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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."

 

BEFORE & AFTER: CONTRASTS AT YARES

Morris Louis (American 1912-1962), "Mira." 1962. Acrylic on canvas, 82.52 x 32.99 inches, 209.6 x 83.8cm. Photography, Jason Mandella.

 

At Yares Art, on Fifth Avenue 34 blocks south of the Jewish Museum, we have two eminently satisfactory exhibitions of more recent abstract art. The first is "Larry Poons/Frank Stella: As It Was/As It Is." The second is "Fields of Color III" (both through July 31).  They afford a contrast that parallels my own development as a writer on abstraction. The first show equates to a period before I'd awakened to abstraction, and before I'd met either artist.  The second represents a period after I'd met them both, and after Bill Rubin had sensitized me to abstraction--though much of the work in it was also done prior to the spring of 1968 (when Rubin effected this sensitization).

 

STELLA & POONS—THE BACKSTORY

 

I met Stella first, in the late fall of 1967.   We seem to have disliked each other from the start. I can't remember how I got the idea for doing a story on him, but the story's "newspeg" (journalese for raison d'être) was the show he was about to have at Castelli. It was to introduce his brilliantly colored and remarkably graceful "protractor" series.  

 

He showed some of these paintings to me in his studio and I liked them well enough to schedule a page of color photographs of them for Time. As color photography was still rare on newsmagazines in those days, this was a compliment to these paintings, a sign that I liked them-- at least as much as I could like any abstracts at that moment.

 

Nevertheless, I was still under the impression that abstraction bore no relation to either external reality or society, and I got angry enough about this to say so to Stella.  I also expressed these feelings in the story that I wrote about him, but fortunately by the time I wrote it, he had also been interviewed by one of the researchers in Time's Art section.

 

Most likely this was Leah Shanks Gordon, an extremely savvy woman who was not so incidentally married to an art dealer.

 

That was the beauty of what was known around our shop as "group journalism" or "the editorial process."  Nothing on Time was signed in those days, because so many people had had a hand in each story, from the researcher and/or the correspondent (if the story was taking place outside New York), to the writer, the senior editor, and the managing editor as well.

 

If I'd known how much I didn't know about art when I started writing about it for Time, I never would have presumed to take on the assignment, but fortunately – and especially when I was new in the section – I had my colleagues to pull me out of the soup.  And this was what happened with Stella.

 

By the time I was ready to write the story on him, I had received a neatly typed-up file from the researcher on the story (Gordon??).   It contained an eloquent quote from the artist, defending his work by responding to what I'd said.Properly shamed as I was, I used that quote as the "kicker" or last line of the story. 

 

This redoubled its punch, as you may be able to see from the actual text: "To viewers who find [Stella's paintings] boring or merely decorative, the artist replies, "My eyes and my emotions tell me something different. They tell me it's very beautiful, complicated, moving, disturbing and challenging. There are forces at work to think about here."

 

In setting Stella up as a fearless defender of the apparently besieged avant-garde, I most likely enhanced his market appeal.   At some point after this story was published but before I left Time in 1969, I was talking with Eugene Schwartz, a major collector of the period, and he said something like this: "Have you any idea what's happened to Stella's prices since you did that story on him?" 

 

I later learned (from a New Yorker Profile on Stella) that indeed that show was accompanied by a major uptick in Stella's sales and/or prices. 

 

Considering that Time at that point had something like 20 million readers (counting its "pass-along" circulation), and that all three of the leading art magazines had a combined readership most likely of less than 500,000, my story was like letting a herd of cattle into a pasture that had previously been grazed by only a couple of cows and a calf.

 

No wonder there was a shortage of grass --- or, to put it in a way Adam Smith would have understood, when demand outstrips supply, prices rise. Still, to be absolutely fair, the work itself must claim precedence over any other reasons why this show was such a commercial success.

 

With its graceful curves and colorful palette, the "protractor" series seems to have had a wider popular appeal than Stella's best-known earlier paintings., the black-and-white "pinstripes" with which he first dazzled the art world's inner circle when they were included in MoMA's "Sixteen Americans" of 1959 and the so-called "aluminum" and "copper" paintings" of the  years immediately following.

 

(I remember Clement Greenberg speaking approvingly of what he called the "bronze paintings, "  though the largest of the three paintings included in his own 1964 "Post-Painterly Abstraction" show was from the "aluminum" series).

 

Ultimately the work is what stays with us, when all the hurly-burly's done. And the "protractor" series must retain its allure – to judge from the fact that the current show at Yares has only one example of it.  Moreover, that example is from 1968, after the show that Time had written about, with a paler and to me less captivating color scheme.

 

Stella never would admit that Time had anything to do with how his prices escalated with that "protractor" show. I ran into him and Kenworth Moffett in Marlborough Chelsea in the early 21st century, and Moffett reintroduced us.  I reminded Stella of Time's coverage of that show, but all he would say was that the Time story had gotten his work into some traveling State Department show. 

 

This was tantamount to an insult, classing me with the warmongers: Time was seen as the Devil Incarnate to the art world in the '60s because of its support for the war in Vietnam. Greenberg himself was tarred with the same brush because he accepted money from the U.S. State Department to travel abroad and investigate and/or speak on purely artistic matters.

 

Then again, Larry Poons gives evidence of similar forgetfulness in a YouTube interview by Karen Wilkin.. He recalls a show when he abandoned his earlier hard-edged abstraction and moved on into his more recent painterly mode. He says that everybody else was saying this move was a terrible idea – all except for Stella, who left a note at the gallery saying "Congratulations!" 

 

Well, I'm glad that Stella approved of this move – and grateful to him in general for his long-standing commitment to old friends. Including not only his willingness to co-star with Poons in the present exhibition but also the way he used to turn up at the openings of Darby Bannard's shows. 

 

However, I'm pretty sure that the show Stella congratulated him on is the same show that Time wrote up in its issue of November 8, 1968– with a color illustration of "Night Journey." Poons had showed this painting to me when I visited his studio. He considered it a breakthrough and was eager to have it reproduced. 

 

By this time I'd been converted into an admirer of abstraction in general by Bill Rubin, so the story was much more positive – but I wasn't the only person besides Stella who admired "Night Journey." 

 

Via the grapevine I heard that two major collectors had tried to buy it – Rubin and Carter Burden – but that for reasons that need not concern us here, Castelli had placed it with Burden. That made at least three of us besides Stella favorably impressed by this career choice by Poons – though not surprising that he should remember only the approbation of a fellow artist.

 

THE CURRENT SHOW

 

It can have been no easy task to put together a show of two of the best-selling stars in the '60s.  Much of their most popular and best-remembered work may well now be hidden away in the homes or vaults of private collectors who have no intention of  selling or even exhibiting them, and/or museums who feel the same way.

 

Complicating the problem must have been the fact that although the two artists were personal friends, their artistic outlook and the kind of work they produced varied almost as widely in the '60s as it does in the '20s. Putting together a show in which they co-exist on more or less equal terms must have been challenging indeed.

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Anyway, as a result both Poons and Stella are represented by fine work, but only rarely by their earliest mature work.   In the case of Stella, there are no pinstripes, aluminum or copper paintings. Instead, we have four examples of the artist's "concentric square" series – two from the mid-60s and two more from the mid-70s.

 

Three of the four are very colorful, but I was cowed by their almost frighteningly bright color, and decided that I liked best the one done in grisaille.

 

Poons's palette I found a lot subtler and more palatable, with a far wider range of color as well. However, almost all the major paintings from the 60s here we feature little ellipses floating on seas of contrasting color.  Among the major paintings in the show, only "Lee's Retreat" (according to my notes) features not ellipses but instead the round "dots" of Poons's earliest leap into the limelight, at Richard Bellamy's Green Gallery in 1963.

 

Still, the big painting shown in "The Responsive Eye" at MoMA in 1965 featured a red field with blue, green and orange ellipses. This was "Nixe's Mate" (1964), and at the time it was owned by the major pop art collector, Robert Scull.

 

. "The Responsive Eye" was MoMA's big tribute to "op art," or art that interacted with the eye.  Even the ellipses in the current Yares show made my eyes jump around a little but I did love "Jody's  Double Speed" (1962).  Facing the entrance to the gallery, it sports slightly oval & opaque aqua dots on a deep mellow brown semi-transparent field.

 

Showing Stella's concentric squares, with their almost-too-brilliant colors, together with Poons's almost equally bright – and almost equally minimal  - ellipses,  underlines how close two very different kinds of art – and two very different artists – could become for at least a moment in the early- to mid-'60s.

 

How far apart they are now may be indicated by the small gallery with recent work. Stella's small sculptures, made by what I take to be a 21st-century computer-assisted method known as rapid prototyping, were for me mostly a triumph of technology over visual appeal. Poons's six small abstract paintings achieved a landscape feel with a medium –acrylic—that's been a staple in the artist's paint-box since the mid-20th century. Still, such "antique" technology doesn't seem to have detracted from these pictures' appeal to collectors.

 

I welcomed them all myself, just as I related strongly to Stella's "Minimalist Box with No Walls" (2020). This small composition, built out of horizontal and vertical clear resin tubes, achieved a simplicity and dignity that for me were classic.

 

"FIELDS OF COLOR III"

 

The other show currently at Yares Art is "Fields of Color III." Primarily a show of color-field painting (as its name implies), most of it hangs in the space formerly occupied by Mary Boone, across the elevator bank from the original Yares space, though with a small but telling addendum in the "office" space of the original gallery. 

 

Like the Poons/Stella show, "Fields of Color III" is scheduled to remain on view through July 31, but it isn't as programmatically organized as is the Poons/Stella show, being much more of a display area dedicated to showcasing choice works from the gallery's inventory of the moment.

 

Since that's the case, I can't promise what I saw when I visited will still be on view when you get there, but for the most part Yares maintains such a high standard of quality that I believe you will still find work that pleases you whenever you arrive.

 

What then did I view when I visited?  Well, at the entrance hung the loveliest Thomas Downing that I've seen.  Untitled, dated 1959, and nearly square (71x 79 inches), it consists entirely of paler colors, with a field of beige upon which are superimposed a great many small discs of pink, yellow and pale green dots of color.

 

Also on view was "Debussy" This at about 89 x 78 inches is a considerably larger and mostly blue canvas by Helen Frankenthaler.   All that blue paint is very vigorously swept and swabbed around, in both straight strokes and curving ones.  Straight or curved, they bear testimony to the extraordinary energy of this remarkable painter, who was in her mid-60s when she painted it in 1992.

 

I saw five paintings by Kenneth Noland plus four by Morris Louis, two by Jules Olitski that I noticed, three by Milton Avery, and a "burst" by Adolph Gottlieb.  I'll focus on three of the paintings by Noland and three of the paintings by Louis.

 

Two of the Nolands are smaller diamond-shaped canvases from the mid-'60s, a period when the artist was still exhibiting his most brightly-colored horizontal stripe paintings.

 

"Close" (1966) is a perfect square, 32 x 32, and has 4 vertical bands of color; these bands are wide in the middle and narrow at the outer corners, "Crest" (1967) rises to a sharper peak in the top center and is slightly broader in the middle: it is 96 inches high but less than 24 inches wide.  Its three diagonal bands of color are very simple: yellow, blue, green—I found it especially attractive.

 

"Via Infold" (1969) is a biggie, nearly 5 feet high and 12 feet wide.  Its horizontal stripes are pale but very classy beiges and tans. "Via Infold" is typical of the work that Noland was exhibiting in the spring of '69 when I did my story on him for Time (though I can't remember whether or not we reproduced and discussed this particular painting).

 

When I (and my researcher) interviewed him, he talked about his stripe paintings as comparable to musical compositions. I followed this lead in my descriptions of the work we reproduced.

 

Leading off the three memorable paintings by Louis is a vertical stripe painting entitled "Mira" (1962). It is a sizeable, striking and nearly perfect example of this last stage in the artist's tragically short life.  Those brilliant vertical stripes remind me a hand scraping down (or up) with its nails drawing blood – but also of the pillars of fire and smoke that Yahweh in the Old Testament sent to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and on to the Promised Land.

 

Exceptionally large and even more striking is "Gamma Iota" (1960), a commanding example of Louis's "Unfurled" series, measuring about 9 x 13 feet. I might almost call it demanding in the forthrightness of its color scheme.  No equivocating here!  

 

The artist steps up and says what he wants to say, which leads to a contrast rather than a complement between the tiger-like stripes of color that sashay jaggedly up the sides of the image.  On the left, these 4 stripes are black, orange, brown and green – and, on the right, the 4 answering stripes are blue, green, blue, and green.

 

Impressive as is "Gamma Iota," though, I related most strongly to a somewhat smaller but in my opinion subtler and (to me anyway) more loveable Louis.  This was "Verdicchio" (1959-1960), a predominantly green member of the artist's "Veil" family measuring roughly 6 x 9 feet. 

 

It was hanging in the "office" space of the main Yares Art gallery (keeping company with three yet smaller paintings by Avery), and its soothing viridian tonalities made me want to relax, sit down, and enjoy my immediate surroundings. 

 

Most of all, I was reminded of the concluding line from a verse in a poem by Andrew Marvell, a 17th century Metaphysical poet, that I hadn't read since college but that I easily rediscovered on the web.  The poem is called "The Garden," and in it the poet rejoices in all the beauties of nature that I too have found so welcome this spring. 

 

Then (if I read him aright) he goes on to say that another thing that's great about a garden is that it allows the visitor to relax, withdraw into his or her own mind, and contemplate the wonders there:

 

"Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less/Withdraws into its happiness;/The mind, that ocean where each kind/Does straight its own resemblance find,/Yet it creates,  transcending these,/Far other worlds and other seas;/ Annihilating all that's made/To a green thought in a green shade."

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