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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."



"Lines Thicken: Stuart Davis in Black and White" at Paul Kasmin. Installation shot.

On September 28, Roberta Smith in The New York Times ran a long article about seven abstract painters having exhibitions in Manhattan. Along with Larry Poons, Frank Bowling, and Ed Clark – all of whom I too reviewed on September 28 -- she celebrated two further shows in Chelsea “Mary Weatherford: I’ve Seen Seven Gray Whales Go By” at Gagosian (closed October 15) and “Elizabeth Neel: Tangled on a Serpent Chair” at Mary Boone (closed October 27). On October 5, I saw these two shows, as well as "Lines Thicken: Stuart Davis in Black and White" at Paul Kasmin (through December 22).


People had started asking me if I’d seen the Weatherford and Neel shows. The pleas with regard to Weatherford (b. 1963) were particularly urgent, since John Elderfield, author of a humongous book on Helen Frankenthaler, and organizer of a Morris Louis retrospective when he was at MoMA, was said to like her work.

This would have impressed me more if I didn’t know that he’d also written books on a) Kurt Schwitters, the dada, and b) Jenny Saville, feminist YBA, while c) the last I heard, he was on Larry Gagosian’s payroll as a "consultant.”

Still, you can’t knock it till you’ve tried it, and God knows I’d love to add to my modest list of good younger abstractionists, so I went.

Once I got into Gagosian, though, I realized that I’d seen paintings by Mary Weatherford before.

Back in 2012, she’d had a show at Brennan & Griffin, on the Lower East Side, and Roberta Smith had rhapsodized about that show, too, suggesting that Weatherford’s abstract painting was somehow descended from Frankenthaler’s.

The fact that Smith said that Weatherford’s work was also descended from Keith Sonnier’s neon tubing didn’t register until I got there, and saw what a pretentious mix was involved.

I didn’t even like what I could see of the painting under the tubing draped across the canvases. The paint appeared to me wispy, washy and nervously over-agitated. Nor was it improved in the Gagosian show.

The gimmick of the neon tubing was still employed on even larger canvases (and Smith now appears aware that Bruce Nauman was another forerunner in the use of neon tubing).

But even the painting under the tubing didn’t hang together that well and the colors weren’t that rich, varied or subtle.

That seems to be the problem with postmodernist abstraction. Postmodernism itself originated as a reaction against abstraction (near-abstract Analytic Cubism, in the case of Duchamp, abstract expressionism, in the case of pop & its many descendants).

Subsequently, pomo discovered that abstract was still a terrifically high-prestige form of expression, so we had the birth of pomonian abstraction (an oxymoron if there ever was one).

It might be said to have originated with Duchamp’s “Large Glass” or "Tu m'"and to require being as anti-esthetic and “shocking” as were Duchamp'se urinal or (to take just one example of many) the red-stained bed of Robert Rauschenberg.

Next door to Weatherford at Gagosian, we had Elizabeth Neel at Mary Boone. Neel (b.1975) is the grand-daughter of Master Portraitist Alice Neel, and to judge from what I could see of her previous work online, she (unlike Weatherford) is still experimenting, so I can only comment on this one show.

Again, I could see a resemblance to Frankenthaler, at least to the extent that the paint in the earlier canvases in this show had been stained rather than smeared, à la Joan Mitchell (though the latest work showed Neel getting into the currently more fashionable Mitchell groove).

Offhand, I would say that Elizabeth Neel’s color sense is a tad better and more harmonious than Mary Weatherford’s, but there is still this same nervous agitation, and just like Weatherford she showed herself unwilling to submit her painting to viewers without gussying it up.

In Neel’s case, I could see strips of what looked like white paper tacked or glued on top of the paint, and according to Smith she also threw in textural rubbings of insects.

My notes read, “v. occasionally not too bad, though not really good either. Best: “Avian Clench” (2018).”

I understand that lots of other people admire these two painters -- including some people whose opinions on other subjects I often share. Well, as the Romans used to say in the old days, de gustibus non disputandum est.

But what a sad commentary the taste for these two is upon the current scene – in art and in society as a whole!


Strolling back to the subway, I decided to take in one or two of the many spaces that constitute Paul Kasmin. My original destination here was “Lee Krasner: Mural Studies” (closed October 27), at 297 Tenth Avenue, but these preparations for unrealized WPA projects didn’t ring my chimes either, so I moved on to Kasmin’s original space, at 293 Tenth Avenue. There the show was (and is) the Stuart Davis. Ah! What a relief! No need to give up on Chelsea yet!

Though Stuart Davis (1892-1964) is best known for his lively, brightly-colored semi-abstracts, there is no color in this show: it is all paintings and works on paper made of black lines on white fields, hung to perfection against puce-gray walls, and looking like a million dollars.

The earliest of the 15 works on view is a simple but completely recognizable “Still Life” ink drawing from 1925. The latest, done in 1964, is casein on canvas -- “Untitled (Black and White Variation on ‘Quinciette’)” --- that looks to me rather like the Guggenheim Museum.

The other compositions mostly range from floating totally abstract shapes to semi-representational ones that incorporate varied motifs, from nautical ones evoking the artist’s summers on Cape Ann to the pipe-and-tobacco motifs from his famous men’s room mural for Radio City Music Hall. Nine of the 15 are from the 1930s.

The mood is quiet, sedate, relaxed and uplifting. No nervous agitation here: this work cries out to be contemplated in peace and with the respect due to its quiet though cheerful idealism. What a world away it seems (and how nice to be able to escape to it from our troublesome present, if only for a few moments).

Kasmin has recently become exclusive worldwide representative of the estate of this pioneering early 20th century modernist. This show was curated by Priscilla Vail Caldwell in collaboration with the estate.

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