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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."



Dan Christensen at Leslie Feely. Courtesy Leslie Feely.
Items 4 through 11: conventional venues—in Chelsea: 4) Fred Stonehouse at Howard Scott; 5) Martha Armstrong at Bowery; 6) William Christine at Prince Street; 7) Janie Paul at Blue Mountain; 8) Frank Stella at Paul Kasmin (293 Tenth); 9) Tai Xiangzhou at Paul Kasmin (297 Tenth); 10) Dan Christensen at Berry Campbell; finally (eek! How unfashionable!) on the Upper East Side,11) Dan Christensen (and others) at Leslie Feely.

1) “Fred Stonehouse: Ghosts of Padua” was the first show I hit in my stroll through Chelsea on September 26. It’s at Howard Scott, on West 20th Street (through October 17). This is the artist’s eighth solo show here and one of many in the U.S., Latin America and Europe since he began exhibiting in the Middle West in the early 80s.

Stonehouse was born in Milwaukee in 1960, and still teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Although this show is said to have been inspired by a recent trip to Italy, the style of its small acrylics on panel (the best part of the show) summon up less Renaissance frescoes than more recent family ties..

What I see is a combination of academic or illusionist surrealism with the self-taught simplicity of 18th century frontier American limners.

In other words, these pictures remind me more of the surrealistic Chicago School of Karl Wirsum and the rest of the Hairy Who -- whose work I used to see at Frumkin on West 57th Street back in the 1960s.

Still, Stonehouse’s work isn’t as abrasive as that of those ‘60s Chicago painters. It’s more whimsical, and as such, comparatively lighthearted. The characters in these paintings are odd little humanoids with large flat-topped, nearly bald heads, sometimes small transparent wings and either no bodies at all or animal ones.

Typically, these paintings bear cryptic little messages on them, too. Those on the paintings decorating the announcement, for example, read “Seduction of the Scapegoat” and “The Folly of Romance.”

I’m not sure I would want one of these little creatures, however ingratiating, on my own walls, but I can easily see how lots of other people would.

5), 6), and 7): Bowery, Blue Mountain & Prince Street. In the same building on West 25th Street, on the same floor, sit these three artists’ cooperatives,

This isn’t the first time I’ve been here—I’ve been to at least a couple of likable shows by Temma Bell at the Bowery, and I understand that I just missed another goody by Peter Malone at Blue Mountain last spring.

None of these cooperatives is “cutting edge.” All tend to display well-done traditional representational work. Still, if that’s what you make, these three galleries are among the very few in Chelsea where you may be able to get your work displayed.

To be sure, it costs—you have to apply, and if you’re accepted, there is likely to be an initiation fee, plus monthly dues.

On top of that, you may have to wait three years – and participate in the gallery’s operation personally (especially while your show is up). Nor can you expect any of our buzzier critics to show up.

But hey! Once in a blue moon, one of them actually does. This time, it was Roberta Smith, who reviewed “Martha Armstrong East to West: Recent Paintings” at the Bowery in the NY Times for September 24 (closed October 3)

I was rather touched by Smith doing this, considering the whoop-de-doo installations, videos, performance art, and multi-media “paintings” and “sculpture” that she normally regales her readers with—and that, I suspect, they mostly prefer..

It was as though she had suddenly said to herself, my goodness! We mustn’t forget to remind our readers – from time to time, anyway -- that some artists in town still go in for paint on canvas. God bless her for remembering that.

In her review, she even mentioned some younger painters who, it seems, are also making traditional, representational painting. Interesting, no?

I had two reasons to visit this scene. One was Smith’s review, and the other was an announcement I had received for “Janie Paul: Proximities” at Blue Mountain (closed October 3).

The artist had sent it to me at the suggestion of James Little, whose work I recently reviewed, and the return address was Ann Arbor, Michigan.

It turns out that although Paul teaches art through the University of Michigan to incarcerated artists and Detroit school children, she was born in Massachusetts, has a BA (in painting) from Bennington, an MA (in painting) from Hunter & a PhD (in art education) from NYU. Lots of big-city background here.

Once I got to the Bowery and Blue Mountain, I decided that I had to check out Prince Street, too. It was showing “William Christine Persistence: New Oils and Watercolors” (closed October 3).

My fantasy was that Smith had cased all three galleries before she decided which to review. And such is my childlike frame of reference that I found myself likening her possible experience to that of Goldilocks in the house of the three bears.

First, you will remember, Goldilocks tried Papa Bear’s porridge, and it was too hot. Then she tried Momma Bear’s porridge, and it was too cold. Finally, she tried Baby Bear’s, and it was JUST RIGHT – so she ate it all up.

First, I fantasized, Smith looked at Christine’s work in Prince Street, which was reasonably attractive little landscapes, but maybe not quite professional enough, and a little too representational.

Then she tried Paul’s work in Blue Mountain. Although it included some black-and-white landscapes, most of the show was two kinds of abstractions, and maybe this was a little too abstract for her purposes on this occasion.

Finally, Smith would have come to Armstrong’s work in the Bowery. It was landscapes, too, but structured into broadly-based, semi-abstract sweeps of color. This happy medium she decided was JUST RIGHT.

Me, I agree that Armstrong’s work was worthy, but maybe a little mannered -- the best of the Paul exhibition had more life.

The first third of it--small, dully-colored wax or graphite pieces on panel with biomorphic imagery--didn’t work for me, but the last third – ultra-realistic black-and-white landscapes on paper-- was crisp and decisive, especially #23, “Rabun Gap” and #25, “Huron River at Dusk.”

Best of all was the middle third--small, brightly colored, abstract gouaches or gouache & watercolor pieces on paper with rectilinear shapes in them, vaguely reminiscent of Klee but more abstract.

All were sensitive, delicate & clever, notably #20, “Clarion 3,” with its flag-like rectangles and above all, #13, “Patsy,” cheerily flaunting its big yellow square.

8) & 9) two galleries in the burgeoning Paul Kasmin empire: “Frank Stella: Shape as Form” at 293 Tenth Avenue (through October 10) and “Tai Xiangzhou: Celestial Tales” at 297 Tenth (closed October 3).

The Stella show was obviously mounted to take advantage of the Stella retrospective that opens at the new Whitney on October 30. It’s a way of saying, look here folks, if you like Stella’s work, you can buy some here. As I plan to review the retrospective, I shall forgo extended comment on this show.

Instead, I shall merely advise my readers that if they're in the market for a Stella, here are samples of many phases of this protean artist’s output, from a proto-Protractor Series canvas from 1966 to a digitally-formatted, multimedia conglomeration of 2003 (though no black “pinstripe” paintings or bronze ones from the late 50s or early 60s. Maybe those are all in museums by now).

Tai, it seems, is having his first show with Kasmin, though he is a mid-career Chinese artist (b. 1968). He has a doctorate from what seems to be one of those deliciously academic Chinese art schools where they still imbue their pupils with the traditional techniques of Soviet realism.

In addition, he has been studying even more ancient Chinese techniques of ink painting on paper or silk with a modern master of this medium for more than a decade.

I was hoping that here I would find some of those fantastic Chinese productions that combine academic technique with wildly imaginative figurative fantasies, but –as with the last Armory Show on the Hudson – it seems that this kind of Chinese painting is out of fashion, and abstraction instead is In.

Thus, what we had at Kasmin was huge and very vigorous sepia-and-gray abstract compositions, painted with ink on silk or paper.

They were filled with cloud-like forms that piled wildly up and around and back and down again, suggestive of many different allusions, both in the external world and in Western art history.

“Celestial Chaos Number One, 2014,” for example, a vast horizontal, reminded me of a cloud-covered fresco ceiling by Tiepolo. “Celestial Chaos Number Two, 2014,” another horizontal, evoked associations with a boiling, foamy sea.

“Celestial Chaos Number Two, 2015,” a vertical, looked like a hell by Bosch or the Sistine Chapel’s “Last Judgment” by Michelangelo. “Celestial Chaos Number Three, 2015,” a third horizontal, made me think of a pair of huge, widely-spaced eyes, or God stretching out his hand to give man life in the Sistine Chapel’s “Creation of Adam.”

Maybe the best way to summarize all this is to say that Tai’s paintings were very grand in their ambition & very stimulating to the imagination. More power to him.

10) As my last report from Chelsea, we have the main reason I’d chosen to visit the neighborhood that day: “Dan Christensen” a large retrospective show at Berry Campbell (through October 17).

Since this is the inaugural exhibition to this gallery’s newly-expanded space, it was particularly newsworthy.

Though I couldn’t attend the opening reception myself, I understand that it drew hundreds of people, many of whom had to stand outside on the street (fortunately, the weather was still warm).

Christensen (1942-2007) was the last of the color-field painters to make it big in the Sixties, and right around 1968 and1969, he was hot, hot, hot.

In July 1968, he and his work were reproduced in color in a major article in Newsweek on the full range of “The New Art: It’s Way, Way Out.”

The article was originally intended as the cover story, with a conceptualist artist as the cover boy (most likely, Bruce Nauman, though a less reliable source says it was really Joseph Kosuth).

But that very week, Soviet-led Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia, and put an end to its brief period of liberation, the “Prague Spring.”

As Newsweek was first and foremost a newsweekly, it had to confine its take on “The New Art” to an “inside cover,” and put the beleaguered president of Czechoslovakia on the front of its magazine instead.

A year later, in May 1969, Time got around to featuring Christensen, this time as one of two young painters who were billed as “romantic minimalists.”

The painting by Christensen that the magazine reproduced in color was one of the wonderful spray paintings he was doing at the time --with narrow colored lines that looped and whirled about.

These lines had been created by the tight nozzle of a spray gun, swooping up, down and around the surface of the canvas—the middle of it as well as its periphery..

The other painter in that Time story was Ralph Humphrey. He was more a minimalist than a romantic – and not at all a color-field painter—but the writer of that story (me) was going through a transitional period.

She was knocking herself out to balance her recently-developed passionate preference for color-field painting with what she perceived as her duty to Time’s readers to keep them posted on every art-world development, across the board—and regardless of whether she liked it or not..

By the end of the summer, she’d given up on that and abandoned Time. Nor did she see or hear much about Christensen again for at least a decade.

By the 1980s or 1990s, she became aware that he was continuing to paint and exhibit, but the earliest she can remember writing an extended tribute to him was with his obituary in January 2007.

Since that time – according to the “selected” list of solo exhibitions at the Christensen website – his work has been seen in four gallery exhibitions at Spanierman, which represented the estate, five at Lew Allen, in Santa Fe, and one at Elaine Baker, in Boca Raton.

He has also had a retrospective at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, which traveled to the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, Nebraska.

That’s a lot of exposure, more than one show a year, and I feel sure that all these shows have given a lot of pleasure to their viewers.

Enough pleasure so that over the years, I would imagine, a lot of these paintings have been sold.

How many are left in the estate – to which Berry Campbell has succeeded – I do not know.

All of which brings me to the current show at Berry Campbell. As it's a major exhibition, with 24 paintings on its checklist, I very much wish I could rave about it from beginning to end, but I’m afraid that I found it uneven.

Whether this situation is due to poor selection, or whether the show’s organizers simply did the best they could with what they had, is not for me to say. I can only record my response to what I saw on view.

Some of the work I liked very much. Some of it I liked at least well enough to consider it also worthy of mention.

At his best, Christensen was a very creative, resourceful artist with a highly pleasurable sense of color.

Some of the work in this show I thought might be of historical value, fit for a study collection somewhere or of interest to somebody who has assembled a huge collection of the greatest Christensens and wants to surround them with work showing where they came from, maybe even where they went.

Some of the rest of the paintings in the show did nothing for me, but you know, I’m only one viewer. Other viewers may feel differently—and I’m not going to linger on work that for me didn’t come off. Rather, I shall focus on the triumphs.

To begin with, there is the one big picture from the period when Christensen was at the top of his game – and the top of his fame.

This picture is “Dorado” (1968). Its sprayed-on lines swing along--up down and around, but in an unpredictable, wildly, and most enjoyable irregular pattern-- like a lunatic ballet dancer or the music in a marching band on OxyContin. Terrific!

Also important is the smaller untitled painting from 1967, with a heavy pile of layered dark pink stripes atop a field of massy blue.

This is a transitional painting from the minimalism that Christensen had adopted when he first came to New York and the lyrical abstraction of his “Dorado” period—but beyond that, worthwhile in its own right, very tight and neat and sober.

The earliest painting in the show, a 1966 untitled work, belongs to Christensen’s minimalist period, with vertically-piled rows of short golden strips on a puce-colored field.

I see this as the ugly duckling before the swan – but it may also be one of those works that appeal to collectors with an interest in Christiansen’s roots—or those legions of art lovers who care more for minimalism than color-field anyway

Among the later works that I got a kick out of is “Sandu”(1972). This is a tall, very narrow canvas, mostly covered with a creamy, scraped-on coat of frosty white, but also with an undercoat of mauve and peach peeping through.

Also effective is “Philippine Flight” (1976), another picture with thick, loose paint and creamy surfaces in pinks, blues, whites and golds.

Christensen returned to sprayed-on lines at two later stages in his career, in the late 80s and early in the 21st century.

In the 80s, these sprayed-on lines were still as soft and fuzzy as they had been in the 1960s, but they were regular and more likely to circle the perimeters of the canvas as opposed to arching straight across it.

Some of the colors could be lovely, too, as with “Fandango” (1988), with ovals in the center of the canvas of yellow, blue and red on a pinkish field.

“Fandango” is hung horizontally in the show and reproduced vertically in the sweet little catalog—looks grand either way.

Also worthy of mention are "Couvade" (1979) and "King's P0int" (2002).

In the last years of his life, Christensen used the spray gun to create pencil-thin lines in heavy paint. These are inscribed as a series of regular loops resembling a Slinky on opaque fields of color, often in smaller paintings.

Most of these Slinky-like pictures remind me of the miniature targets that Kenneth Noland was making at about the same time: both struck me as attempts to revisit former glories on a more salable scale but suffering from the weakness of old age.

Still, occasionally these late Christensens do come off, as witness the zinger “Green Glow” (2004). With its roll of loops of reds & greens on a mustard field, it looks divinely cool over the reception desk and decorating the catalog cover.

11) And finally, we return to the Upper East Side, to see “Dan Christensen: Paintings from 1970 to 1989” at Leslie Feely (extended through October 31).

The front gallery at Leslie Feely has work by Richard Diebenkorn. He doesn’t ring my chimes, but he may yours. I made a beeline for the back gallery—which for me has the most perfect little art show at this moment in New York.

It has just four paintings, all by Dan Christensen. Every one is a winner, even though none come from the period when Clement Greenberg was calling him ”one of the painters on whom the course of American art depends.”

Two are from the later 80s, when Christensen revisited his spray technique for the first time, but this time using it to create circles or ovals hugging the perimeter of his canvases instead of snaking across their centers.

These two are the ones seen in the photograph accompanying this review.

“Greenglo” (1988) has a soft green field in the center, while “Seminole” (1989) has a field of soft magenta.

On the walls facing them are two more rewarding pictures.

“Yellow Bunker” (1970) is from what is officially known as Christensen’s “Plaid” series. Actually – with their simple, linear shapes and muted colors -- these paintings have more to do with a return to minimalism than anything else.

Though I’m not wild about minimalism, “Yellow Bunker” looks very good (better than the Plaid painting at Berry Campbell).

The open catalog at Feely from Christensen’s show at the Kemper Museum, with its reproduction of “Yellow Bunker,” identifies it as being from the collection of Michael Steiner.

The fourth painting is “Liberty” (1987). It is from the artist’s “Scrape” series, and lives up to this name, being a large squarish canvas with a deep red field and a large rectangle of horizontal rows of silvery blue, pink and white paint scraped or incised onto it. The effect is confident and accordingly commanding.

Nor is this all that may be seen at Leslie Feely. The chances are good that the sliding door leading to the director’s office in back will be open, and should you venture into it, you may get a load of this gallery’s inventory.

As this is not part of any formal exhibition, I can’t guarantee what will be there when you get there, but when I did, I saw a large, dark, powerful Olitski spray painting (1967), an unusual Noland with lots of white (1969), a raffish poured Poons (1976), and two bustling little Caro table pieces (1978 & 1981).

All well worth contemplating.
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