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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."



John Marin (1870–1953), Little Fir Tree, Deer Isle, 1921. Watercolor on paper, 16¾ x 13¼ inches. Signed and dated at lower right: Marin 21. Courtesy Menconi +Schoelkopf.




Three days later, and a lot more irritated, I report that in the Big Apple, all restaurants and even fast-food outlets like Dunkin' Donuts are now no longer allowed to serve eat-in customers.  If I want to go out & do the walking my knee surgeon recommends I am hard-pressed to find someplace to sit down – even if I am toting a takeout cup of coffee.  Still, I suppose I should be grateful that I have not yet been struck down by COVID-19, and am still able to report on my visit on Friday, February 29, to "The Art Show," as sponsored by The Art Dealers Association of America and held at the Park Avenue Armory.

I always enjoy "The Art Show" more than The Armory Show, and not only because their attitude toward the press is a lot more civilized than that of the Armory Show.  From what I can tell, The Armory Show has recently decided that only sycophants are entitled to press passes, whereas "The Art Show" welcomes all members of the working media.  True, because the ADAA show is composed exclusively of U.S. dealers, it customarily displays less art by foreign artists.  On the other hand, it is far more open to "historical" art, both European and American, so the percentage of gallery displays that I really want to talk about is higher.

Finally, because this year's edition showcased only about 70 galleries, it was a lot more manageable than the Armory Show – not least, because it was far more generously supplied with seating for visitors.   All in all, it was a most pleasurable experience.


That said, I have to confess that few if indeed any of the many contemporary artists represented drove me to wild ecstasy.   I may of course not have seen them all, but of those I did see, April Gornik's large monochromatic photorealistic studies of land, sea and sky in charcoal and pastel at Miles McEnery were about the best – though I find that my notes read, "Drahmatic, oh so drahmatic, m'dear!"

Some of the historical art on view seemingly reflected a desire to discover ancestor-figures for the current wave of latter-day surrealists, and attempted to create an alternative reality for American painting in the 1940s and 1950s.  Here I mean Jonathan Boos, whose show was titled "Psychological Realism: Painting a World Not Quite Aright," and Hirschl & Adler, whose show was titled "Magic/Sur Realism: Truths beyond the Real in American Art."


The Boos gallery's "psychological realists" reminded me very much of what the Art page of Time magazine looked like in the '40s and early '50s, when it was written by Alexander Eliot, one of my predecessors who passionately disliked abstract expressionism. Eliot very much fancied Henry Koerner George Tooker, both featured in this display. The show also had at least one real stinker, a shrill portrayal of a drunken New Year's Eve celebration by Paul Cadmus from 1939, but also one much better, haunting rendition of a desolate urban landscape by an African-American artist, Hughie Lee-Smith.  Called "Contemplating My Future," it was dated 1954.


Hirschl & Adler's selection was more of the same, ranging from O. Louis Guglielmi, a dignified & successful socially-conscious surrealist whom I dealt with in my dissertation on New York painting in the 1940s, to Honoré Sharrer, a depressingly treacly surrealist social realist who surfaced briefly in 1946 as part of MoMA's "Fourteen Americans" show, but didn't get a solo exhibition of her own until 1951.  This booth also reminded me of my past on Time through featuring "high art" paintings by Robert Vickrey & James Chapin, two artists better known (to me, anyway) for their many soberly factual Time magazine cover portraits.


Another eight booths featured work I really enjoyed contemplating, in whole or in part.


The first that I encountered was that of Menconi + Schoelkopf , which was located in the very front row of booths.  It displayed an elegant show of 8 oils and 4 watercolors by John Marin (1870-1953)  the foremost painter to emerge in the U.S. in the first part of the 20th century, and a prize member of the stable of Alfred Stieglitz throughout that eminent photographer's many galleries (from  "291" to  "An American Place").


Marin is best known for the many magnificently canny but still artless watercolors he executed from the teens to the 1930s that adopted French cubism to portrayals of the soaring skyscrapers of New York.  To a lesser degree he is also known for his somewhat less cubist and more impressionistic (but still memorable) views of the rockbound coasts of Maine, many and maybe even most of them from his later years and in oils.


And, although the Marins on view at "The Art Show" were mostly on the small side and more subdued in their color schemes, it was just such joy to see genuine, Class A modernism so prominently featured that I promptly decided this was the show to beat when it came to deciding which booth I would single out to illustrate in my review of "The Art Show."


I said as much to Andrew Schoelkopf, co-founder of the gallery and current president of the ADAA, who was presiding over the display. From him I learned that his gallery represents the Marin Estate, and that there was another and larger Marin show at his gallery, titled "Marin and the Critics," scheduled to remain on view until April 24. 


Progressing onward at "The Art Show," I found much else to celebrate, starting with Berggruen of San Francisco.  Its booth boasted two fine paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, "White Totem" (1978) and "Hommage à Chardin" (1957).  The former, a tall vertical, was admittedly striking, but my heart went out instead to the latter, an ebullient example of the "whoops – splat!" technique from the artist's most gestural period. 


The title reminded me of seeing another "hommage" painting by Frankenthaler at the (John) Kasmin Gallery in London in 1983, "Homage à M.L." (1962). Most people would have thought that "M.L." meant Morris Louis, but I learned on that occasion that it really means Marie Laurencin,  another woman artist who was the beloved of a distinguished critic – in Laurencin's case, Guillaume Apollinaire. 


The biggest difference between the two relationships is that Apollinaire raved about Laurencin's work in print, but nobody would believe him because the two of them were intimate.  Frankenthaler's beloved, Greenberg, evidently learned from this sad example –so he never wrote about Frankenthaler at all (except to say that Louis & Kenneth Noland had learned from her "Mountains and Sea.")


Moving on at The Art Show, I came to Meredith Ward Fine Art, who had previously represented the Marin Estate but seemed to be getting along fine without it.  She had several late paintings by Marsden Hartley, including one with those muscular young men at a beach.  Also on view was a charming early Stuart Davis, "Institut de France" (1928), a gouache with traces of pencil in pink and beige and gray, as well as two later Davises.   Finally on view were two works done in the 1930s by early American abstractionists, Charles G. Shaw & Charles Biederman.


Cheim & Read had an Alice Neel show.  It was smaller than and not as effective as last year's Alice Neel show, which juxtaposed her paintings with the photographs of Diane Arbus.  Still, I've had a soft spot in my heart for Neel ever since I interviewed her back in the 1970s for an article I published in ARTnews.  This show had a few of the portraits she's famous for, but the one of her onetime lover, Sam Brody, was made way back in 1941, before she had arrived at her insouciant but prickly mature style. 


The painting I liked best was not a portrait but an urban landscape from 1959, showing pigeons sheltering themselves in a snow storm on the window sill of a tenement.  It was a lovely study in grays and browns.  I inquired as to whether this gallery represents the Neel Estate, and I think (but am not sure) that the answer was in the affirmative. I do remember being told that most of this show was put together from the secondary market, e. g., paintings that had previously been sold by Neel herself or the estate.

Jill Newhouse similarly followed the formula she has developed in earlier years, of comparing and contrasting early and contemporary landscapes.  Fortunately, the contemporary was in short supply, and most of the show (as I saw it, anyway) focused on the 19th century. The title was "Corot, Rousseau, Millet and the Modern Landscape," but the works I liked best were by Delacroix & Cézanne.  The Delacroix was a "Landscape with River, Champrosay" (ca.1850).


I saw three (count 'em, three!) small Cézannes works on paper in this show.  Two formed part of the central display, flanking a large untitled 2018 monotype by Cecily Brown, fluffy & feeble.  There was no sense of which was good and which was bad in this display; rather it showed the abdication of judgment so prevalent in the art world today.  Still, I am grateful for the opportunity to see the Delacroix and those Cézannes, especially the little one hidden away in a corner, "A Boat at Lake Annecy" (1896).  This was an exquisite, very pale study showing lots of natural paper, just lightly colored with touches of grayish blue and beige.


Two more galleries that featured Stuart Davis abstractions were Donald Morris, of Birmingham, Michigan, and New York, and Debra Force Fine Art, of New York.  Morris also had two works by Motherwell, one from his "Open" series, and one collage. He also had several works by Alexander Calder, one of which was a charming little wire circus girlie.


Debra Force had an early Marsden Hartley, a still life from 1910, and a late Thomas Hart Benton, from 1963, showing dancers doing the twist (remember? That was the big dance in the early 60s). She also had a really neat little abstract collage from Suzy Frelinghuysen dated 1940, and a large, sociologically-interesting "Approaching Storm, Racetrack" (1929), by that semi-serious chronicler of high society, Guy Pène du Bois.


The eighth booth that I enjoyed myself at was Howard Greenberg, the photography gallery. Its display was built around a large and handsome book with many reproductions, "The New York School: Photography 1936-1963," a landmark study of 16 photographers of New York sites and lore originally published by Jane Livingston back in 1992.


On view were many striking and individually-mounted prints of pictures by many (if not all) of the photographers included in the book -- an artful mix of celebrities (Weegee, Lisette Model, Helen Levitt) and lesser-knowns (Saul Leiter, Leon Levinstein, Bruce Davidson, Louis Faurer).


All the same, by the time I had made the rounds and was heading back to the entrance, I was still satisfied with my choice of a Marin to illustrate my review.  My alternatives (as a card-carrying modernist) would have been Frankenthaler, Stuart Davis, or the Frelinghuysen collage, but I'd reproduced work by both Davis and Frankenthaler within the last year, I'd never reproduced a Marin, and the Frelinghuysen was kind of small.


I came back to the Menconi + Schoelkopf booth, to request the image, and to pick up a copy of the press release that accompanied both the show at the booth and the show back at the Menconi + Schoelkopf gallery, on East 80th Street.  Then I started to read the press release and HELP!  It instantly became to me exactly the kind of press release that gives the public relations industry a bad name.


"In 1948," its second paragraph began, "Clement Greenberg described John Marin as 'the greatest living American painter...one of the best artists who ever handled a brush in this country."   This is a VERY misleadingly abbreviated version of what Greenberg actually wrote.


The full passage reads. "John Marin has the reputation, earned in the course of forty years, of being the greatest living American painter.   He is certainly one of the best artists who ever handled a brush in this country. And if it is not beyond all doubt that he is the best painter alive in America at this moment, he assuredly has to be taken into consideration when we ask who is."


This passage was originally published in The Nation's issue of December 25 1948, as the lead to a review of Marin's work at An American Place by Greenberg (an abbreviated version of this review appears in Greenberg's collection of mostly revised articles, "Art and Culture," published in 1961).


The 1948 review appeared ten months after Look, the picture magazine which was an arch-rival to Life, had published an article in its issue of February 3,1948, entitled," Are These Men the Best Painters in America Today?"  This article was based upon a poll taken of 68 museum directors, curators of painting and art critics across the country; 39 had responded with confidential replies.


According to these 39 authorities, the top ten painters in America were 1) Marin, 2) Max Weber, 3) Yasuo Kuniyoshi, 4) Stuart Davis, 5) Ben Shahn, 6) Edward Hopper, 7) Charles Burchfield, 8) George Grosz, 9) Franklin Watkins, and 10) Lyonel Feininger and Jack Levine.  In other words, to Greenberg it was the opinions of people like these 39 authorities who had given Marin the reputation of being the greatest living American painter; he did not say he necessarily shared this opinion.


Anybody who was reading picture magazines in the late 1940s would see, in the August 8, 1949, issue of Life, whom Greenberg really considered America's greatest painter: Jackson Pollock. Indeed, the whole rationale for this considerably more famous article was Greenberg's opinion, though its headline simultaneously quoted the critic and questioned him:  "Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the U.S.?"


Even before Greenberg discussed Marin's show at An American Place, he had dealt with the relative importance of Marin and Pollock in the October 1947 issue of Horizon, a British magazine, with an article entitled "The Present Prospects of American Painting and Sculpture."  


This is one of Greenberg's most often-quoted articles, not least by his legions of detractors, but also by me, one of his more passionate adherents.  I discussed it most recently in the talk I gave at the Pollock-Krasner House & Study Center last summer.


In this article, Greenberg described Pollock as "the most powerful painter in contemporary America and the only one who promises to be a major one…"  This was neither the first nor the last time he would praise him, either, but in this case he moved on to a discussion of the sculptor David Smith.


Greenberg called Smith "the only other American artist of our time who produces an art capable of withstanding the test of international scrutiny…."    In other words, Pollock and Smith were the best painter and sculptor in the world, not just the United States. 


Earlier, the article had also discussed Marin, respectfully but not as enthusiastically.  Summarizing American culture generally, it said that John Sloan, George Bellows, William Glackens, Maurice Prendergast and Arnold Friedman had "managed, along with John Marin, what is still the most considerable effort of American art in the twentieth century, yet they simply extended and refined various phases of French impressionism without – except perhaps in Friedman's and Marin's cases – driving them toward the future." 


In other words, Marin (along with Friedman, another one of Greenberg's enthusiasms) "perhaps" had taken impressionism on beyond the French version of it.  Still, this wasn't enough for the critic to apply the same superlatives to him that he had applied to Pollock.


Back to the Menconi +Schoelkopf press release.  Those who know me well know that I foam at the mouth when I see my idol mistreated in any way.  I considered using a work from some other gallery to illustrate my review as a form of punishment, but reflected that it was unfair to punish an artist for the sins of his dealer. 


Besides, it looked as though the quotation in the press release came from the catalogue of the Marin exhibition entitled "Marin and His Critics," on view at the gallery's home on East 80th Street, and I needed to see what the catalogue said before commenting.  If I didn't, I would have been just as guilty of careless scholarship as the author of the press release.


In the end, I was very glad that this press release reinforced in me the desire to see the Marin show on East 80th Street.  It's far bigger and far better than the Marin show at "The Art Show" was, with many more larger and more brightly colored paintings.  It's still a little short on the cubist views of Gotham from the 1920s and 30s, but very generously supplied with the often (though not always) more impressionistic (but still lovely) views of the Maine coast and its surrounding forests. 


The charming "little fir tree" on Deer Isle which illustrates this review was actually in the show at "The Art Show" and not at the gallery, but it stands admirably for the virtues of both exhibitions.


Looking at the checklist of the gallery show, it was easy to find an explanation for the difference between the two shows.  A large percentage of the works in the gallery are there "on loan" as opposed to "for sale," whereas the group at the Park Avenue Armory had been mostly if not entirely "for sale" (and, I gathered, had done very well in the sales department). 


As I analyzed this situation, I concluded that the overwhelming majority of Marin's work is no longer in the estate, so that it was necessary to borrow many works back for this show.  Nor was I surprised.  After all, the artist's been dead for 67 years.  And it's a great pity that I can't send my readers off to see this truly excellent show, but the gallery – like every other gallery in New York – seems to be closed down for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency.


As to the Greenberg quote, it turns out that Mr. Schoelkopf himself wasn't responsible for its mauling.   In his introduction to the catalogue, he gives the correct version of the passage – and it's also inscribed upon the wall of the gallery. 


The misquotation occurs in the catalogue essay by Jonathan Spies, the gallery's director. Trying to describe the perspective of the late 1940s and early 1950s, he refers to Greenberg very gratifyingly as "the critic who cast the longest shadow across the rest of the 20th century." Then, he says, "Greenberg was unequivocal in Marin's dominance: "The greatest living American painter."


I would argue that – on the contrary – Greenberg was equivocating like crazy, if you read the complete quote and consider it in the context of his other writing.  On the one hand, he was reviewing a show by Marin, and he respected Marin very much. This was obviously not the place to say that Pollock was greater than he was.  On the other hand, he couldn't leave Pollock out of the discussion altogether and say that Marin was the greatest-- he had so many times said or implied that Pollock was the greatest.


So he did what he often did – in his earlier days, especially – he qualified his praise of Marin very subtly (his early writing especially is full of "hedge" words like "perhaps" and "maybe" and "promising").  In this case, his qualification is there in his adroit use of the word, "if."   Thus he wrote: "And if it is not beyond all doubt that [Marin] is the best painter alive in America at this moment, he assuredly has to be taken into consideration when we ask who is." 


Greenberg's answer to any such "asking" would not have been Marin, but Pollock--as anybody familiar with the body of his writing in  1948 would have known.  However, he was suggesting that Marin might be considered second only to Pollock -- which for him was very high praise indeed.

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