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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."



Parrish Art Museum, view from west. Image (c) Hufton and Crow.
The Number One topic of conversation in the Hamptons this summer isn’t the weather or the celebrities but the traffic. As the lamentable result of too many recent settlers, my jitney was an hour late getting out to Southampton on a Friday in late July, but, once I got there, I had a pleasant weekend.


My first art-experience, on Saturday, was to visit Art Southampton. This is now the second year for an art fair that has come along to challenge—or supplement—ArtHamptons, in Bridgehampton. Art Hamptons was held earlier in July, and, although I have attended it several times, I was unable to do so this year. The friend who had invited me out to stay with her, and who took me to see Art Southampton, had attended Art Hamptons this year, and she liked Art Southampton better. To be sure, she’s not particularly knowledgeable about contemporary art, but she said that Art Southampton, while it had fewer exhibits that she really liked, also had practically no exhibits that she really didn’t like—so the overall level of quality was better.

I found it refreshing to wander through galleries with art that, on the whole, was attractive. Virtually all of it was paintings, sculpture, prints and photography but, with relatively few exceptions, the art was more on the positive side, pomonian negativity at a minimum. Oh, a few galleries offered blue chip pomonians like Warhol and Rauschenberg (or at least listed their names in the catalogue), but the examples of such works that I saw were small pieces or graphics and not too many of either of those. I noticed only one lonely little neon sculpture, no conceptual art or over-promoted abstractions by artists like Pat Steir or Thomas Nozkowski, and no installations, videos or performance art. No spectacular special effects, like the “Rain Room” that was such a hit at MoMA earlier this summer, no nude people standing around. All was delightfully G-rated.

I did see a fair smattering of works by a number of non-controversial artists whom I admire, to one degree or another: Milton Avery, Wolf Kahn, Adolph Gottlieb, Theodoros Stamos, Helen Frankenthaler, Friedel Dzubas & Esteban Vicente. But what dominated the show seemed to be work by artists I’d never heard of. Oh, I suppose some of them would be known to folks who keep themselves posted on the Chelsea gallery scene more than I do, and some would be known to visitors with longer memories than I, but really I think most were unknown to the New York public in general--because they’re emerging, because they're from out of town (and have had only local shows in their respective areas), or simply because they’re the kind of artists whose work people buy from a small or private dealer and take home to hang on their walls, as opposed to the kind of art that asks to be set out in a public exhibition space & reviewed & acquired by museums or by hedge fund managers who only want to store it in a warehouse somewhere until they can send it off to Christie's or Sotheby's to earn them a handsome profit.

In line with this, although 35 of the 92 galleries with booths came from New York City, I had heard of only 9 of these NY galleries and was aware only of their activities as exhibitors of regularly changing shows: ACA, Dorian Gray, Flowers, Gerald Peters, Hollis Taggart, Kathryn Markel, Pace Prints, Sundaram Tagore & Tagliatella (at least I believe Tagliatella may rotates its exhibits, though I’ve only glanced at its front window – on Tenth Avenue—as I pass by). I’d never heard of any of the other New York galleries, though most seem to be in Chelsea. Maybe they’re not all “by appointment only” but they sure ain’t Gagosian either. Another 5 galleries were located on the South Fork, while thirty galleries came from other places in the U.S. (Florida being particularly well represented), and the remaining 22 were from outside the U.S., from Beijing to Munich to Israel (with London particularly well represented).

I also did a little survey, based on the respective galleries’ catalogue listings, as to who was representing primarily well-known artists (19 galleries), who was representing primarily artists I’d never heard of (56 galleries) and who was representing a mixture of known and unknown (17 galleries). To that I should add that in several cases, from the catalogue listings, it appeared that these galleries were endeavoring to introduce local artists to a wider public—with Latino names in several of the Miami galleries, as well as in the galleries from Guatemala and Colombia, and Chinese names in the Beijing gallery (as well as elsewhere: the vogue for Chinese artists, so many of whom are well-trained in the academics of Soviet-style realism, still appears to be with us).

The following galleries stood out, mostly as especially likeable: Hollis Taggart, right at the entry, had as its centerpiece a huge and handsome (though late) Frankenthaler, “Bella Donna” (1987). Also on view there were two fine paintings by Dzubas…. The ACA booth had better paintings around its perimeter than in its center—facing the main corridor, a trio of beach scenes by Avery, William Merritt Chase & Robert Gwathmey (social realist from the 1940s) while on the intersecting partition hung a zesty, smaller vertical canvas by Francine Tint

Among the (no doubt relatively) unknowns, I liked work by two more or less figurative artists displayed by David Lusk, of Memphis TN: Tim Crowder (b. 1956) and Ted Faiers (1908-1985)….Jerald Melberg, of Charlotte NC, had a nice large grisaille charcoal and pastel street scene by Susan Grossman (b. 1959)….Peter Marcette, from Bridgehampton, had a hyper-realistic statue of a beefy, tattooed motorcycle rider which showed the artist, Marc Sijan (b. 1946), to be either a great fan or else a kissing cousin of Duane Hanson …..

Both galleries from Toronto featured photography, though I was more taken with the display by Nicholas Metivier. It featured the American Gordon Parks, whose work I have always liked, and also highly intriguing pictures of abstract-looking landscapes and waterscapes by the Canadian Edward Burtynsky (b. 1955). Besides the usual Wolf Kahn & Avery, Vered, from East Hampton, had a very pretty small grisaille watercolor of the New York City waterfront by the distinguished photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn, dated 1915….but the gold medal for Art Southampton goes to Yares Art Projects of Santa Fe, whose gallery (though also including some unfamiliar names) also had more familiar but nonetheless beautiful work by Morris Louis, Hofmann, Dzubas and several stain paintings from the early ‘60s by Jules Olitski.


On Saturday evening, my friend and I drove to the Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton. The building houses both the museum and the John Drew Theater, and we were going to see three one-act plays by Noel Coward. Collectively entitled “Tonight at 8:30,” the production was directed by Tony Walton and starred Blythe Danner and Simon Jones. Part of a group of 10 one-act plays, first produced in 1935, they varied in interest & quality. I liked the first, “Hands Across the Sea,” best; it concerned the contrast between hip Londoners and square visitors from the colonies—pretty much like the contrast between hip New Yorkers & square Middle Westerners, as that contrast used to exist, back in the old days, when Moss Hart & George S. Kaufman mined the same vein in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” (1939). Danner was particularly sparkling in this one, and it was very funny. I can’t remember anything much about the second, “Family Album,” except that it was more serious and involved an inheritance. The third, “Red Peppers,” was also more serious: about two aging music-hall performers in a dying industry (English music hall was put out of business like vaudeville in the U.S. by the advent of “the talkies”). I was moved but not too amused by “Red Peppers;” wished it could have been developed a bit more. Thus endeth a rare expedition of mine into theater criticism.

Since we went to the show early, in order to get a good parking space, we had plenty of time, before the curtain went up, to see the art show in the museum. Entitled “Artists & Writers: They Played in the Game,” it was a celebration in honor of an annual ritual, the softball game played between one team of resident artists in the Hamptons and one team of resident writers (though it has become such a status symbol to be able to say that you’ve played that even non-residents, including supermodels, movie stars, and Bill Clinton, have appeared in the lineups). Nominally, the art show was a celebration of the game’s 65th anniversary, but Helen Harrison, reviewing the show for the Sag Harbor Express, maintained that instead of getting started in 1948, the game didn’t actually get rolling until the mid-50s, and that Jackson Pollock, in particular, almost certainly didn’t play in it, being wildly un-athletic (although he was in the art show, she classified him as the game’s “first honorary ringer”).

The show (which closed July 28) had, or was supposed to have, art works by 81 artists (ranging from Calvin Albert to Wilfrid Zogbaum) and books by 88 "writers" (ranging from Alan Alda to Mort Zuckerman). To be sure, there was a long bookshelf with an impressive number of titles on it, but Harrison couldn’t find any by Harold Rosenberg, in spite of the fact that he was one of cardinal founders of the game. For my part, I couldn’t find any or at least many works of visual art worth reviewing. According to the brochure accompanying the show, the exhibition had works not only by Pollock but also Herman Cherry, Dan Christensen, Willem de Kooning, Jim Dine, Eric Fischl, Adolph Gottlieb, Elaine Grove, Franz Kline, Ibram Lassaw, Peter Reginato, Larry Rivers, “Lud” Sander & Esteban Vicente, but they were lost amidst the welter of second- and third-rate work by artists who may have been brilliant on the ball field but stank in the studio. I know, a show like this isn’t supposed to be anything more than good fun, and you’re not supposed to ask for quality, but this Kitchen-Sink School of Curatorial Endeavor still left me feeling a tad let down.


The week before I went to Southampton, I had lunch in Manhattan with a friend who has a house in Sag Harbor. She sang the praises of the new Parrish Art Museum, and implied that I must be a real dummy because I didn’t know who Terrie Sultan was (turns out she’s the Parrish’s director--interesting, I suppose, for people who pay more attention than I do to the names of museum directors, but offhand I couldn’t tell you the names of the directors of the Met, MoMA, the Whitney or the Guggenheim, either). Anyway, I was already vaguely aware the new building had opened, and so – stimulated by my Manhattan lunch---I told my Southampton friend in advance that I’d like to see it.

Once I got to Southampton, my interest was further stimulated by a second review in the July 26 issue of the Sag Harbor Express by the invaluable Helen Harrison of a temporary exhibition at the Parrish that sounded interesting.

My Southampton friend drove me over the Parrish on Sunday morning, which is located on the Montauk Highway just outside the hamlet of Water Mill on a large open field formerly occupied by a tree nursery (and most likely before then, potato fields). You need a car to get there, whereas the old Parrish was located right in the middle of Southampton, and one could even walk there, I believe, from the train station. The problem with the old Parrish was that it wasn’t large enough to house and/or display all the things that its directors wanted to house and/or display: items from the museum’s permanent collection, temporary shows, storage and educational facilities.

The museum’s overseers therefore decided that it had to be expanded, but didn’t apparently get the cooperation it needed from the town and/or the citizens of Southampton to expand it on its site within the town, so it was decided to move the entire museum to the larger (14-acre) plot of land outside Water Mill, and to build a whole new building for it. (All of this was explained to us by my friend from Sag Harbor, who drove over to join me and my friend from Southampton—though I have added some details from the museum’s press release & the website of the NY Times, which followed developments either in its regular edition or the suburban supplement to the Sunday Times).

To accomplish their new building, the Parrish hired the very prestigious Swiss architectural firm of Herzog & de Meuron, which had designed a number of museums and museum additions, most notably the grandiloquent Tate Modern in London (a renovated power station that to me is an eyesore but that has been much admired by others). Ascan Mergenthaler, the Herzog & de Meuron partner in charge of the Parrish project, created a plan for a museum that would look like a little city of its own, with about 30 modest, low-slung and interconnected buildings spread over the site. Unfortunately, it came with a big-city price tag of $80 million, and, as the museum couldn’t raise that much, the plans had to be drastically scaled down.

The finished – solo --- building, which cost the relatively modest price of $26.2 million, still has 12,200 square feet of exhibition space, nearly triple the space of the old building. It also has a café (essential, as there are no eating places within walking distance), an auditorium, storage and office space, etc. Naturally, there is also plentiful space outside for parking, and the exterior is quite attractive—surmounted by a long, M-shaped, double-gabled roof. This roof (with its many skylights) was, I believe, intended to resemble the roofs of barns in which so many local artists, past and present, have located their studios. Though it reminds me more of an airplane hangar, I still find it appealing, and enjoyed my stroll through most of the several galleries displaying its permanent collection, too: despite a modest number of “contemporary” irritations in the permanent collection, three of its main galleries were displaying work by three local artists whom I respect: Fairfield Porter, Esteban Vicente & William Merritt Chase.

The temporary exhibition that Harrison had alerted me to--- though in its way rewarding & well worth the visit-- was also more problematic, as she herself alerted me to in her review. Entitled “Angels, Demons and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet,” it consists of more than 50 paintings and works on paper and has been organized jointly by the Parrish and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, where it appeared last spring (on view at the Parrish through October 27). The curators were Klaus Ottmann, now with the Phillips, but formerly with the Parrish, and Dorothy Kozinski, director of the Phillips, while Alicia Longwell, chief curator at the Parrish, contributed an essay to the catalogue.

The subjects are three artists who were interconnected through their art, or, to be more precise, two famous artists – Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and Jean Dubuffet(1901-1985) – who were both friends with Alfonso Ossorio,(1916-1990) the Harvard-educated, practicing Catholic, less-famous artist & wealthy scion of a Philippine sugar magnate. Ossorio collected the art of both Pollock & Dubuffet, and his own art was profoundly influenced by both. He is the “angel” of the three, as that was his middle name. Dubuffet was known for his collection of outsider art, which he called “art brut,” or “savage” art. Pollock, I suppose, was pursued by the "demons" of alcoholism, or something. Anyway, it makes for a catchy exhibition title.

My first acquaintance with Ossorio came in the ‘60s, when I was making the rounds for Time, and saw the rich, mysterious & decidedly bizarre collages- assemblages that he was exhibiting at Cordier & Ekstrom. The panels hung on the wall but were thickly covered with shiny glass bits, small glittery objects—everything from glass eyes to stag horns. These objects were kind of interesting, and in my opinion more distinctive than the works in the Parrish show, which catches Ossorio at an earlier stage, being focused as it is on the years between 1948 and 1952.

During this period, Ossorio had only just met Pollock, to whom he was introduced by Betty Parsons in 1949. Pollock was already an admirer of Dubuffet’s work, which had been shown in New York, first in a 1946 group show at Pierre Matisse, and then in 1947 in a solo exhibition at the same gallery. Clement Greenberg reviewed both shows for The Nation, and spoke very enthusiastically of Dubuffet in both—observing in his first review that Dubuffet had obviously learned from Paul Klee; in the second review (which was combined with a review of Pollock’s latest show) , he maintained that Pollock still had “more to say” than Dubuffet and was “more original”.

Toward the end of the 40s, and the beginning of the ‘50s, Ossorio was moving from New York City to a large & handsome estate in Easthampton; he also, at Pollock’s suggestion, was traveling to Paris to meet Dubuffet, and became quite close to him, too – close enough, so that when Dubuffet wanted a place to hang his collection of art brut, Ossorio was willing to provide it. More importantly, he bought works by both Dubuffet and Pollock, including “Lavender Mist” (1950), arguably Pollock’s masterpiece & now a pride and joy of the National Gallery in Washington.

The cancelled checks with which Ossorio paid Pollock for this painting—on the installment plan—are in the Archives of American Art. The amounts of each installment (in the tens of dollars, not the hundreds) sound laughable today, but it’s clear from the exhibition at the Parrish that Ossorio also got a lot more from Pollock, in terms of learning experience. I wish I could say that Ossorio was able to take off from this experience, and come up with abstract paintings of his own, but most of the Ossorios on view at the Parrish looked to me like nothing so much as inferior Pollocks. Some were more brightly colored than most Pollocks, and to a degree, they had figurative elements hidden under their skeins of color, but on the whole, Ossorio obviously knew what the great stuff was, for his pieces most closely resemble Pollock’s finest period, the classic “all-over” abstractions of 1947-50.

Part of this shortfall may, of course, be the fault of the lighting—Harrison pointed out that the lighting at the Phillips was much more flattering to the works on view, especially those by Ossorio and Dubuffet (though David Carrier, who reviewed the Phillips show for artcritical.com, wasn’t impressed by Ossorio even at that venue). Both the museum’s press release and exhibition catalogue (so I understand, though I didn’t consult it) also make much of how all three painters experimented with new materials and techniques, Ossorio as well as Pollock & Dubuffet, but none of Ossorio’s experimentation was obvious to my naked eye at the Parrish. The best Ossorios, as my friend from Southampton had suggested, were the eight “Victorias Drawings,” intricate watercolors with a lot of hot tropical colors in them, named after a town in the Philippines to which Ossorio had returned in 1950 to decorate a chapel serving employees of his father’s sugar factory. Karen Rosenberg, who reviewed the Parrish show for the NY Times on August 1, also liked the “Victorias Drawings,” and her review was illustrated by a photo of them. I thought them pleasant, but not outstanding.

I’m also sorry to say that the Pollock pictures in this show didn’t overwhelm me, consisting as they do almost exclusively of works on paper, especially prints, and from after 1951, when Pollock was back on the sauce (after years of comparative sobriety), lapsing back into figuration, and tending to get messy & disorganized. This show tries to make a case that it was Ossorio or even Dubuffet (maybe even as cycled through Ossorio) that prompted Pollock’s return to figuration, but my experience of many artists—recent and historical—suggests that discouragement of one kind or another is more often responsible for an abstract artist’s opting for figuration-- an inner prompting, in other words, not the influence of some other artist or artists. This would certainly apply to Pollock, as he had been having a heartbreaking time trying to sell most of his greatest work. “Lavender Mist” was the only major sale out of his 1950 show, although it contained at least two other great, great paintings: the Met’s “Autumn Rhythm,” and MoMA’s big “One: Number 31, 1950”.

There is one perfectly wonderful Pollock in the show, but it’s out in the hallway, not in the exhibition space proper, and it’s only a drawing--a marvelously minimal little untitled one, dating from 1951 and consisting of nothing but 10 or 12 vertical lines. It’s owned by the Parrish, a gift by Edward Dragon (Ossorio’s longtime partner) in memory of Ossorio. According to Harrison, “Lavender Mist” was also in this show as it was staged by the Phillips. Too bad that it couldn’t make the journey northward, but I suspect that the insurance alone would have taken the better part of the Parrish’s annual budget; also, the Parrish wouldn’t have been able to provide adequate security.

In the end, the best paintings in the show are those by Dubuffet. They were really what I’d come to see, as they aren’t too commonly displayed in the U.S. these days (many U.S. museums seem to own them, but I get the impression that they’re mostly kept in storage). During the later 40s and early 50s, Dubuffet was engaging, up to the hilt, in “matter painting:” scrubbing sand, gravel, asphalt & who knows what else into his paint, in order to give it a granular texture and/or raised surface (he seems to have been inspired in this by the example of Jean Fautrier). He was also taking his cues from outsider art, with a highly sophisticated emphasis on the crude and childish (bear in mind that he’d spent years studying painting, at the Académie Julian and elsewhere). His colors were non-colors, grays and browns, not unlike Fautrier before him (or, for that matter, Olitski after), but there’s a definite piquant charm to the best of his paintings, including a number that come off in the current exhibition. I was especially taken by the one of the big wobbly fat lady with the tiny head, entitled “Corps de dame jaspé (Marbleized Body of a Lady)” (1950) from the National Gallery in DC, though I also related to the “Paysage Métapsychique” (1952) from the Des Moines Art Center.
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