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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."

 

COOL PAINTING FOR HOT DAYS: "HARD-EDGED" AT UPSILON

Larry Zox (left) and Willard Boepple (right) in "Hard-Edged: Geometric Abstraction" ot Upsilon

 
 

In the middle of a hot-hot summer, we have a whole show of cool, cool pictures (both in a literal sense, meaning with the shapes within them mostly carefully-and dispassionately defined, and in a slang sense, that is to say "hip," "with-it" or "the cat's meow" in the slang of other eras). This modestly-scaled but nonetheless ambitious show of 20 paintings by 10 artists is called "Hard-Edged: Geometric Abstraction" and it's at the newest branch of the newish Upsilon Gallery, the branch at 23 East 67th Street (through August13).  

 

ETYMOLOGY OF "HARD-EDGED"

 

 

Don't believe what those children pouring out of the art schools tell you.  Most of them, so I've heard, favor figuration (to the extent that they favor paint on canvas at all). But figuration is really the most conservative art-form there is, and abstract painting and sculpture remains the most truly challenging.

 

Perhaps for this reason, it's not fully appreciated in an era when politics are so conservative -- as I've said before, the most popular "high" art and national politics have been moving backwards in tandem for the last forty or fifty years (even Dwight David Eisenhower, who ran on the Republican ticket in the '50s but favored the 52 percent corporate income tax, would have trouble getting nominated for President today).

 

For his press release, Upsilon's Managing Director Marcelo O. Zimmler has done a certain amount of research. He traces the origin of the term, "hard-edged," to Jules Langsner a Los Angeles art critic and art historian who, he says, coined it in 1959 to characterize the non-figurative and clearly defined but laid-back work of four California artists in a show he was organizing. However, the term has become far more widely used, to denote any paintings in which forms are outlined and shapes clearly defined.

 

PLUS A LITTLE ANCIENT HISTORY

 

When you stop to think about it, this includes a very large percentage, maybe even a majority of all the abstract paintings made in the 20th and even the 21st centuries. The line begins with Synthetic Cubism, maybe even Analytic Cubism.  It runs on through Malevich, Mondrian and their less famous but related contemporaries in Russia (Constructivism), Germany (the Bauhaus), The Netherlands (de Stijl) and of course Paris (Purism, Abstraction-Crḗation and many Surrealists, both those as abstract as Mirṍ and as representational as Dalḯ).

 

In the US, hard-edged abstraction was carried over in the 1930s not only by Stuart Davis but also by the painters of the American Abstract Artists who took their inspiration from European prototypes, prototypes who in those days included Mondrian and Mirṍ but also late Kandinsky.  It took the nascent abstract expressionists to revive interest in the freely-brushed canvases of the early Kandinsky, the painter for whom the term "abstract expressionist" was originally coined.  

 

By the early 1950s, the mature American abstract expressionists commanded the art-world scene with their mostly freely-brushed paintings ("expressionist" as an adjective by the 1940s had among other things become a synonym for "freely-brushed"). And so prevalent had become "ab-ex" that by the later '50s, any number of younger painters had begun to react against it.  There were so many of them that Clement Greenberg organized a far larger exhibition of them in 1964 that premiered at the Los Angeles County Museum and was known as "Post-Painterly Abstraction." 

 

Somehow, the term "post-painterly" – a coinage based in the tongue-twisting Teutonic terminology of the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin -- never caught on. "Hard-edge" was much easier to say and remember. Besides, it allows its user to refer to any number of painters not associated with the perennially controversial Greenberg.

 

Thus, on the web we find Britain's Tate Gallery defining as artists associated with "hard-edge painting" Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, William T. Williams & Sam Gilliam. A blogger who goes by the name of Nazgol lists Kenneth Noland, Al Held & Jack Youngerman besides Stella. Of all these artists, only Noland was closely associated with Greenberg (though Kelly, Held and Stella were also in "Post-Painterly Abstraction")

 

HARD-EDGE AT UPSILON

 

So who did Mr. Zimmler pick?   Well, the heavy hitters from the '50s and '60s are mostly absent (with the exception of Kelly, represented by two modest multiples, a lithograph entitled "Orange over Green" (1964) and "Brown Square with Blue," (1976), a pressed paper piece).  

 

Otherwise, the emphasis is on work by underrated abstract artists from earlier periods and that of younger artists who likewise have yet to achieve earth-shattering fame.   This unconventional emphasis gives the entire exhibition its fresh and unfamiliar look.

 

FIRST, THE "OLDSTERS" FROM THE SIXTIES

 

One good example of the earlier underrated is Edward Avedisian (1936-2007) represented by a mellow cerise, maroon and green untitled vertical canvas with large curved shapes from ca. 1965.

 

Also fitting this category is the stolidly untitled, vertically-striped 1970 acrylic by John Opper (1908-1994).   Done in red, green, maroon, pink and blue, this work by a contemporary of the first generation of "ab-ex" greats greets the visitor at the entrance.

 

Among this group, I, however, was most impressed by "Jubal" (1968), with its dashing, semi-painterly pink-and-gray vertical diamonds on a red field.  It is very characteristic of Larry Zox (1937-2006) during this phase of his long career.

 

AND A HOLDOVER FROM THE FORTIES/FIFTIES

 

Theodore Roszak (1907-1981) is the first-born artist in the show, and his small untitled oil on Masonite, dated ca. 1935, is the earliest. Nonetheless in its vigorously curly, semi-cubist grey and brown forms, it anticipates the spiky, birdlike welded-steel abstract sculptures for which Roszak would become known in the later 1940s and 1950s.

 

THENCE TO TWO RELATIVELY RECENT WOMEN

 

From the oldest to the newest, this wide-ranging show leaps from the past to the very near present.  Particularly it includes recent work by two women painters whom I'd never heard of before but whose work I decided I liked a lot.

 

Taking the younger one first, Anna Bogatin Ott was born in 1970 in Ukraine and studied art in her homeland before emigrating to the US in 1992.  She continued her studies in Philadelphia, where she attended the venerable University of the Arts (est. 1870) in Center City. She still lives and works in Philly, but more to the point here, the headline to her website reads, "The sole intent for my art is to bring more beauty and happiness into the world." The world could use more artists with such ambitions.

 

In this show, she is represented by two square acrylics, "Moon and Sun 3.5" (2019) and "Promise" (2014).  Both are composed with absolutely straight stripes, but in the former these stripes are fewer, vertical and somewhat nocturnal in color.  In the latter, they are many, horizontal and so blindingly brilliant that even Noland would have had to put on sunglasses to view them.  From top to bottom, those stripes run crimson, pink, yellow, white, scarlet and pink.

 

Vanessa Jackson is a Brit (with a frightfully British first name). Born in 1953 in the village of Peaslake, she studied art in London at St. Martin's and the Royal College of Art. She is still based in London, and besides much teaching and a handful of commissions, her CV (which types up at 11 pages in my computer) lists 19 solo exhibitions since 1978, plus 100 "selected" group shows since 1974. 

 

In 2015, she became a Royal Academician, the highest honor that the British art world can bestow.  Still, virtually all her exposure has been in the U.K., with a few shows elsewhere in Europe (mostly at British outposts of culture).  Unlike the more publicity-conscious proteges of Charles Saatchi, her work has rarely been seen in the U.S.

 

At the Upsilon show, Jackson is represented by two paintings, "Slide" (2017) and "3 in 1 in Oil" II (2016).  The two are similar in their arrangements of shapes, with long, loosely waving strips of color navigating a field of contrasting color from top to bottom of the canvas, but "Slide" is the more conventional: it has a red field and contrasting colors –particularly green – in the vertical strips. 

 

"3 in 1" is the more daring ---and highly-keyed—with a golden-yellow field on which attractive silvery-gray wavy vertical slabs are pre-eminently arrayed.  Perhaps because of that silvery gray, I am distantly reminded of Pollock.

 

AND FINALLY TO THE STAR OF THE SHOW

 

 

Last but certainly not least, we come to Willard Boepple, who was born in 1945 in Bennington, VT, and began his teaching career as a faculty assistant at Bennington College between 1969 and 1973.  More recently, he divides his time between the Green Mountains and the Big Apple, and, although best known as a sculptor of large, free-standing pieces, has made many smaller reliefs that hug their walls ecstatically. It is with eight of these brightly-colored, whiz-bang small vinyl compositions that he is represented here.

 

Given a CV that (in my computer) types up at 14 pages, and lists 49 solo exhibitions since 1971, plus 78 group shows that have been "selected" so that they only go back to 1979, it is a little difficult to classify Boepple as undiscovered.

 

One can't even claim that he is known only in the U.S. as the CV lists quite a few exhibitions in the UK – including those prestigious "Summer Exhibitions" at the Royal Academy.  There are also shows listed in Canada, Jamaica, Zimbabwe, Kenya and St. Tropez.

 

Nevertheless, in my opinion this artist is not as well-known as he deserves to be – particularly because in my experience, he is so genuinely eager to please.

 

Take the skillfully-mounted display at Upsilon, with the eight small reliefs spread like an exploding cornucopia of confetti or mixed fruits over one and a half walls. All are dated 2022, but five are multiples, available in editions of five for art lovers with more taste than money.   Some bear titles as colorful as the shapes they incorporate ("Red Barn" and "Green Ganesh").

 

Three more of these small but precise & very likeable works are unique and bear more sober titles: "Vinyl 9," "Vinyl 8," and "Vinyl 11." They help to integrate Boepple's sparkling contribution into the larger display of experiment and determination at Upsilon as a whole – represented in our photograph by Larry Zox's 1968 diamond painting hung on an adjoining wall.

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