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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."



David Smith. Origins & Innovations, Hauser & Wirth New York, 22nd Street 13 November – 23 December. Foreground: "Three Circles Related" (left), and "Agricola VIII" (right). © The Estate of David Smith Courtesy The Estate of David Smith and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Genevieve Hanson
In the home stretch for the holidays, I saw five gallery exhibitions displaying a wide range of talents – most of which I liked, but also some that I didn’t. They were 1) “Painter/Printmaker: Spirit of Collaboration,” at Freedmanart (through January 20); 2) Rudolf Stingel at Gagosian on Madison Avenue (through December 22), 3) “In the Balance,” at Gallery Gaia (through December 30, open weekends 2 to 7 pm except December 24), 4) “Ardent Nature: Arshile Gorky Landscapes, 1943 – 47” at Hauser & Wirth on East 69th Street (through December 23), and 5) “David Smith: Origins & Innovations,” at Hauser & Wirth on West 22nd Street (through December 23).


“Painter/Printmaker” at Freedmanart offers prints by three artists better known as painters: Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell & Frank Stella.

There is a good selection of attractive prints by Motherwell, including samples of his Chinese ideogram-type images and one from his “Open” series. Best is a 1987 blue-on-blue relief print of a truncated version of his most famous image, the “Elegy for the Spanish Republic.”

Helen Frankenthaler is also well represented with three large and excellent color woodcuts: the familiar but lovely pink & green “Savage Breeze” (1974), one rich, dark blue-on-blue representative from her “Tales of Genji” suite (1998), and a large & truly eye-bending representative from her “Madame Butterfly” suite (2000), with its pale but sumptuous colors and its light, fleeting forms.

Also charming is her “Sanguine Mood’ (1971), a pochoir & screenprint with a mainly pink field & a few little lines on it. I am not, as a rule, a fan of Frankenthaler’s paintings with lines on them, but this little print has a dry humor that redeems it. She is the real star of this show.

As for Stella, if you love late, frenetically busy Stella, you will love his work here, but alas, it’s not for me.


One of the newer reviewers at the New York Times is Jason Farago (rhymes with Chicago), a native New Yorker and Yalie (’05) who took an MA at the Courtauld & hung out in London before re-entering the NY art scene in 2010.

On December 1, he contributed a review of this Stingel show illustrated by a large color photograph of two enormous, pink-and-golden paintings.

From the photograph, I couldn’t tell whether or not these were abstracts, but I put the show on my list & saw it before I read Farago’s review.

Turns out that the three huge, pretty-pretty paintings in the show are untitled but hyper-realistic renditions of sunsets (or sunrises), each divided up into three canvases and pretentiously labeled “oil on canvas in three parts” (why not “triptychs,” the accepted artistic name for a three-part canvas)?

They reminded me of Ronnie Landfield’s semi-abstract landscapes in two of three cases, as they replicated Landfield’s practice of being heavier at the bottom (red clouds) and lighter at the top (pale blue sky), but in the third case, Stingel had put dark clouds at the top of the painting, balancing it better.

The paintings were so pretty, though, that I couldn’t see why Gagosian was hanging them. When it comes to contemporaries, this gallery is apt to be into more obviously “challenging” art, so I concluded that Stingel must be making fun of the putative emptiness of abstraction, a common postmodernist meme.

My conclusion was reinforced by the display on the lower floor of the gallery, where two more paintings by Stingel were more plainly intended to comment sarcastically on abstraction by being completely covered with wallpaper-like designs.

Back at my computer, I did a little homework on Stingel. It turns out he was born in 1956 in Merano, Italy (which is a town close to the Austrian border; about half the population in it speaks German—presumably accounting for Stingel’s non-Italian, Germanic name).

He has become fairly well-known with a lot of typically postmodernist art, including conceptualism, installations and fooling around with painting in a variety of ways.

I then read Farago’s review. Seems he was surprised by the banality and “utter blankness” of the canvases of this “deep-thinking” artist, and concluded that “this is the first time I have ever thought of him as cynical.”

But cynicism has been the essence of the postmodernist enterprise since the 50s, when the first generation of postmodernism worked off its bitterness at its own inability to respond to abstract expressionism by making fun of it.

Most of the fun was made by reverting to representation that was as banal as possible (a bed, a coffee can stuffed with paint brushes, soup cans, comic strips, etc.) but the underlying cynical spirit, over the decades, has also leached into abstraction as ugly and/or meaningless as possible (see comment on Stella, above).


After strolling down the Upper East Side, I went to Brooklyn, to see “In the Balance” in Vinegar Hills. Neddi Heller, the artist who proposed the show, and chose its theme (the balance between art & life) had been at Sideshow when I was viewing Louise P. Sloane’s exhibition there.

She gave me an invitation to “In the Balance” and said that Richard Timperio, proprietor of Sideshow but also a painter in his own right, had a picture in her show, so I made a point of getting there.

It turned out to be a cozy little affair with modestly-scaled paintings, drawings, sculpture, collages, jewelry and photographs by maybe 15 or 20 friends and friends of friends crowded into a smallish square room.

Nothing was that brilliant, but all of it – praises be! --- was sincere. Not an iota of cynicism in the place.

The space is owned by Ursula Clark, an artist who stopped by when I was there, and pointed out her contribution to the show. On desk duty when I visited the show was another of the artists in it, Iris Lavy.

After I’d admired all their work, I looked to see what else stood out.

Here I’d mention the abstract sculpture by Tadashi Hashimoto, the statue of a standing woman by Mark Lariviere, two small abstract paintings by Mary Jane Murgolo, “Centaur,” a whimsical small painting by Fred Pierce Nelson, “Louis,” a sturdy portrait head by Richard Brachman, and a deft drawing of a monster mole-like animal by Ethan Cornell.

Heller has three quite nice pictures in this show, two abstracts and a representational painting -- of a sparrow.


Hauser & Wirth has within the last year or two begun to represent the estates of both Arshile Gorky & David Smith. And this fall, it has mounted large, ambitious exhibitions of both artists – Gorky in its gallery on the Upper East Side, and Smith, in its downtown gallery in Chelsea.

Both estates, I would guess, offer similar challenges to any gallery that wants to represent them – and presumably sell work from them. Both Gorky (ca. 1902 – 1948) and Smith (1906 – 1965) are giants from the first generation of abstract expressionism, so they have been internationally famous for well over half a century, and the work left in their estates when they died has probably been pretty well picked over by now (especially since both died prematurely).

Any show that wants to adequately dramatize their genius is going to have to rely on a number of loans, and furthermore, think up creative ways to combine those loans with work still in the estate so that the estate’s work at least brings something to the table.

At first glance, the Gorky show didn’t seem primed to fulfill this agenda, as there is no work from the estate in it (instead there are seven museum-type loans and 25 from private collections). As organized by Saskia Spender, the artist’s granddaughter and president of the Arshile Gorky Foundation, the top priority for this exhibition is “to provide fresh insight into the work of this American master.”

I haven’t read the catalog, but judging from the press release, the title of the show and the effusive review in The New York Times by Holland Cotter, the “fresh insight” is that Gorky was all about landscape, so the work on view has presumably been chosen to support this interpretation of his work.

Well, as we all know – even if we didn’t have Ronnie Landfield & Rudolf Stingel to remind us – landscape and abstract painting are often presumed to be related, and since the public likes landscape better than abstraction, it may be that celebrating an abstract artist as a landscape painter may render his work yet more accessible.

The trouble with using Gorky in this way is that his work is very abstract, and like all abstraction, multireferential – which is to say, it can be read many ways.

Moreover, in Gorky’s case, it has been.

Back in the 1950s, the heyday of the art critic Harold Rosenberg, art lovers were encouraged to find surrealist-type imagery in Gorky’s paintings, including plenty of female (and maybe also male) body parts.

In the 70s and 80s, Harry Rand did a provocative dissertation, which ultimately became a book, and showed how a number of Gorky’s most famous paintings are fanciful figure studies of his family and himself, sometimes in landscape settings, but also sometimes in domestic interiors.

I heard Rand give a very persuasive talk about his interpretations when I was still in graduate school. (Full disclosure: he subsequently served as a very sympathetic and supportive advisor to me in 1980-81, when I had a fellowship to write my dissertation at what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum.)

In the show at Hauser & Wirth, I found that 11 of the 32 pictures on view had landscape-related titles, but only rarely (if at all) was the imagery clearly landscape.

The oil at the entry, though entitled “Scent of Apricots on the Fields” (1944), looked to me much more like a Cézannian still life, showing a platter of fruit on a table (and we know from Gorky’s earlier work that he admired Cézanne).

The oil “Painting” (1947-1948) looked to me a lot like a picture of an artist standing in front of his easel, possibly with a model in the right foreground. This subject was often explored by Picasso in the 1920s & 30s (and again, we know from Gorky’s earlier work that he admired Picasso).

Elsewhere in the show is an untitled vertical oil from 1945 in a heavy dark wood frame; my notes on it read, “Handsome but harsh; looks like a hatted standing figure to me but what do I know?”

One of the better drawings in the show is entitled “Theme for Pastoral” (1946). Yet my notes on it read, “Lotsa little people with hairy heads.”

I’m not saying that any of my interpretations are the only possible ones; just that these paintings, as abstractions, are multireferential, and that the case for Gorky being all about landscape -- for me -- remains unproven.

A more serious problem is the quality of the show. Almost none of the oils have the complexity and richness of Gorky's best work, and too many of the drawings look unfinished and only slightly colored.

This is not Gorky at his best.

When I saw this show, I thought "I guess I'm just not a Gorky person," but after I got home, I remembered that I hadn't felt that way about other Gorky shows I'd seen.

I dug out my enthusiastic review of the great Gorky retrospective I'd seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2009, and the catalog for it, with its many reproductions of top-quality paintings by Gorky.

I also dug out my very favorable review of the Gorky drawings show I'd seen at the Whitney in 2003.

Although I don't have the catalog for it, I remember the show itself with even more affection -- possibly because it was the first time I'd related to Gorky on a gut level.

I feel sorry for all the New Yorkers who are going to think that the show at Hauser & Wirth is as good as Gorky got. He's really much, much better --far richer, more flamboyant and more various.

And I am reminded of the very similar situation at Paul Kasmin, with his recent early Motherwell show, which I reviewed earlier this autumn. The short form of that review is that I only knew what a second-rate show it was because I'd already seen a first-rate one out of town.


I am happy to report, however, that the show prompted by Hauser & Wirth's acquisition of the David Smith Estate comes off a lot more enjoyably.

In fact, it is the most diverting large show I've seen at a gallery in a long time.

As organized by Peter Stevens, executive director of the Estate of David Smith, it has a nice practical (and practicable) aim in mind: to celebrate this master sculptor as a man for all media – gifted not only in the creation of three dimensional works, but in painting, drawing, collage and photography as well.

To this end, the show includes about 60 works, ranging in date from the 1930s through the 1950s. About half of them are from the estate, a third from private collections, and the remainder from museums.

All of the work from museums is top-quality sculpture, and includes some of my favorites, among them “Running Daughter” (1956-60), from the Whitney, and “Tanktotem IV” (1953), from the Albright-Knox.

About two-thirds of the work from private collections, too, is top-quality sculpture, including “The Five Spring” (1955-56), a singularly inspired use of found materials (machine parts), and the neat little “Bathers” (1940), a steel piece on the artist’s wood pedestal that strangely enough suggests one woman stepping on the other’s reclining body.

The estate, too, offers seven sculptures, all on the small side. Most are from the 1930s, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be delightful.

Among the more entertaining are the little “Bent Blade Plane” (1936), a steel and iron simplified reclining figure, and the coy little “Construction” (1932), made of wood, bronze, coral, lead and paint.

Nor could I find any negatives to apply to “10/6/53” (1953), a sweet though abbreviated 20-inch- high steel (on the artist’s bronze base) that -- for reasons I don’t quite understand -- reminded me of a little girl playing jump rope.

(Maybe it was the knowledge that the artist, in those remote days before what seems like the entire female population began attacking the entire male population for sexual harassment, thought of all of his sculptures as girls.

(Are art historians going to have to find new “interpretations” to every art work from Titian’s “Rape of Europa” to “The Turkish Bath” of Ingres in order to stay on the windy side of contemporary politics? But I digress.)

Anyway, the remaining half of the 60 objects in the David Smith show, including one-third of the work from the private collections and two-thirds of the work from the estate, is two-dimensional: paintings, photographs, drawings and collages.

Some of the early photographs, of carefully-arranged still-life materials, are very appealing, and some of the early drawings are pretty good.

However, in the realm of the oil paintings, there is just no denying that Smith in the 1930s and 40s couldn’t escape the long shadows cast by Picasso and the French surrealists, nor are the black-and-white abstractions on paper that he graduated to in the 1950s all that interesting, either.

Still, the way in which these two-dimensional works are integrated into this show and related to the three-dimensional work is nothing short of inspired. It was a pleasure of the highest order for me to go around this display, marveling at the ingenious juxtapositions that Executive Director Stevens has used to put it all together.

This brilliant concept has been made possible by resolutely rejecting chronology, and if necessary displaying art from different decades together – as the gallery’s press release has it, the better “to elucidate the connections between [Smith’s] earliest inspirations and his lifelong investigation of their potential.”

At the entrance, for example, we start out with a centerpiece of the tall and willowy stainless-steel “Three Circles” (1958-59), from the Wadsworth Athenaeum. This sculpture is totally individual and the most recent work in the show.

Hanging on the partition behind it are two of the earliest works in the show. One is a very nice, very small gelatin silver print (ca. 1931-33), showing the tableau of a conch shell and perhaps some small sculpture (?).

The other is a somewhat larger untitled painting (ca. 1930). This painting shows a female head in profile and is definitely very ‘30s Picasso.

But – and here’s the point of the exercise -- both the curved conch shell in the photograph and the curve of the head in the painting underline the circular themes of the sculpture.

This group is complimented by another arrangement in the same area, with – in the foreground, two more sculptures. One is the splendidly buxom “Agricola VIII” (1952), a steel and bronze from a private collection, and the other, a very small steel-and-bronze “Reclining Figure” (1935) from the estate that I absolutely wigged out over.

On the partition behind hang another gelatin silver print & two ink drawings, also from the estate and again suggesting analogies with the sculpture.

Nobody should try and confuse “David Smith: Origins & Innovations” with a definitive retrospective, such as I saw at the Guggenheim in 2006 – and before then, in 1969.

There are none of Smith’s best-known and bigger masterpieces here, no “Australia,” no “Hudson River Landscape,” no “Cubis” from the 60s.

But a cool and perceptive eye has chosen examples of Smith’s oeuvre that not only illustrate the show’s thesis but also demonstrate that even in his lesser sculptures he maintained the same powerful muscularity, superb wit and masterful craftsmanship.

However we may dispute Smith’s achievements in two-dimensional media, everything looks at the very least good in this show, and the combinations really work together.

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