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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."



Edward Avedisian, Normal Love #1, 1963. Liquitex on canvas, 67 1/4 x 67 1/2 inches. Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.
There was a time when the Manhattan art world was much smaller, and one movement could sweep across a large segment of it (though never commanding its entirety).

An example of this was the switch from painterly abstract expressionism to what Clement Greenberg called “post-painterly abstraction.” Though it received only a fraction of the publicity accorded pop, it was the guiding principle in the show of that name that he organized in 1964 for the Los Angeles County Museum and that included 31 painters.

Although it wasn’t intended to commemorate that show, a recent exhibition at Tibor de Nagy nevertheless celebrated that moment in “Starting Out: 9 Abstract Painters 1958 – 1971” (closed August 1).

The artists included (only five of whom were actually in the 1964 Greenberg show) were Edward Avedisian, Darby Bannard, Friedel Dzubas, Paul Feeley, Helen Frankenthaler, Jane Freilicher, Ralph Humphrey, Kenneth Noland, & Kendall Shaw.

The gallery, which opened in 1950, first made its name with representational painters like Larry Rivers and Fairfield Porter as well as abstract ones like Frankenthaler.

Then in the late 50s and early 60s, according to its press release, it switched over in favor of a younger group of abstract painters, among them Noland (all of the artists in this show had exhibited with the gallery in their lifetimes).

This period coincided with the evolution from painterly abstract expressionism to “post-painterly abstraction,” and most (though not all) of the work in this show was in the post-painterly mode. The most muscular exception was a magnificently painterly Frankenthaler from 1959, “Two Live as One on a Crocodile Isle.”

Bannard, Dzubas and Noland were all represented by good-to-excellent examples of their post-painterly work, but the big surprise was how well the works by Avedisian and Feeley compared (and Avedisian wasn’t in the 1964 show).

The big Avedisian on view was called “Normal Love #1”(1963) and consisted of three very prettily-colored sets of concentric circles, unified by an outermost band of pale gray, and set on a field of burnt orange.

The Feeley was “Trajan” (1960) and had only two colors, deep blue through the center and orange, at the sides. The composition looked like one of those optical illusions where if you look at it one way, the blue area reminds you of a cocktail glass in the center, and, if you look at it another way, the oranges are two heads, their profiles facing each other.

One way or another, though, this show conveyed the excitement being generated by the rediscovery of hard-edged abstraction. It made clear that “post-painterly abstraction” wasn’t just a code word for Greenberg’s immediate circle, but a movement of far larger proportions.


Another dreamy show that I wasn't notified about until its last week was "Helen Frankenthaler and David Smith," at Craig F. Starr (closed August 8). As this gallery has only three small rooms, it focuses on smaller work, especially on paper (often demonstrating that bigger is not necessarily better).

This show was no exception---except for that in addition to eight small to medium-sized unique works on paper by Frankenthaler (plus one lithograph and one oil on canvas), it had three sculptures by Smith, two of them quite big.

The front gallery, consisting mostly of earlier work by both artists, was the least promising, featuring somewhat heavy & cluttered images by both artists. The best was Frankenthaler's "The Picnic" (1951), a lovely but busy composition in blue, beige, black & white with ghosts of human forms.

For some reason, the work "clunky" came to my mind -- this being the adjective that the artist herself once used to me with reference to Titian "Lady and the Lute Player" in the Met (and even though she styled herself a "Titianophile" and even a "Titianomane").

The next (middle) gallery reminded me of Titian again, this time through an elegant small Smith entitled "Europa" (1953). With slender threads of steel he had created what can be read as a ghost of a running animal with a ghost of something on its back, reminding me of the Titian entitled "Europa and the Bull" in the Gardner museum in Boston.

There was another exceptional Smith in the third (back) gallery, as well as four more very likeable small- to medium-sized Frankenthalers, but for me the queen of the show was the small (10" x 14") and less-is-more Frankenthaler oil on canvas in the center gallery: "Le Rouge et le Noir" (1961).
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