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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."



Spring may be late this year, but indoors in Manhattan, modernism is blossoming. Besides the recent shows of Poons and Bannard, we now have those of Helen Frankenthaler, Dan Christensen, & Kenneth Noland. The show of Jules Olitski at Paul Kasmin piggy-backs on another Kasmin show, so I’ll discuss it in a separate posting.

At Bernard Jacobson, the exhibition is “Helen Frankenthaler: Paintings” (through April 30). As my readers know, I am a longtime fan of this great artist, and I am delighted that Jacobson wanted to do a show of her work, but this show doesn’t really do her justice. It has one socko painting, “Bella Donna” (1987), a sizeable symphony in deep blues and greens, and one very appealing small acrylic on paper, “Possibilities 3” (1966). Beyond that, I’m afraid, the smallish number of largely-smaller works on view won’t give younger viewers much more than a hint of why so many older ones are so enthusiastic about this talented woman.

“Dan Christensen: Sprays and Stains” is at Spanierman Modern (through April 2). It makes good use of their new space near the Hudson River, with 25 medium- to large-scale paintings on view. The earliest is “Times Square” (1967), a grid painting made when the artist seems to have been just emerging from a minimalist phase. The latest paintings are “Eve’s Garden” and “Night Garden II” (both 2005, and both built around many interlaced thin lines).

Some of the later paintings, including “Yellow Bower” (1981) and “Bokay” (2000), are commendable, but as a group, the best are the five from1968. At that point, Christensen had taken up the spray gun as an implement, and was using it to cover his canvases with looping, swashbuckling fuzzy lines—not too broad, not too narrow, and full of vim & vigor.

The two smallest paintings from this golden year are both untitled (“007-68” and “009-68”), while “Bosco” is still only half-way from minimalism. “Chevade,” on the other hand, is large (92 x 72 inches), and commanding, with dancing blips and snaking, cloudlike lines—an exciting picture.

Even better is “O,” which is also larger (108 x 144 inches). This painting is at once complex and classically simple, with the jazziest possible swinging, swirling fuzzy lines of red, blue, green and yellow upon a spacious cream-colored field.

At Pace on East 57th Street is “Kenneth Noland: Paintings 1975-2003” (through April 19). It is a handsome show, skillfully put together. Taken as a whole, it’s far better-looking than Noland’s last exhibition, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, not least because its organizers weren’t afraid to focus on good-sized paintings (Pace now represents the Noland estate). The poetic catalog essay, by William Agee, should also be more acceptable to orthodox modernists than the well-intentioned but ham-handed attempts by Paul Hayes Tucker to find sources for Noland's imagery in the external world, in the Mitchell-Innes catalogue.

The Pace show picks up more or less where Noland’s 1977 retrospective at the Solomon R Guggenheim left off, with a sequence of four irregularly-shaped canvases, dated between 1976 and 1981. Although their irregularity shouts that they were intended to be about drawing, as opposed to color, their canny choice of color remains—usually with the narrow bands of contrasting colors that edge the polygons,

“Expand” (1980), for example, has five neat & tidy (straight) sides, but is more like a trapezoid than anything else. Most of it is a nautical medium blue—but with just one narrow orange stripe up the edge of the longest side.

The seven-sided “Vault” (1976) is the exception in this group, with seven broader bands of color occupying the entire canvas. They fan out and boldly down in a broad arc: black, green, brown, gray-brown, orange, brown-gray and yellow.

The next phase of the exhibition has work from between 1983 and 1985, a period when Noland was re-examining the chevron, but with decided differences from the way he’d been handling it in the 1960s. The two paintings with complete chevrons are both tall—in fact, towering and narrow, with narrower chevrons emblazoned on them.

Both utilize paint loosely slathered on and most likely incorporating gel, as all the paint ripples show and there is occasionally even a tad of the iridescence so popular among modernist painters, older & younger, in the 1980s.

In this group, the deeply trenchant entry is “Comet” (1983), with the three stripes in the chevron an eerie gold, baby blue and pale purple, played off against a dark brown field. The more level-headed, vaguely sporting chevron painting is “Songs: Indian Love Call” (1984). Against a field of puce, the chevron boasts lime at its top, russet in its middle, and a flesh-color in its lowest tier. It’s lovely in a totally different way.

In the mid-80s, Noland wasn’t at the top of Clement Greenberg’s list: Olitski had replaced him around 1970. But Noland’s contributions during this period were still very much admired by another, younger and also extremely perceptive critic, Valentin Tatransky. They seem to have been a big reason (among many others) for Tatransky to maintain, “We are living in a golden age of painting!”

The last part of the show, consisting of paintings done between 1990 and 2003, is the least satisfactory. Yet even here there are some successes – again, not least because of the size of the canvases. As best I recall the Noland shows that I saw during the period when these paintings were being made, only smaller versions of them were exhibited, and they didn’t look nearly as good.

I speak particularly of Noland’s revisiting two other early themes, the horizontal stripe paintings and the targets. “Mysteries: Night and Day”(2003) is a good-looking horizontal stripe painting measuring 58½ inches x 9 foot 9 inches, with paler blue & white stripes up above, and darker blue and purple ones below. I only wish the title were not quite so programmatic.

Two of the paintings in this show revisit Noland’s most famous image, the target. Yet they are not exactly the same as the targets of the late 50s and early 60s. Instead of concentric circles of absolutely flat color, Noland appears to have used sprayed-on paint with some of the circles, creating sometimes the impression that the circles themselves are rounded, tubular rather than flat, and sometimes also that they are floating in mid-air, with a halo of light surrounding them.

“Mysteries: Tide” (2002) is the larger (84 inches square) target, and the one more closely related to the earlier targets, with its brisk circles of medium blues and a medium green, resting on their sprayed-on cushions of pink. “Mysteries: Toward East Light” (2002) is the smaller of the two (60 inches square), but also the one that looks more toward the future, with its pale colors and especially masterful command of the spray.

Pinpoint calibration was obviously necessary to differentiate the flesh-colored field from its nest of concentric circles. They progress from mint to flesh-color to lemon to flesh again to pale blue to flesh and finally to a pink center, surrounded by the narrow glow of lemon. The whole painting glows with an almost unearthly light, while its title suggests that we are witnessing not a sunset but a sunrise, with a new day just dawning.
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