoes of the bar paintings of Pat Lipsky out of this graphic design, but as I say, it’s only a distant echo & the paint application and color schemes of the two artists are also very different.

For me, the best paintings in this show are those which stick to just two colors, and in which the bars, L-shapes and step-shapes do not touch each other. The first one of these to hit me over the head was “Dancers in the Sun” (2012), which hangs directly opposite the entry to the gallery and is composed of ten small green L-shapes, floating on a field of red. Stepping further into the gallery, though, I decided that there were at least two paintings which surpassed even that high standard: “Diamonds for Lucy” (2012), with yellow shapes on a blue field, and “The Ceremony” (2013), with vivid, though thinly-painted orange on black. Then, in the back gallery, I came across my absolute favorite, “Love at First Sight” (2012). It rejoices in true Valentine’s Day colors: deep pink for the field, a very pale pinkish white for the superimposed shapes. Somehow, when a critic has a truly good experience to report, the number of words needed to discuss it dwindles. Lesser art seems to demand further explication, but –as with this show—all I feel that I really need to say is, go look & enjoy for yourselves.

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