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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."



Arthur B. Carles (1882-1952), Flowers in a Yellow Vase, 1922.  Oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 31 1/2 inches (90.2 x 80 cm), Courtesy of Avery Galleries, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania


In 2021 I skipped "The Armory Show."  Its ratio of annuals to perennials in recent years has been roughly 200:10 at best   -- and I consider a work "perennial" if to me it has staying power, whether it is new or old. At "The Art Show," staged by the Art Dealers Association of America at the Park Avenue Armory (and held this year for the first time in November), the ratio is more like 70:10. This makes it for me much more worthwhile. I'm afraid I'm picky, though, – so when I say I found ten booths out of seventy worthy of praise, and several  more at least worthy of mention, that signifies enthusiasm for me!



For those unilluminated by my horticultural trope, "annuals" means work chosen to capitalize on the art world's latest fad or vogue -- and regardless of whether or not it is strong enough as art to survive the art world's next fad or vogue (whatever it may be).


But before I say anything about these annuals, let me say (briefly) that as always at "The Art Show," I  was dazzled by the range of the work on display  -- by how many different ways have been found to create two- and three-dimensional works that in one way or another manage to charm  -- or at least challenge -- the eye.


This year, the vogue is "diversity," as it has been for the last decade or so (though in the course of its extended run, "diversity" was previously known as "multiculturalism" by its supporters and "identity politics" by its critics).


Whatever the name, the point of it is that who the artist is becomes more of a selling point than the quality of her/his art. And thus a high percentage of the galleries at The Art Show were exhibiting work either by minorities -- artists of Asian, African, Latin American or Indigenous extraction – or else by women. 


Some galleries managed to score a double bull's-eye by exhibiting female minority artists – and some galleries scored a triple bull's eye by showing minority or women artists who are well-established and thus might qualify for "hardy perennials." too.


Two New York galleries were showing well-established African-American artists. SoHo's June Kelly displayed work by Moe Brooker, the 81-year-old Philadelphian who works in brightly colored semi-abstract mixed media compositions. 


Chelsea's Michael Rosenfeld had a show by Benny Andrews (1930-2006), the Georgia-born activist and expressionist, who on this occasion was represented by work with religious themes.


On the Asian front was Kavi Gupta, a Chicago gallery showing large paintings by Young Il-Ahn (1934-2020), a Korean-born American whose work – to judge by the three pictures on display – hovers somewhere between the minimal and the modernist. And James Fuentes, a gallery on Manhattan's Lower East Side, displayed colorful abstractions by the Japanese American Kikuo Saito (1939-2016).


In the Indigenous Peoples category, Garth Greenan of Chelsea displayed intricately-patterned, brightly-colored tapestries by Melissa S. Cody, a fourth-generation Navaho weaver.


As for Latin America, Mary Ann Martin Fine Art scored her usual triple bull's eye by exhibiting mostly Mexican historical pictures from her fine inventory on the Upper East Side, including some work by women artists Leonora Carrington and Frida Kahlo plus a robust mother and child by that master of machismo, Diego Rivera,


Finally, the rest of the women – oh my goodness yes, the women.  They were all over the place. Besides Cody, Carrington and Kahlo, I might mention Honoré Sharrer (1920-2009), a surrealist/social realist big in the 1940s.  She even made it into "Fourteen Americans"(1946),  one of a series of  shows staged by the Museum of Modern Art to welcome promising younger artists. The ADAA show, in the booth of Hirschl & Adler Modern from 57th Street, had all late work by Sharrer, but sprightly enough in its way….


Then we had Fernanda Gomes, a Brazilian (b. 1960) presented by Peter Freeman of SoHo.  I didn't see this show, but according to the literature distributed by the ADAA, the works "challenge traditional categories of painting and sculpture and blur the boundaries between the material, immaterial, object, space, thinking and sensorial perception, always affirming the full authority of visual language."   The ADAA photograph – of only a corner of the work – makes it look minimal/conceptual.


The Freeman/Gomes display was designated one of the ADAA's two "Best in Show" award recipients.  The other award went to Ricco/Maresca for its presentation of "Three Doves" by self-taught artist William Edmondson (1874-1951).  Thus we had one (living) female who is also a Latina, and one (dead) male who was also an African American – very neatly covering all the current set of bases.


But enough of the popular favorites!  Let us proceed to the art that I consider most deserved my term of hardy perennial -- noting merely in passing that the work already cited by Rivera, Edmondson, Sharrer, Saito and Ahn are candidates for that category -- as well as being "annuals" because they conform to the current "diversity" vogue.


At any rate, I liked Saito's colors better than anything that I saw by him during his lifetime. If only his imagery weren't quite so reminiscent of Helen Frankenthaler!  The centerpiece of Ahn's display was a tall large and peaceful, nearly monochromatic oil on canvas from 1996 with a central wine-colored field and two narrow strips of blue up the sides.  It reminded me of Jules Olitski's work from the late '60s.


Now, here is my list of ten (count 'em, 10) booths with at least one of work of art already qualifying or likely to qualify as a hardy perennial.


First and second on my list are two shows featuring work by one woman artist who richly deserves to benefit from the diversity vogue.   This is Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011).   Her color woodcuts were displayed in two galleries specializing in graphics, Susan Sheehan and David Tunick (located respectively in the Gramercy Square neighborhood of Manhattan and on its Upper East Side).  


The Frankenthaler on view when I visited Susan Sheehan's booth was from "The Tales of Genji III" (1998): elegant yet steely at the same time.  The booth as a whole was a show of post-war American works on paper, so it also had a lithograph of sunflowers by Joan Mitchell.  Lord, but I'm bored with her messy mock-de Kooning style,


David Tunick's show was classier.  In a booth with walls painted dramatic black, he staged a museum-quality exhibition, with works on paper by Kirchner and Heckel, plus a small 1909 Bonnard oil.  Other art on view was by Picasso, Rembrandt,  and Whistler, to say nothing of the marvelous engraving by Albrecht Dürer of "Knight, Death and the Devil" (1513).  Tunick's Frankenthaler, displayed at his booth's entrance was "Savage Breeze," dated 1974 and billed as only the artist's second color woodcut.


Third, the booth of Yares Art was smaller but in its way equally classy. It sported paintings made by Larry Poons in the spring and summer of 2021.  All were similar, and they filled the booth on all four sides, with many small curly strokes of green, yellow and red in them that completely covered the paintings' surfaces in a distinctive species of all-overness.   Complemented by walls painted a subtle shade of greige, they created a whole little world of their own.


Moreover, although the space inside the booth was small, the works on view were by and large bigger than many other works in other booths.   I hadn't thought about it before, but upon reviewing what I saw in my memory, I realized that most dealers working in the "established artists'" category displayed smaller, easily portable and probably less expensive works -- steering clear of large, big-ticket items.  


This may help explain why no large or even good-sized color-field or first-generation abstractionist canvases were on view --- or similar work by other well-known artists like Warhol or Johns whose paintings sell for as much or more at auction. Thus for Yares to show such large paintings by Poons represents quite an ambitious decision – also serving as an advt. for the full-dress Poons survey  the gallery is planning for fall 2022.


Fourth, I was taken with the photographs by Roy DeCarava (1919-2009) as mounted by David Zwirner.  DeCarava was African American, but his distinctive blend of art photography with social documentation had impressed me before this show and before I realized he was African American.


I seem to have confused him with another Roy – Roy Stryker, who headed up the Farm Security Administration's photography program during the Great Depression.  However the Zwirner show of DeCarava was notable for its dignified detachment and highly traditional approach – quite unlike the more politicized FSA work.  About half the pictures on view were straight-out "art" photography, with the other half more in the realm of social realism.


Fifth, Miles McEnery of Chelsea had five paintings by Patrick Wilson (b. 1970), a California-born and California-educated geometric abstractionist.  "One of the cleaner, more shipshape galleries," it says, in my notes – if only to differentiate it from the decidedly messy abstractions in the booth directly across the aisle from it (which I am not going to name, as I see no need to make another enemy).  Wilson's shtick is "rectangles and squares superimposed on squares and rectangles, rectilinear," with "bright colors, predominantly blues, reds, greens….."


Sixth, Menconi + Schoelkopf had a dynamite display of modestly-scaled but brightly-colored semi-cubist, semi-abstracts by Oscar Bluemner (1867 – 1938).   Bluemner was a German-born Early American Modern who exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show and at Alfred Stieglitz's "291" gallery in its glory days (until the U.S. entered World War I in 1917).


The ADAA group of 11 pictures was a "curtain-raiser" for a larger show of 20 to 25 pictures that was scheduled to open back at the gallery's Upper East Side home space on November 7 and run until December 17.  As I am hoping to get to this larger show and review it at greater length, I will say no more about Bluemner here.


Seventh, the booth of Thomas Colville Fine Art seized my fancy soon after I entered the ADAA show.   Also located on the Upper East Side, this gallery's display emphasized work by members or friends of the American Abstract Artists during or about the time when this group was at its most radical – in the later 1930s and early 1940s. 


Included were smaller works representative of AAA taste by John Ferren, Werner Drewes, George L. K.  Morris and Emil Bistram.  Everything was handsome, but my favorite was a large "White Clown" (1940) by Byron Browne: emphatically indebted to Picasso, it had such a happy smile that I could hardly help smiling back.


Eighth, Debra Force Fine Art, also on the Upper East Side, boldly offered 'Movements in 20th-Century American Art" at The Art Show.  Her star performer was a painting showing a row of lovely clad and semi-clad "Bathers."  By Maurice Prendergast, it was dated ca.1912, four years after he and the rest of "The Eight" had scandalized New York with their landmark exhibition of "realistic" paintings at MacBeth.


Not far away was a small thoughtful study of the head of an African American man by Thomas Hart Benton entitled "Study for 'Instruction'" and dated ca.1940. Evidently some galleries offering "historic" art couldn't quite come up with a minority or a woman artist, and hoped that a portrait of one or the other would show that their hearts were in the right place.


Ninth, following on this thought, Hirschl & Adler (also on 57th Street, hard by Hirschl & Adler Modern) offered a portrait of a woman AND a portrait of an African American man.  These truly good-looking if highly academic portraits were by Winold Reiss (1886 – 1953).   Like Bluemner, Reiss was a German-born American painter but very different stylistically and one who also painted indigenous Americans.


According to the ADAA literature, "Hirschl & Adler's presentation of Winold Reiss [at The Art Show] will be an amuse-bouche to the hotly anticipated entrée: the Reiss retrospective at The New-York Historical Society in Summer 2022."  I don't know what it is about The New-York Historical Society but they really go for these academics.  In 2001, they gave the same treatment to John Koch, another academic realist, and by golly, they really packed in the crowds.


Tenth, I was immensely taken by the booth of Avery Galleries from Bryn Mawr, PA.  This gallery is located in the same suburban area on the Main Line to Philadelphia that houses Bryn Mawr College. Its principal exhibit at The Art Show was seven paintings by one of Philadelphia's most distinguished artists, another Early American Modern who was named Arthur B. Carles (1882-1952).


However, before I start describing the beauties of Carles, I should mention that the gallery also pays its dues to diversity with the inclusion of two delicate little semi-cubist paintings by Mercedes Matter (1913-2001). Matter was not a great painter but she was a great teacher, and did more than anybody else to found the New York Studio School.  She was the daughter of Carles.


Also on view was a neat little picture by Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) made as a gift to a friend.  In composition, it was totally abstract but full of spiky diagonals – similar to but also quite atypical of Hofmann's rectilinear paintings of the 1960s.


As shown by the dates I just quoted, Carles and Hofmann were almost exact contemporaries    They were also friends, but Hofmann didn't make his mark as a great painter until the late 1940s or even the '50s – whereas Carles owes his reputation today to some of the works he made in the teens and the period between the two world wars.  They were much less radical than Hofmann's postwar work but daring for their era.


Born and raised in Philadelphia, Carles studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, widely known then as one of the top art schools.  Thanks to a couple of its traveling fellowships, he was able to go to and live in France.  There he discovered the joys of Matisse and Cézanne, and became passionate about color. In the 1920s he also experimented with a tinted variant of cubism known as Synchromism.   


By the 1930s, he was creating even more extreme forms of cubist abstraction.    There is no telling where he might have gone later on, but alas in 1941 he fell down a flight of stairs and became permanently paralyzed.  


Nor were there any signs of his most extreme experiments at The Art Show.  But Carles's admiration for Cézannian subjects and Matissean color showed up in one lovely landscape, one lovely table-top still life, and five positively glorious flower paintings.


Also paying homage to Matisse is a statement from Carles that Avery posted at its booth. It could just as easily have come from Hofmann, or Kenneth Noland. "If there's one thing in all the world I believe, it's painting with color," Carles said. "So damn few people paint with color, and what on earth else is painting for?"


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