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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Adolph Gottlieb, Black on White, 1967.  Oil on linen, 60 x 72 in. (152.4 x 182.9 cm.)  Courtesy of Helwaser Gallery, New York. Photo: Hadi Fallahpisheh

Well, the big news of the moment is, of course, the world-wide spread of COVID-19, and it affects everything else.  Here on a Saturday in the Big Apple, auto traffic is light and buses are nearly empty, but almost anyplace that sells reasonably-priced food, from supermarkets to coffee-and-bagel shops, is doing capacity business. For New Yorkers (and maybe all Americans) the solution to every problem, it would appear, is EAT!


As almost all museums in New York, and most of the galleries, are closed, I don't know how long I will be able to continue my reviewing activities in this column, but I did manage to visit The Armory Show, on Piers 90 and 94, and "The Art Show," at the Park Avenue Armory.  Attendance was on the light side when I was there, especially at the Armory Show, but I prefer to think that this was due to the fear of contracting COVID-19 as opposed to any lessening of interest in the art scene per se.


This will have been the last appearance of The Armory Show in March, and on the Hudson River.  The day after it closed, The New York Times reported that the next Armory Show will be held September 9 to 12, 2021, in the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, on Eleventh Avenue between 34th and 40th Streets. 


This information came in an article by Josie Thaddeus Johns, who had conducted a telephone interview with Nicole Berry, executive director of the Armory Show.  The article suggested that the new location would be more convenient to Chelsea's galleries, and the new date would coincide with the opening of a new art season, providing out-of-town visitors with additional incentives to visit.


The 34-year-old convention center is named for Jacob K. Javits (1904-1986), longtime U.S. Senator for New York and a stellar example of that all-but-extinct brand of politico, a truly liberal Republican.   The center hosts the New York International Auto Show, the New York Boat Show, Book Expo (the publishing industry's annual gabfest), and even New York Comic Con (where comic-book fans come face-to-face with creators of their idols). 


Having attended only Book Expo, it is not immediately clear to me whether the center will accommodate more or fewer booths for galleries.  Over the years, I've noted a very slight diminution in the numbers of galleries represented at the Armory Show – very slight, but still not exactly a sign of growth.


In 2017, the total was 210; in 2018 and 2019, both 195.  This year, there were 183 regular booths, plus another four with "platforms" (special displays) for a total of 187.  On the other hand, the Javits Center is currently undergoing a $1.5 billion facelift, due for completion in March 2021, according to Johns. Thus there will be additional visitor amenities, and new outdoor spaces, which the fair will use for open-air art events.


What, exactly, was to be seen at The Armory Show this year?


Not a whole lot of brilliant art. Mostly acres and acres of uninspired painting, predominantly abstract but also a sizeable smattering of representational work.


The abstractions were dominated by gross color and (deliberately?) clumsy drawing.  The most that could be said for them was the proliferation of media that had gone into their making: the labels, listing all of these many ingredients, were often more interesting than the works themselves.


The representational paintings sometimes showed a tendency toward a kind of rubbery surrealism, though when it avoided this "trend," it could be quite good.  Still popular, though hardly news, were the photo-realistic portraits of Kehinde Wiley.  I spotted examples of such work in at least three gallery booths, and they stood head and shoulders above the pseudo-surrealism.


Another painting that stood out, in the booth of Roberts Projects of Los Angeles, was a large floral still life done this year by a Brit named Daniel Crews-Chubb, and called "Flowers (yellow, pink, green)." The bold scratchiness of the brushwork, simplicity of  composition, and quantities of bare canvas looked so good that they belied the kitchen-sink aspects of the media employed—the label listed these as "oil, pastel, acrylic, ink, charcoal, spray paint, coarse pumice gel and collaged fabrics on canvas."


Maybe it's just because my eyes tend to glaze over when confronted by an "interesting object," but there seemed to be fewer of these around in this particular edition of the Armory Show.  The only one that stood out was a 1960s retread by Ed and Nancy Kienholz called "The Caddy Court" and displayed by L.A. Louver of Los Angeles.


This was a large & elaborate assemblage made of a 1966 Dodge van spliced in between the front and back halves of a shiny white 1978 Cadillac to create the stretch limo of all time.  It had a little puppet-theater-like construction in the Dodge, and eager visitors were lining up to peek inside of it when I was there.  Naturally I lined up, too, and eventually got to see a little tableau inside the puppet theater with 9 little animal's-head skulls and/or mummies dressed in Supreme Court robes and presumably presiding over a roadside kangaroo court. 


Ed Kienholz and his fifth wife, Nancy, seem to have created this in 1986-1987 because people were scared of the U.S. Supreme Court even then (they should see it now), And, although this assemblage was very nice, I really prefer Ed's earlier work, made in the 1960s (before he married Nancy) and distinguished by his memorable ability to combine fresh ideas with a crusty, antique finish that lent them an amazingly timeless allure. 


The most famous of these is the "Back Seat Dodge '38" (1964), showing a couple doing you-know-what,  though I also love his "The State Hospital" (1964-66), a telling commentary on his early job as an orderly in yes, a state mental institution.


That said, there was very little else on Pier 94—the "contemporary" pier – that came to me as "news."  Michael Rosenfeld had a partition with a lot of little pictures by artists in his stable, many of whom had been featured in his "Global Pops Back into View" that I reviewed earlier this winter. 


Bernard Jacobson  featured larger paintings by William Tillyer, an English abstract painter, but in an alcove at the back of his space he had a few delicious little Matisse etchings and one or maybe two very small Motherwell "Elegies" on paper (indeed, I would see still more of those little paper "Elegies" elsewhere). 


Kasmin had an elaborate set of cork furniture with a cork fireplace in back, embellished with a brass fire screen and a set of brass fireplace tools. The whole was designed to look like a living room and furnished with many small works. In addition to the "Elegy," I saw a small Robert Indiana "Love" sculpture, and several of those lovely photographs by Brancusi of his own sculpture.


Moving on to Pier 90, I found the "historical" section led off by Susan Sheehan, a Manhattan print gallery.  It had several lovely works by Helen Frankenthaler, including a large color woodcut from "Tales Of Genji" (1998) .  


Just in back of Sheehan was the booth of Hollis Taggart. Its interior was hung with a large number of paintings by Michael (Corinne) West, whose work I discussed when Taggart showed it in his booth last year.   But Taggart also had three paintings by Hofmann on view: "Capriccio" (1955), "Red Lamp" (1955), and "Mirage" (1962).  All were fine paintings, and I was happy to see them – especially the dots and dashes of "Red Lamp."


Also on view, at the booth of Archeus/Post Modern of London was a selection of  "black" prints and paintings by 100-year-old Pierre Soulages, the 11 prints dating from 1952 to 1988 and the 5 paintings done between 2004 and 2017.  What seems to have been a similar show of these paintings was held in Manhattan last fall, and several people told me I should see it (though I didn't feel quite up to it, so I didn't go.)


Once I saw the "outre-noir" paintings at the Armory Show, I could understand why they had attracted such attention: they had raised or sculpted surfaces, and to this extent must have reminded some observers of the "baroque" paintings of Jules Olitski from the 1980s.  I'm not saying that the all-black Soulages weren't fine paintings, too. They had a crisp hard surface that was very appealing, but in a class with Olitski?  No.


In the end, it was the Helwaser booth that most held my attention.  I had never heard of this gallery before, but it turns out to have moved from Paris to New York in 2008, and to its current location, 833 Madison, last year. At the moment, like seemingly every other gallery in New York, it is closed for the duration, but under normal circumstances, according to its website, it seeks a dialogue between current and earlier art.


I had been told there was a Noland at the Armory Show, and Helwaser had a very sweet little and late one – "Mysteries: Jamaica" (2000).  I later learned that Barbara Mathes had also had a Noland on view, but I was in a weakened condition by that stage of the game, and found so many other goodies at Helwaser that I just decided to wind up my visit there.


In addition to the Noland, it had a really wild small Motherwell – very gestural, but totally different from those endless "Elegies," – pink & baby blue splashed onto a largely bare canvas. Title: "Beside the Sea, No. 4," (1966). 


In addition, the centerpiece of the booth was a large and similarly atypical Hofmann, "Composition #2, 1951."  This one had four hard-edged, irregular but geometric shapes – orange, brown, blue and green, floating on a happy sea of yellow.  I've heard it said somewhere that this artist sang as he painted.  Maybe he didn't, but this picture sure looked like a song.


Best of all was the large selection of works by Adolph Gottlieb, four in all. The runner-up for my favorite was the vertical "Green Disc" (1969).  As the name implies, it had a  green orb at the center/top, and in the lower right-hand corner, a modest series of short multicolored strokes. But carrying the contrast between big and little, hard & soft yet further is "Black on White" (1967).


This horizontal canvas has a big, soft, blotchy row of a cross, two curves and two dabs in black daringly off-center across the bottom—and a super-fine straight and hard-edged line of brown across the top.  It is yet another variant on Gottlieb's "Imaginary Landscape" series, another proof of his endless creativity.






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