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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."

 

TWO CATALOGUES: ONE HISTORICAL, ONE CONTEMPORARY:

"Willard Boepple: Wood and Paper, Sculpture and Prints," at Pamela Salisbury, Hudson, NY, June 27 to July 26, 2020.

 

 

Over the summer, with so many galleries on hiatus, I found myself collecting catalogues instead of going to shows as often as I'd like.  I now have acquired a number of these catalogues, and propose in this post to discuss two of them.  One catalogue, entitled "Esteban Vicente," accompanied a show that I'd seen and reviewed; the other, entitled "Willard Boepple: Wood and Paper, Sculpture and Prints," accompanied a show that I only wish I'd seen.  On the basis of what else I've seen of Boepple's work, I feel sure that I'd have given this show my usual rave review.

 

ESTEBAN VICENTE

 

Vicente's catalogue commemorates a show at Miles McEnery in Chelsea held this past summer from July 16 to August 24.  The show consisted of paintings done in the 1990s by this veteran second-generation American abstract expressionist, who had been born in Spain in1903 and would die in 2001.

 

I discussed a show of very similar work by Vicente from this same period in this space in 2016, so I reviewed the 2020 show for https://deliciousline.org the Boston-based blog of reviews edited by Franklin Einspruch.

 

However, I didn't discuss the catalogue, as I don't normally discuss gallery catalogues.  This one is more prepossessing than many   It is a hard-back – abundantly illustrated with reproductions of Vicente's lustrously-colored abstracts/flower paintings. 

 

Not that they resemble any flower in particular, but together they powerfully evoke the sunny summer gardens at Vicente's last home in Bridgehampton, where like a sailor who has endured many vicissitudes he had at last found a port in the storm.

 

The catalogue essay is entitled, "Accumulations of Experience: Color, Camouflage, and Esteban Vicente's Abstract Legacy." It is by Angela H. Brown, who recently took her Ph.D. in art history from Princeton University and has already contributed to the grandly-styled Gagosian Quarterly. 

 

In her essay, she does her best to pull together the many very varied strands that dominated Vicente's life and career. And it is no easy task.

 

This life in art began --not surprisingly--  in Spain, where the artist was born and studied in art school, acquiring a profound appreciation of – among much else -- the still lifes of the baroque Spanish master Francisco de Zurburán.

 

Chronologically, Vicente's life progressed through visits to avant-garde Paris and an involvement with the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) -- though that involvement seems to have been limited pretty much to painting camouflage on a few Loyalist tanks…..  

 

However, this information only appears in the current catalogue after an anecdote that begins the essay in medias res.   It concerns a softball game that took place sometime in the 1950s among artists in East Hampton (and is not to be confused with the far more famous annual "Artists and Writers Softball Game" in East Hampton, which dates back to 1948 and is planning to celebrate its 72nd anniversary in 2021).   

 

Vicente, it seems, was pitching and Philip Pavia, the sculptor, was at bat. Apparently Pavia had been boasting about his skills as a slugger, so a plot was afoot to put him in his place. Elaine de Kooning had been up half the night before, painting a grapefruit to make it look like a softball. 

 

(A variation on this tale has it that  Hubby Bill helped her, but nobody knows for sure and this whole succulent anecdote has three footnotes appended to it, citing three different authors who have written about it in three different ways)

 

Anyway, Vicente pitched and Pavia swung and whoops—splat! That was the end of the grapefruit.

 

As nearly as I can tell, the intended purpose of this anecdote is to draw an analogy between a) painting one object to look like another, and b) using paint "to express a certain freedom from pictorial convention, breaking the rules of pictorial convention, breaking the rules of form, light and color, and rebuilding them from scratch."

 

More directly it also serves to situate Vicente square in the midst of the New York art scene, on an intimate basis with famous first- and second-generation abstract expressionists. 

 

On the other hand, Dr. Brown also insists that Vicente can't be categorized as an abstract expressionist, let alone an "action painter" because "he pursued a less impulsive compositional harmony devoid of what he saw as action painting's 'violence.'"

 

Does this sound familiar?  See my post of October 12, which discusses how two recent books, the handiwork not of critics but of conservators, scientifically document the fact that Jackson Pollock can't conceivably be classified as an impulsive action painter any longer.

 

Maybe de Kooning still can, at least on the basis of the slashing technique that he employed starting with his "Woman" paintings of the mid-50s, and the sloppy, formless abstracts of the later '50s, such as "Easter Monday" (1956). 

 

However, I don't see any of these as his best work.

 

Far more effective and memorable to me are the earlier abstracts, such as "Attic" (1949) and "Excavation" (1959), and they are very carefully constructed indeed.

 

So why is it necessary to try and set Vicente off in a corner all his own, unsullied by any association with the greats who preceded his entry into the New York art scene?  Is it because he was really representational?   I wouldn't have said so, not on the basis of most of the work in this latest show of his –but then I wasn't looking for subject matter, I was looking for colors and composition….and even Dr. Brown's readings, at most, place Vicente in the category of a semi-abstract painter, not unlike Philip Guston.

 

Is it to try and save Vicente from the dread category of second-generation abstract expressionist?

 

In terms of his birth year, Vicente was a contemporary of the first generation, but in terms of his artistic maturity – especially as measured by his exhibition record—he belongs to the second.  The dividing line in most cases is January 1, 1950, with almost all of the biggies of the first generation having exhibited their work in solo New York shows before then, and with the first solo exhibitions of the second generation coming along only later.

 

For all practical purposes, Vicente's career as a mature and successful artist began with his inclusion in the Kootz Gallery's "Talent 1950," as organized by Clement Greenberg and Columbia University's Meyer Schapiro.

 

But who wants to admit that one's chosen subject is a second-generation anything?  Even if that places an artist in very good company—Frankenthaler & Friedel Dzubas, if one thinks along my lines—or Joan Mitchell, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, Grace Hartigan & Michael Goldberg, if one thinks more conventionally. 

 

One way or another, though, New York was truly a happening place for an abstract artist in the 50s—and the name of the game was abstract expressionism, whether or not Vicente liked to think of himself as an abstract expressionist.

 

More importantly, the issue seems to be – was Vicente an abstractionist at all, or if not, how does one describe his work?  Before moving on to Vicente's later career as a teacher and maker of collages, Dr. Brown gets in the obligatory swipe at Greenberg -- for insisting that art should be evaluated for its esthetic value alone, and  not as social or political comment.

 

 MoMA's Alfred Barr comes in for similar treatment—he, too, it seems was too much of a formalist --though to find these two longtime adversaries bracketed together comes as something of a shock.

 

Dr. Brown's heroes in this debate are Schapiro, who (like so many others) had flirted with Marxism in the 1930s, and the neo-Marxist Serge Guilbaut, who in 1983 published "How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War."  Both of these authors are cited for having argued that even abstract art can't be divorced from its (political) environment.

 

It's been so long since I read Schapiro's 1937 article in the Marxist Quarterly which Dr. Brown cites that I can't remember specifically what it said, and I'm not sure I ever was able to read the Guilbaut book all the way through. I have a faint recollection of having picked it up, maybe at a CAA convention, and trying to read it but getting so mad at the way it was misinterpreting Greenberg that I slammed it shut instead of finishing it..  

 

However, it received a long, respectful review by Thomas Bender in the New York Times when it was published and having read that review just now I do have a dim idea of what the book's about – at least enough to say that what Bender got out of it -- and what I get out of it ---differs from what Dr. Brown gets.

 

Correctly enough, she says that both Schapiro and Guilbaut agreed that even abstract art must be "political." But Guilbaut goes a lot further, maintaining – in effect – that American abstract expressionism was more admired than its French contemporaries not because the Americans were better painters but because – to make a long story very short – America was stronger politically and militarily and needed a cultural front to complement its credentials for leading the Cold War.

.

This is what happens when art history throws formalism and its discoveries into the trash can…. For formalism is concerned with perceiving quality – or the lack of it – in purely visual terms, and such analysis becomes the basis upon which art history, like it or not, concerns itself with some artists  more than with others in the decades to come..

 

No doubt we in the U.S. devote more attention to Pollock et al. than they do in France, but I also think that only in France will you find more attention devoted to "l'art informel," "tachisme" or whatever else you want to call the French equivalents of ab-ex,

 

I think that if you look at third-party countries – the UK, Germany, etc. you will find the American brand of '40s and '50s abstraction attracting more attention than its French equivalents.

 

Why? Because – speaking in my capacity as art critic – I take the formalist point of view that it all boils down to what you can see with your eyes….Time has established the fact that more people would rather look at American ab-ex than at its French counterparts.

 

And, if you can't, for example, SEE for yourself that Pollock was a better painter than Dubuffet was, there is really no way to help you…….

 

Greenberg himself (having been a Trotskyist Marxist himself in the 1930s), always rather liked the neo-Marxists, even when they were doing their damndest to try and discredit him and his unique discoveries….

 

I remember one time when Guilbaut's name came up in conversation.  This was possibly when we were discussing a symposium that Guilbaut had organized at the University of British Columbia, where he taught (and still teaches). He had invited Greenberg to participate in it, and Greenberg had done so.

 

Guilbaut's "awfully nice," Greenberg told me.  "He just doesn't have an eye." 

 

Anyway, Dr. Brown doesn't get into any political discussions, and emphasizes that Vicente didn't see himself as political either (aside from that brief foray into tank camouflage).

 

 It seems that the sense in which Schapiro and Guilbaut are used is simply to insist that Vicente's art -- however abstract it may appear – is also involved in the artist's personal "experience," and all the things he has seen over the course of his long life.

 

In that sense, Dr. Brown argues he even flirts with the (gasp!) representational, or anyway the semi-representational – paintings that incorporate not only the colors of the flowers in his Bridgehampton garden but also his youthful experience of .Zurburán, and who knows what else besides? 

 

In her conclusion, she discusses "Pylon" (1999), the painting which serves as the frontispiece for her essay.   She ascribes a possible double level of meaning to it prompted by its title: a "pylon" can mean either "a monumental gate in an Ancient Egyptian Temple" or "the steel towers that hold up telephone wires."

 

Then she quite accurately goes onto say that –if you're looking for it -- the rest of the picture can be read as a quasi-abstract table-top still-life, with a couple of reddish dabs in the foreground summoning up echoes of Zurburán fruit and the rectangle higher up suggestive of a window through which can  be seen "an ancient gateway."

 

Finally, she concludes, "What exactly the colors hide or reveal depends, of course, on who's looking."

 

Speaking in my capacity as an art historian (as opposed to my capacity as an art critic) I should be delighted with this conclusion—and to a degree I am.   After all, at first glance, it appears to be in line with the argument I myself advanced in Arts Magazine way back in 1983, to the effect that abstract painting was "multi-referential," or to use a simpler if less descriptive word, ambiguous.

 

Moreover, I argued that such multi-referential imagery was based upon "mimesis," meaning that it had been derived from and was based upon a number of the artist's own visual experiences, which had become incorporated into his or her memory, and synthesized into generalized forms there

 

Up to 1983, nobody that I could find had been willing to admit that the images themselves in an abstract painting could be ambiguous, let alone based upon mimesis – though plenty of authors had mentioned "ambiguity" in other ways.

 

 (If you want a discussion of  previous authors who had dealt with the concept in relation to abstract expressionism but not come up with my solution in its entirety, let me recommend the mention of  them that I made on page 301 in my 2009 memoir, to which is tied a rather long footnote  on pages 467 to 468.).

 

However, in the decades since 1983, references to ambiguous subject matter in abstraction– meaning two or more possibilities of representation incorporated into the same abstract image--have become more common, though nobody ever mentions me or my discussion of them (if you want the names of some of the writers who have used such references, they are cited at the end of the "Biography" entry at my website).

 

The real problems, from my point of view, are that these references are bereft of any serious discussion of the mimesis involved, or how such imagery may relate to the artist's personal experience, and finally there is never any attempt to study the science involved, not even the science concerned in the interpretation of Rorschach tests.

 

Dr. Brown does discuss some of the visual experiences that must have led to "Pylon:" Vicente's garden and his memories of Zurburán.  But she doesn't have a clue as to why he may have chosen this title, and what it might have meant to him.   And she has only one interpretation for the image/title – the Egyptian gate as opposed to the telephone poles (why not both?)

 

Finally, this conclusion of "depends on who's looking" is a Janus-faced phenomenon.   On the one hand, I quite agree with it; on another, it disturbs me.

 

On the one hand, I agree with it to the extent that I know different people may be reminded of different things by an ambiguous image. It depends on how their own visual experience tallies with that of the artist, creating one or another situation where the artist – often without intending to do so --- communicates his understanding of the original object through the image on the picture plane to the viewer.

 

In this case, for example, Dr. Brown opts for the Egyptian gateway as her association. I can't say exactly why, but my own association with "pylon" is with telephone poles instead.

 

Specifically, that narrow, green, vertical stripe on the right-hand side of the painting reminds me of the telephone poles that I used to see in the Hamptons and on the way to them over back country roads, back in the 1960s when I used to have summer group shares on the South Shore of Long Island and before the Long Island Expressway reached all the way to Riverhead.

 

I would argue that – given Vicente's longstanding allegiance to the Hamptons --- this same kind of telephone pole must have been seen by him, too, and therefore become part of his visual memory.

 

He might also have seen Egyptian temple gateways, or anyway pictures of them in books or replicas in museums.  So he had both images in his memory and synthesized them onto the picture plane, creating the situation where Dr. Brown is reminded of an Egyptian gateway, and I am reminded of a telephone pole.

 

In that sense – as conceding the ambiguity of the image – "depends on who's looking" makes perfect sense to me

 

On the other hand, I see a possibility of interpreting that phrase to mean that anybody can see anything they want in that painting, and I don't think that this is true.  It reminds me of the psychiatrist to whom I first broached my theory of multireferential imagery way back in 1982, before I wrote my article about it. 

 

At first, he exploded, "But that's just like the Rorschach blots – you can see anything you want in them, too!"  But I argued with him, saying something like, Are you sure about that?   Don't some of those blots look more like one thing, and others more like something else?   He was forced to confess that, yes, this was true, and directed me to textbooks telling doctors how to interpret the Rorschach tests..

   

Turns out that if you look at the textbooks on interpreting these tests, each of the ten blobs in the standard test have a different set of "commonest responses." In other words, unless you are seriously deranged, you can't see "anything you like" in any one of these blobs, either. Each one of them looks a little bit different from all the others, and will evoke a different constellation of associated images –

 

Similarly, the real-world objects suggested by a Pollock will vary wildly from the real-world objects suggested by a Rothko…..

 

Thus I have problems with the phrase "Depending on who's looking" – to the extent that it implies the number of possible associations to an abstract image is infinite. 

 

This would mean that all abstract images are alike – or equally empty.  I see this as a fundamentally negativist postmodernist response, suggesting that nothing is certain in this world, everything is subjective and therefore there can be no real communication. 

 

A modernist knows that there are certainties (including limits) in this world – even if they cannot always be put into words -- and that this applies to the subject matter in an abstract painting.as well.

 

WILLARD BOEPPLE

 

I have less to say about "Willard Boepple:  Gestures Et Al.," the essay by Karen Wilkin that appears in the catalogue for "Willard Boepple: Wood and Paper, Sculptures and Prints," an exhibition of mostly smaller-scaled work held at Pamela Salisbury in Hudson, NY from June 27 through July 26, 2020. 

 

Then again, Wilkin's essay is only half the length of Dr. Brown's – about 800 words as opposed to about 1,600 -- and I don't have quarrels with it, or background information to add.

 

Wilkin uses no footnotes; then again, she knows her subject so well that she doesn't need to consult outside authorities on him.  Artist and essayist worked together for many years managing the affairs of the Triangle Artists' Workshop.  Moreover, Wilkin is the author of the first monograph on this artist: 'Willard Boepple Sculpture: The Sense of Things," published by Lund Humphries in 2014.

 

In the catalogue essay for the Salisbury show, she is writing about a living artist and concerned with locating him in the present -- for the benefit of posterity, sure, but more importantly for his viewers in the present – in other words, the piece is more closely related to a contemporary as opposed to an art-historical context. 

 

What does a trained observer see in this previously un-exhibited work that may render it accessible – and admirable -- to anyone with (you should pardon the expression) an eye?

 

I could suggest here that formal analysis is the traditional way to discuss contemporary abstract work, while iconography is more appropriate for art history, but Wilkin – in this essay anyway—adopts a distinctive blend of formalismWITH iconography.

 

In her way, she is just as concerned as Dr. Brown is with situating her subject in a human context, and her prose is rich in words – especially verbs – that link the sculpture under discussion with the human condition.

 

"Willard Boepple's sculptures are resolutely abstract," she begins, "yet they are also potent metaphors for lived experience. In the past, fascinated by the way the proportions of the human body inform the things we use every day, he made inventive structures that took as their point of departure ladders and shelves, as well as works that explored how the sense of stretching one's legs could be embodied sculpturally….

 

"[His] recent table-based sculptures, made in 2019, range from poised, fairly open structures that play delicate curves against forthright but refined trestle-like configurations, to chunky works built of robust, usually angular elements….Boepple seems to have become fascinated with very different, even diametrically opposed notions, specifically with the extreme gestures and compression of wrestling – not, it must be stressed, in any literal sense, but rather in terms of the sensation of gripping, clenching, and embracing….."

 

Perhaps to gentle the rather muscular insistence of the wrestling analogy, she concludes the paragraph with a musical one instead, quoting the artist as follows: "'I've been listening to a lot of Bach lately,' Boepple -- the son of two musicians -- says, 'mostly Glenn Gould playing the 2 and 3 part inventions. I'd like that sense of different voices moving back and forth, responding to each other, in the sculptures.'"

 

I really wish I could have seen this show, but as I didn't, I can't review it.   I can  say that the photographs in the charming little catalogue suggest to me that Boepple was in top form when he made these small scale sculptures out of polychromed wood or sintered nylon, while the brilliantly-colored, nearly minimal screenprints look appetizing, too.

 

Better even than the catalogue are the installation photographs that the artist was kind enough to send me.  They are so light and bright and airy that they lifted my spirits as soon as I saw them.  Even when Boepple is shown working only with the three primary colors, plus only a halo of rust –as in the illustration I've chosen for this review – he has a genius for creating crisp, fresh excellence and making his particular corner of the world a more serene, peaceful, uplifting and – well, just a happier place to be.

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