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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."

 

“HENRY'S SHOW" AT PAUL KASMIN: THEN & NOW

"The New York School, 1969." Left to right: Motherwell, Smith, Frankenthaler. Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery.
The big mid-winter show at Paul Kasmin is entitled, “The New York School, 1969: Henry Geldzahler at the Metropolitan Museum of Art” (through March 14).

As curated by Stewart Waltzer, it aims to recreate the excitement aroused in the fall of 1969 by “New York Painting and Sculpture 1940 – 1970.”

This was an exhibition organized in honor of the Met’s centennial by Henry Geldzahler (1935-1994). He was the museum's newly-appointed curator of contemporary art, and a figure of such stature in the art world that he had been or would become the subject of works by a wide range of artists from Larry Rivers & David Hockney to Marisol & Frank Stella.

According to his obituary by Paul Goldberger in the New York Times, even Andy Warhol once said that "Henry gave me all of my ideas," and made a film consisting only of him smoking a cigar for 90 minutes.

Yet the 1969 show at the Met, which soon became known all around town as "Henry's show," was possibly that legendary figure’s greatest coup.

THEN....

I didn’t get to see this show. It opened in October 1969, by which time I had not only quit Time but taken flight for London. I did know it was coming up, though, and that it promised to be quite spectacular.

The only time I met Geldzahler was in February 1969, when I was interviewing Helen Frankenthaler for Time’s big story on her, and Geldzahler came to her studio on Third Avenue. He was there to make selections for his big show.

I can’t recall what if anything he chose that day, but I do remember that one of the pictures she showed him was “Towards a New Climate” (1957). It’s a very pale, abstract one, painted on the day that Sputnik, the Soviets’ – and the world’s –first satellite was launched into space (setting off the space race and prompting much anguish in the US).

“What’s that little mark doing there, down in the corner?” Geldzahler asked. “Clem asked the same thing,” Frankenthaler said. That remark told me something that I hadn’t suspected: although she and Greenberg were no longer lovers, he had continued to critique her work for her.

I was also reminded of Geldzahler’s big show that September, after I’d left Time but before I went to London, when I had a farewell lunch with Kenneth Noland. We ate bouillabaisse at a fancy French restaurant, but then he had to leave, in order to help Geldzahler hang the gallery with his own work in it.

AND NOW....

There is a wonderfully flower-like & frenetic Fifties Frankenthaler in the show at Kasmin, “Europa” (1957). There is also a big, bold Noland chevron, “Mid-Afternoon” (1964), but you know, on the whole comparing the Kasmin show to the Met’s show is like comparing a rather small fish – say, a mackerel --- to a whale the size of Moby Dick.

As even the Kasmin press release concedes, Geldzahler took over half of his museum, employing more than 40 galleries to display 408 art works by 43 artists.

The Kasmin show occupies three galleries, with 29 art works by 24 artists. And that’s just the beginning of the difference.

“The New York School” is a phrase originally coined (around 1948, I believe) by Robert Motherwell. He meant it to apply to that group of artists who today are better known as abstract expressionists.

In 1978, Irving Sandler decided to expand this definition to apply to all the New York artists of the 1950s, including the figurative ones.

He titled the book he wrote about them, “The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties.”

The title of the Kasmin show (though not Geldzahler’s original title) suggests that we are now to consider everything that went on in the1960s also part of “the New York School,” including pop and minimal art as well as color-field painting.

At this point, the phrase has become so loose that it positively rattles.

I am not saying that the Kasmin show is bad. On the contrary, I can recommend it—the two larger front galleries, at any rate. In addition to the Frankenthaler & the Noland, these spaces boast large, impressive-looking paintings by Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb & Jules Olitski.

There are also more modestly-scaled but still grand paintings by Hans Hofmann & Morris Louis, plus “Voltron XIV I” (1963), a good-sized & characteristically well-made sculpture by David Smith.

For those whose enthusiasms lie elsewhere, I can also recommend the work on view in these two spaces by Joseph Cornell, Josef Albers, Isamu Noguchi, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, & Robert Rauschenberg -- the last-named represented by a rather sweet little assemblage called “Art Box” (1963).

Alas, I can’t recommend with any degree of enthusiasm the third, back gallery. This is less because these are among my less favorite artists, more (and I mean this) because they are almost invariably represented by very minor examples of their work.

In this space are displayed primarily pieces representing the pop art/minimal axis—that is to say, works by Andy Warhol, John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg, Dan Flavin, & James Rosenquist, along with two drawings by Kelly (his piece in the front space is an oil on canvas), a “stabile” and a mobile by Alexander Calder, and small sculptures by David Smith and Mark di Suvero.

The thing is, for the most part the works on display at Kasmin were not in the Geldzahler show (the exceptions being the Frankenthaler, the Kelly drawings, the Noguchi, the Gottlieb, and the larger one of the two Hofmanns).

Every effort was made by Waltzer, as curator of the show, to obtain as many of the original works as possible, or at least the most faithful available substitutes.

For example, one of the two pieces by Warhol at Kasmin on display is one of his celebrated copies of a Brillo box. It’s not the same copy of a Brillo box that was at the Met, but to untutored viewers like myself, all Warhol copies of Brillo boxes look the same. (Wasn’t that the point of them originally?)

THEN (AGAIN)...

At the Met, though, the Brillo box was only one of 7 Warhols on display. According to Geldzahler’s 494-page catalog, among the others were 1) “Ethel Scull, 36 Times,” a many-splendored multiple photo of the co-owner of the most famous pop-art collection in existence, 2) 32 panels of Warhol’s signature subject, Campbell’s soup cans, and 3) what is called in the catalogue merely “a Marilyn Monroe diptych” but (as the reproduction shows) in reality incorporates 50 images of the most famous blonde there ever was.

Now where are you going to find anybody who in 2015 is willing to lend any of these out to some little gallery in Chelsea? I mean, Kasmin’s a fine establishment, but it isn’t (yet) in the same league with Gagosian, and I’ll wager even Larry G. would have trouble luring those Warhols out of their current homes.

Today, they are most likely either enshrined in museums equipped with high-security burglar alarms or else treasured by multi-billion-dollar collectors who live in palatial gated communities. If any of them ever came up on the auction block, they would shatter all records.

The rest of Geldzahler’s catalog makes pretty exciting reading, too. Its centerpiece, not surprisingly, is the listings for all of those 43 artists, together with the 408 works they were represented by.

A few artists were represented by only one or two pieces – such as George Segal whose sole contribution, “Gas Station” (1963) is a whole little stage set. Gabe (Gabriel) Kohn (1910-1975), a little-known sculptor of the abstract expressionist generation, had only two pieces in the show.

Neither Herbert Ferber nor Seymour Lipton, Kohn's better-known contemporaries, were included, but David Smith was there with 22 sculptures, beginning with “False Peace Specter” (1945), ending with “Becca” (1965), and including “Australia” (1951), his masterpiece.

There is no Pollock at Kasmin, no Rothko, Still, de Kooning, Newman, Gorky, Kline, or Reinhardt. Yet all these artists were represented in “Painting and Sculpture in New York: 1940 – 1970.”

De Kooning was represented by 12 works, Gorky by 10, Kline by 10, Newman by 13, Pollock by 9, Reinhardt by 9, Rothko by 10, and Still by 5 (besides the 11 pieces by Gottlieb, 10 by Hofmann and 9 by Motherwell).

And what works they must have been! There are too many familiar titles for me to quote them all here, so to give you an example, I’ll just list some of the Pollock selections.

Besides the Met’s own magisterial “Autumn Rhythm” (1950), the display included two other outstanding examples of Pollock’s “classic” period, “Lucifer” and “Cathedral” (both 1947). Also listed are two of the artist’s most tantalizing paintings from his earlier, quasi-surrealist period, “Male and Female” and “The Moon Woman Cuts the Circle” (both 1942), and the two most famous paintings of his late period, “Portrait and a Dream” and “The Deep” (both 1953).

Can you imagine just those seven pieces hung together? It must have been like a short course in Pollock.

All four of the best-known color-field painters—Frankenthaler, Louis, Noland and Olitski – had 9 works apiece at the Met (Larry Poons, who was still in the process of evolving into color-field, had 7).

Among the pop artists, the range was wider, and scale sometimes compensated for paucity in numbers. Rosenquist showed 8 works (none in the least like the strange example of his work at Kasmin, which is mostly about lettering).

Oldenburg’s 9 contributions included his 10-foot-square “Giant Pool Balls” (as opposed to his 1-foot-square plaster “Oeufs Volcania”(1964) at Kasmin).

Roy Lichtenstein had 10 works, and Stella had 9 (the same number as the color-field painters; perhaps Geldzahler at that stage of the game equated him to them).

Rauschenberg showed only 7 works, but at least three of them were major. Two were large “combine paintings”: “Bed” (1955), possibly his best-known work, and “Rebus” (1955). A third, almost as well-known as “Bed,” is the construction “Odalisk” (1955-1958), one of his works with a stuffed bird on top.

Geldzahler’s two biggest enthusiasms, I’d say, were Jasper Johns, represented by 40 works in this show, and Ellsworth Kelly, with 42.

True, numerically most of the Kelly works were drawings, and Johns was represented by prints as well as paintings. Still, those numbers do say something.

Not least among the thrills of the Geldzahler catalog, though, are the listings of the lenders at the beginning.

First comes a full page of museums, from the Albright-Knox in Buffalo to the Yale University Art Gallery, and including museums in France, the UK, Germany, Israel, Canada and Japan as well US museums from Syracuse to Dallas to San Francisco.

Next comes 2¾ pages of private lenders. It includes a number of artists (since a majority of the artists in the show were still living), three estates (Smith, Kline and Hofmann), notable individuals ranging from Mrs. Marcel Duchamp (a widow since ’68) to Mr. & Mrs. Clement Greenberg, and an amazing selection among the great collectors of the era.

Obviously, Robert & Ethel Scull are there, but so are Edwin & “Lindy” Bergman of Chicago, Eugene & Barbara Schwartz, Victor & Sally Ganz, Audrey & David Mirvish of Toronto, Philip Johnson, William Rubin, Lawrence Rubin, Mr. & Mrs. Ben Heller, Mr. & Mrs. Leo Castelli, Carter Burden, and Virginia & Bagley Wright of Seattle.

Plus a notable half-page list of blue-chip galleries.

From this formidable list of lenders, I get the impression that everybody worth mentioning in the art world of 1969 had ignored their various rivalries & come together in a concerted effort to yank the Met into the 20th century.

They had been organized into this campaign by Geldzahler, who had just turned 34 in the spring of 1969, and it represents an amazing accomplishment on his part.

Moreover, his choices on the whole have proved in retrospect largely justified—at least, in the sense that almost all of the artists he included in the show are still names most of us would recognize today (with only a few exceptions, such as Gabe Kohn and Bradley Walker Tomlin).

Moreover, he had the sense to avoid most of the fads of the 60s: none of the now-forgotten op artists (unless you want to consider early 60s Poons, op), no kinetic art, and only three minimalists: Robert Morris, Donald Judd & Tony Smith.

Morris has faded into the background today but so have most of the other minimalists of that era, among them painters like David Novros & Paul Mogensen.

Certainly, the Met needed some jolting into the 20th century at that point: it had never progressed much (in terms of stylistic developments) beyond the acquisition of its first Cézanne from the Armory Show in 1913.

At least, this is what I found upon searching the Met’s online database of its collection, and studying the dates on the accession numbers of artists included in Geldzahler’s big show.

Aside from “Autumn Rhythm,” I could only find that the museum had owned up through the end of 1968 maybe 12 or 13 paintings and as many more prints by the top eleven first-generation abstract expressionists. Most of these works had been acquired, one by one, throughout the 50s and the 60s.

Among the color-field painters, it owned one Louis painting, one Frankenthaler painting and a handful of Frankenthaler prints, but no Noland or Olitski.

It owned one Kelly painting, but in the 60s, it had also acquired a Kelly poster & a Kelly print.

It owned no paintings by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Stella, Rauschenberg, or Johns, but throughout the later 60s, it had acquired substantial numbers of prints – mostly lithographs or silkscreens – from all these artists.

Geldzahler had joined the staff of the Met in 1960, and, although he took time off in the mid-60s to become the first director of the visual arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts, he seems to have kept in touch with the Met.

This, to me, explains these acquisitions – particularly since they continued on into the early & mid-70s -- and Geldzahler was to remain at the Met until 1977, when Mayor Ed Koch made him Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for the city.

My reasoning here was that Geldzahler couldn’t talk the Met into acquiring paintings by any of these artists, but he could at least get the museum to acquire some of their prints.

If indeed the purpose of “Painting and Sculpture in New York: 1940 – 1970” was to jolt the Met into the 20th century, its effect may have been more transient than permanent.

True, the museum did acquire a small number of paintings and sculptures from the show for its permanent collection. Judging by accession numbers, among them were Smith’s “Becca,” two and maybe three of Motherwell’s “Open” paintings, and Kelly’s vividly colored, 13-panel “Spectrum V” (1969).

On the other hand, most of its current (and more sizable, though not exceptionally large) holdings in work by first- generation abstract expressionists carry accession numbers from the 1980s, ‘90s and early 21st century.

As nearly as I can tell, the person most responsible for acquiring all this art was not Geldzahler at all, but William S. Lieberman. He took on Geldzahler’s job within a year after Geldzahler left it, and remained active at the Met until his death in 2005.

Even Lieberman didn’t add substantially to the museum’s holdings in art from the 1960s that was included in Geldzahler’s show. My guess would be that

a) by the time he came along, not only “ab-ex” but all of the pop art at least had escalated in price far beyond what even the Met could afford,

b) he wasn’t that enthusiastic about pop himself,

c) he was closest to collectors of earlier art, so he had the best luck persuading them to donate their works to the Met, and anyway

d) fashions change, do they not? Color-field has long been seen as “out of style” (though one likes to think that this is changing, or will change).

AND NOW (AGAIN)...

In recent years, the whole pendulum at the Met has (in my opinion) swung a little too far into the world of the pomonian contemporary. It is to be hoped that at some point, the museum will begin to stop worrying about how to stay on top of the newest fads and begin instead to plug the numerous gaps in its 20th century holdings.

Did we, for example, really need two exhibitions of that singularly stagey contemporary German photographer, Thomas Struth, since the millennium? As far as I’m concerned, one was more than enough.

I do have to concede that the museum has at least made a good beginning towards repairing the oversights of the past by accepting the Ronald A. Lauder collection of cubists.

Wouldn’t it be nice if it could continue down that path – especially since MoMA can no longer be trusted to keep all of its treasures on view?

And meanwhile, let us all go and see what Geldzahler wasn’t so enthusiastic about at Kasmin (along with those remnants of what he liked most). Even though in scale, this exhibition is only a miniature version of its illustrious parent, it has a good deal of highly respectable work.

Moreover, the hanging is, on the whole, felicitous -- and in one situation, inspired.

This is the corner where hangs Motherwell's large "Open No. 153: In Scarlet with White Line" (1970) on one wall. Catty-corner hangs Frankenthaler's sassy "Europa" (1957), and in front of them stands the large Smith "Voltron XIV I" (1963).

This hanging pays tribute to the fact that Motherwell and Frankenthaler were still (at that point) married to each other, and that both of them were good friends of Smith's.

The works of these three congenial spirits go together like eggs and bacon, or milk and crackers -- or whatever simile you'd like to choose....

The whole show reminds me what Spencer Tracy says of Katharine Hepburn in “Pat and Mike” (1942): "There's not much meat on her, but what there is, is cherce!"

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