(An Appropriate Distance)
FROM THE MAYOR'S DOORSTEP

by Piri Halasz

 

 

 

NO. 88: 15 JANUARY 2010.... SADNESS & PERSEVERANCE..... Alas, I must report that on January 5, Kenneth Noland died of kidney cancer at his home in Port Clyde, Maine. He was 85. Noland was a great artist. Despite what must have been a sometimes troubled private life, I always found him kind & helpful in our dealings relating to work. Art critics can’t afford to be moved by personal traits. Some great artists are pains in the backside, and some of the nicest artists can’t paint, but the critic who wishes to be remembered must look past the personal and focus on the professional. With Ken, both the art and the human contact that went with it were for me (as for many others in the art world) a pleasure. ... Next, all is not well in the wider world. The devastation in Haiti of an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter sale is unimaginable, with hundreds of thousands dead and more than a million homeless. The breadth of this catastrophe forced the tribulations of the Obama administration into the edges of newspaper front pages and websites for more than a week, until a catastrophe of smaller but more immediate proportions hit: the victory of Republican Scott Brown in the election for senator from Massachusetts.... Nevertheless, life & art go on. Although the New York Times has difficulty finding much art “news” to fill up its Friday Fine Arts & Leisure section, I will report at the end of this column on a handful of New York shows of contemporary art worth attention, though the Times ignored all of them. I’ve also seen two shows of historical art that even the Times admired.

 

 

 

 

KENNETH NOLAND (1924-2010):

 

FIRST RESPONSE

 

It took me a while to respond to Noland’s paintings. I saw them first at André Emmerich in November 1967, when I’d been writing the Art page of Time for ten months – not because I knew Noland was anybody special, just because my predecessor on the Art page had told me that Emmerich was a top gallery, so I made a point of checking anything there out. This was perhaps Noland’s most brilliant exhibition of the horizontal “stripe” paintings. Though I didn’t know it, he was at the peak of his art-world fame, so well known that even John Perreault and Max Kozloff, anything but Greenbergians, reviewed that show (in The Nation & The Village Voice, respectively). The following year, Leo Steinberg, one of Greenberg’s foremost detractors, would include Noland in his pantheon of artists who, he said, were adopting “the flatbed” principle (his pomonian version of Harold Rosenberg’s Action Painting ideas). According to the “flatbed” principle, around 1950 artists had begun to create works oriented more to the floor than to the walls, and more to machines than nature, a theory that rested upon interpreting Noland’s stripe paintings as so impersonal that they looked machine-made.

 

I knew none of this art-world chitchat, as I avoided reading anything that anybody else wrote about art (except the NY Times, which I used – sporadically – for information, not value judgments). My editors at Time wanted their magazine written in Universal English, so that even the least sophisticated reader could understand it. They had a horror of “jargon” of any kind, and I didn’t want any art-world jargon filtering into my prose, so my response to Noland had nothing to do with his reputation in print; it was strictly between him & me. I didn’t know what to make of those blazing colors and resolutely abstract & very straight stripes. In retrospect, I think it was their energy that upset me, the personal electricity that they almost crackled with – it shook me up (as it would shake up the psychiatrist I was seeing in 1977, when Noland had his big retrospective at the Guggenheim. This psychiatrist – a much more open-minded type than the psychoanalyst I’d had when still at Time – was adventurous enough to have seen the Noland show, but didn’t know what to make of all those stripes). In November 1967, I’d already scheduled a story, with a page of color photography, on the Protractor Series of Frank Stella – equally colorful, & seemingly equally abstract, but in retrospect soft & easy by comparison with Noland. To be fair, I could just barely see even Stella in those days, considering all abstraction remote from human concerns and therefore disqualifying itself for claims to universality or greatness. My editor, Cranston Jones, asked me whether there wasn’t any other artist I should be doing along with Stella. Cran knew a lot more about art than I did. He was probably thinking of Noland, but all I said to him was that I didn’t want to do anybody but Stella, and he left it at that. Wise man. It was much better for me to learn about Noland, color-field painting & even abstraction by myself. If Cran had stuffed them down my throat, I might have resented them, and never arrived at my own insights.

 

WARMING UP

 

As it was, in early ‘68, I met William Rubin of MoMA. He was still close to Greenberg (though he never mentioned Greenberg’s name to me). Rubin had a wonderful private collection, with lots of color-field paintings. I saw them when he invited me to lunch at his loft, and also developed a crush on him. A subsequent lunch (at a tony French restaurant in the East 50s called l’Aiglon) led to a revision in my opinion of abstraction. I hadn’t been able to see that it was “about”anything, but Rubin argued that, like all great art, it was about “feeling.”Thereafter, I began to warm up to it, and to do stories for Time on artists I’d seen in his loft. In June, I did one on Olitski; the following November, one on Poons. Neither story was particularly incisive, nor did they provoke any comment from the predominantly conservative readership of Time. In early ‘69, I learned that Larry Rubin, Bill’s brother, was going to open a gallery on West 57th Street, and that one of his first shows was to be on Noland, so I scheduled a story with a color page on Noland. The story wouldn’t run until April, when the show took place, but the color photography had to be shot in advance. In January, I met Noland at the warehouse where the paintings were stored, to choose ones for Time to photograph. I don’t remember much about that meeting, except that Noland struck me as lean and wiry, attractive & nice. I was a little disappointed by the paintings in the warehouse, though I didn’t say so. They were rich, complex horizontal stripe paintings, but bleached-looking, paler than earlier stripe paintings I’d seen. It seemed like Noland was coming off a high spot, but, I figured, even off-peak Noland was better than none.

 

Before I could write the Noland story, Helen Frankenthaler had a retrospective at the Whitney in February. I went to see it, loved it, and started thinking of doing a cover story on her for Time. Successful women artists were still pretty much of a rarity in those days, and I felt that a cover story on a woman abstractionist was not only “newsy” but also might help to humanize a difficult subject for Time’s square readers. In the course of researching what would become not a cover but only a major article, I learned that Frankenthaler as a young woman had gone around with Greenberg. I thereupon decided that I needed to interview Greenberg, and Frankenthaler set it up for me. Meeting Greenberg and talking with him sharpened my eye and energized my writing style. Both the Frankenthaler story and the one on Noland were written with a passion and conviction that succeeded in outraging quite a number of Time readers, to judge from the letters they wrote. This new authority has also led to those two stories surviving better than any other art story I wrote for Time. Not only has the Frankenthaler story been included under “statements by the artist” in the bibliographies of two monographs on her, but two pomonian art historians were still taking pot shots at it in books they’ve published since the turn of the century. As for the Noland story, he and/or Diane Waldman, organizer of the Guggenheim show, liked it well enough to list it in two places in the bibliography of the catalogue (once under the title of the story, “Bold Emblems,” and once under the headline of the page of color photographs, “Noland: The Spectrum is the Message”). Moreover, in 2010, Matt Schudel, the Washington Post staff writer responsible for that paper’s Noland obituary, quoted from my story as the “kicker” to his obituary: “Noland’s supposedly impersonal canvases are vividly imbued with a dozen remarkably personal characteristics – pride, imposed logic, arrogance, grace, wit, independence and inner tension. Noland conveys these qualities, not deliberately but intuitively.”

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF “CHARACTER”

 

Even today, and having seen many Noland shows since, I’d say his greatest of many artistic talents lay in being able to express his personality so vividly in his work. Geometric abstractionists, after all, were a dime a dozen in the ‘60s and are almost equally common today, but with very few exceptions, their work is impersonal and correspondingly lifeless, whether we’re talking Ellsworth Kelly, Gene Davis, or the myriads of lesser-known folk getting exposure in Chelsea at present. But I didn’t twig on to this unique quality of Noland’s by myself. To the best of my recollection, my inspiration was a little piece of research that I came across in Noland’s “bio folder” in the Time reference library, an interoffice memo evidently written in preparation for an earlier story that Time had done on Noland and Louis together in 1965. If I recall it correctly, a Time researcher had interviewed Greenberg, and asked what had attracted him to Noland when they first met in 1950, at Black Mountain College in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

 

At that point, Noland had been 26. He’d come to Black Mountain for the first time in 1946 on the GI Bill of Rights, having served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Black Mountain was convenient for him, as he’d been born and raised in nearby Asheville, NC, where his father had been an amateur painter and his mother, an amateur musician – a cultural background that few children in that time and place must have had. The father was also an aviation buff, one of the first Americans to learn how to pilot an airplane; throughout his life, the artist would retain a fondness for fast planes, fast trains & fast cars. By 1950, he’d learned what Black Mountain had to teach him, under the direct tutelage of Ilya Bolotowsky, a member of the Abstract American Artists, and the less direct influence of Josef Albers, former teacher at the Bauhaus in Germany and current director of Black Mountain. Noland had learned to love the art of Klee. In 1948-49, he’d studied in Paris, where he’d been exposed to the art of Matisse, Miró and Picasso. Returning to the U.S., he’d settled in Washington, and, during the academic year, had been studying and teaching there, but he returned in 1950 to Black Mountain for its summer session. One of the teachers at that session was Greenberg. In 1950, Noland’s painting was more like Klee than anything else, with perhaps a dash of Miró – in other words, not very distinctive. But, said Greenberg to the Time researcher in 1965, he’d liked Noland’s “character,” or he’d thought that Noland had “character.” I can’t remember the exact phraseology of that interoffice memo, but I know that the word “character” appeared. It had resonance for me because, when he first met me, Greenberg had also said that I had “character.” From his tone of voice, I’d known he considered “character” a promising quality. From knowing that Greenberg thought Noland had “character,” it was only a step for me to see the personality embedded in his painting, all the characteristics that made him what he was – or at least, what he seemed to be for me and my researcher, Susan Biederman, when we interviewed him at his Manhattan loft in April, the week that my story was written.

 

FAITH IN THE FUTURE

 

Although the story I wrote for Time doesn’t go into it, I knew that Noland had met Morris Louis in Washington in 1952, and that the following year, the two had visited New York. I knew that Greenberg had then taken them to Frankenthaler’s studio, where they’d seen her “Mountains and Sea,” a painting utilizing a radical stain technique that would revolutionize the styles of both Washington artists. Although the story doesn’t go into it either, I may have known that Noland’s first wife had been Cornelia Langer, a onetime student of David Smith, and that he had three children with her: Cady, Lyn and Bill (all three of whom have continued to be active within the realm of art). At the time of my ‘69 interview, Noland was married to his second wife, Stephanie Gordon, but he flirted with myself and Biederman. I go into that in my book, but more to the point here is that he told us about arriving at his first mature paintings, the “targets.” Seeking to get away from “drawing” and focus exclusively on color, he laid a 6-foot-square canvas on the floor, and walked around it until he lost track of top and bottom. Then, taking the center of the canvas as his point of departure, he began to pour, stain and swab concentric circles outward, giving him an image that – while not totally divorced from the external world – nonetheless afforded him the freedom he wanted. From the targets, which debuted in New York in 1959, he moved on to chevrons and diamonds before the stripes (having by this time moved north, and dividing his time between New York and Vermont). In the 70s, he’d evolve into “plaids,” and by the ‘80s, into shaped canvases that indicated a return to interest in “form” as well as color. During this period, he married Peggy Schiffer, and had one son with her, Sam. Noland is survived by is survived by his four children, one grandchild, and his fourth wife, Paige Rense, editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest, to whom he had been married for 15 years.

 

During the last years of Noland’s life, advancing macular degeneration made painting increasingly difficult, but he continued to show work from earlier years. In 2008, the pale stripes that had been the subject of my 1969 story on him returned, in a show at Leslie Feely. They looked just as good as ever – maybe not peak Noland, but still so much better than any thing else around that it was embarrassing. His last show, of shaped canvases from the ‘80s, went up at Feely this past October. He personally directed the hanging, and also attended the opening, though walking was clearly difficult. Again, though not his greatest work, these canvases looked exceedingly good in the present context, too. The gallery has extended the show through January 30. This is not surprising, when you consider the many tributes to Noland, to his art, and to his kindness (particularly toward younger artists) recorded in the blog set up by the NY Times to accompany the obituary they ran at their website. This obituary was by Roberta Smith, and evidently hastily written, for the author had trouble rising above her inbred pomonian orientation. The Times ran a second, better obit in their hard-copy edition, by William Grimes. It picked up on what for me was perhaps the finest aspect of the artist’s ’character’ or personality: his faith in the future. This concern with what would come after him, and commitment to the continuation of the modernist enterprise, made him a generous patron of this column, subscribing to its print edition not only on his own behalf, but with a raft of gift subscriptions. He will be missed, for the money involved, but even more for the spirit behind it. Grimes captured something of that spirit by quoting what Noland had said at a symposium in 1994, about the future of abstraction. “It’s a fertile field that we barely have explored, and young artists will return to it,” Noland said. “I’m certain.”

 

A BRIEF LOOK AT U.S. POLITICS

 

Some folks take a lot of convincing. For months, in fact years, I have been pointing out the strength of the conservative bloc in this country, a strength born at least as much of the number of voters involved as it is of their financial resources. When the nation elected Barack Obama to the Presidency in 2008, and gave the Democrats huge majorities in Congress, I felt that neither would have happened without the stock market tanking and wiping out so many paper profits enjoyed by voters who’d placed their faith in 401 (k)’s. Keith Miller, the gent who reviewed my book for TLS, said my political opinions were “pessimistic.” Hell, I don’t consider myself a pessimist, I consider myself a realist. I wasn’t happy in November, when both New Jersey & Virginia elected themselves Republican governors, but on the other hand, I wasn’t surprised (any more than I was by the election of Michael Bloomberg, that prize creep, to a third term as mayor of New York City). With the stock market on the upswing, it seemed to me just a case of returning more or less to business as usual. I guess (when all’s said and done) I wasn’t overly surprised, either, on January 19, when Massachusetts, after having been represented in the U.S. Senate for decades by a Democrat, Teddy Kennedy, chose a little-known Republican, Scott Brown, to succeed him. The vote wasn’t even close: Brown got 52 percent of it, while his Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, got 47 percent.

 

The New York Times expressed – or at least, implied – surprise. On January 21, it ran an enormous article entitled “How the G.O.P. Captured a Seat Lost for Decades,” by 4 reporters (Adam Nagourney, Jeff Zeleny, Kate Zernike and Michael Cooper). The gist of all it was that Coakley was at fault, by not getting out and campaigning, but simply assuming that she was going to win. The Republicans – aided by a year-old “populist” right-wing movement called the Tea Party, and favoring small government – laid low, and didn’t reveal the fact that they were pouring money & people into the fray. But blaming Coakley & implying that quiet money bought the election doesn’t really account for the fact that a lot of people seem to be fed up with Obama and the Democrats. On January 16, the Times dropped a blog from a story about the upcoming election in Massachusetts. When I checked into it, a day or so after its publication, the blog had acquired 227 comments, for a total of 10 pages. I only checked the first page, with 25 entries, but I was amazed at the level of anger expressed toward Obama & the Dems, essentially for getting nothing done in their first year of office and not pulling the nation out of its economic slump. Only 3 entries supported Obama & the Dems by suggesting that they had inherited the messes in Washington and on Wall Street from the Republicans; the rest dumped on them, vehemently. Moreover, these complaints were coming from Democrats as well as Republicans, and from all over the country. If a new Congress were to be elected tomorrow, I hate to think what party would wind up in control.

 

THE CONSEQUENCES OF JANUARY 19

 

The most immediate effect of Brown’s election is to end the Democrats’ 60-vote margin in the Senate. The Republicans are now free to filibuster to their hearts’ content – against health care reform & anything else they don’t like. Nobody seems to know where health care is headed now. Before Christmas, both the Senate and House of Representatives had passed bills on the subject, but there were differences between the two bills, which would have to be reconciled by a joint Senate-House committee, before submitting the revised, uniform bill to both bodies for approval. Obama is still talking about getting a health care bill of some sort through Congress, but it would have to be even more conservative than either of the present bills, which in turn – as David Leonhardt noted in the Times for January 20 – are already more conservative than Bill Clinton’s 1993 proposal; they’re also more conservative than Richard Nixon’s 1971 proposal, which would have had the federal government provide insurance to people who couldn’t get it through their jobs. Frankly, I wonder whether the country really cares that much about health care reform. Congress has dithered over it for so long that support for it may have withered away – to the extent that it ever had that support in the first place. MoveOn, the liberal online lobby group, likes to cite surveys that seem to enthusiastically endorse not only health care reform but also the public option (which was dropped from the Senate version of the bill as the price for getting the support of Joe Lieberman). I don’t know where Move On gets its statistics from, but I do know that on January 20, the Times ran a piece by Megan Thee-Brenan citing five polls with surprisingly similar results. The AP poll found that 42 percent of their respondents supported the health care plan being discussed by Congress, and 42 percent opposed it. A Pew Research Center poll found 48 percent opposed, 39 percent in favor. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 46 percent opposed, 33 percent in favor. The ABC/ Washington Post poll found 51 percent opposed, 44 percent supporting, and Fox News found 51 percent opposed and 39 percent favoring it. These figures have remained pretty much the same for the past six months, and they do not look to me like a groundswell of support.

 

President Obama is not taking all of this lying down. Not only health care, but his whole program of proposed progressive legislation is vulnerable now, including his attempts to tamp down global warming & rein in the financial community. But his initial responses, as chronicled by the Times, don’t seem to point to very constructive solutions. The first thing he has done, as indicated by several stories in the Times, is announce a new plan to police the banks. Giving the almost inevitable Republican opposition to this idea, and the concomitant likelihood that no meaningful legislation can be enacted, this looks like a ploy to enlist left-wing “populist” sentiment, as a way of balancing the right-wing “populism” of the Tea Party. Where he is going to get with this, Heaven alone knows – unless, of course, with truly Machiavellian cunning, he is trying to set up a situation where his very helplessness will rally voters to his cause, by casting himself and his party as the Little Guys taking on Big Money. The other thing he has done, according to a story by Jeff Zeleny and Peter Baker, in the Times for January 24, is begin to reconstitute the advisory team that won him the election of 2008. Seems he wants to get an early start in the mid-term campaign for Congress that will roll around next November. Bully for him! It would appear that we are now going to revert to electioneering mode, which I fear may mean nothing more than many stump speeches, public spectacles & promises – a re-run of that seemingly endless campaign of 2008, in other words – as opposed to getting substantive legislation enacted, or for that matter anything else of a truly material nature done.

 

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE RANCH...

“ICON PAINTING IN ANCIENT CRETE”

 

Manhattan museums, from the Met to MoMA to the Frick Collection, seem to have been hard hit by the economic downturn. This has led to a plethora of drawings exhibitions & “cabinet” shows, with a few Old Masters (often from a museum’s permanent collection) “enhanced” by a raft of dull wall texts & press releases on conservation, provenance and/or iconography. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this may even get to be standard procedure, if we believe the profile by Rebecca Mead of Thomas P. Campbell, the Met’s new director, that ran in The New Yorker last summer. Mead said many positive things about Campbell, who is an expert on tapestries as opposed to paintings or sculpture, but what struck terror to my heart was his dismissive attitude toward the big monographic exhibitions of major Western artists that the Met has done so long & so well. It made me fear that we will get no more retrospectives for the likes of Courbet or Turner. Holland Cotter sounded the alarm in November (without being aware of it) when he rhapsodized – in a big, headlined story – about “The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete at the Onassis Cultural Center (through February 27). According to Cotter, this show was “lustrous,” “extraordinary,” and contained “some of the most enwrapping and enrapturing art in town.” I’d agree that the show has a number of fine paintings, and is very professionally installed, but it’s not that big, so Cotter’s superlatives really only suggest how poorly the competition stacks up. Organized by Dr. Anastasia Drandaki, “The Origins” is a scholarly exhibition of about 50 panel paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries, drawn from collections in the U.S., Canada and Europe to dramatize the cross-fertilization that took place on the island of Crete, in the Mediterranean, between two disparate cultures. One source was the late Byzantine style, imported – along with many refugee painters – from Constantinople, prior to its conquest by the Turks in 1453, and welcomed by the predominantly Greek Orthodox population on Crete. The other was influences from Roman Catholic Italy, ranging from late Gothic to Mannerism, and coming to Crete by way of Venice, since the island had been a territory of that Italian city-state since 1211.

 

This was the milieu that gave birth and early training to Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco (1541-1614). The exhibition concludes with 7 paintings by him, including four done after he left Crete around 1566, that are the best part of the show. I was particularly taken with his “Entombment of Christ” (ca. 1568-70), showing the rich colors that he was picking up from his first-hand exposure in Venice to the art of Titian and Tintoretto. It was also very educational to see, from the three paintings done prior to El Greco’s arrival in Venice, that he was already something of a Mannerist even before he left Crete, in terms of sinuous, elongated body types. As for the earlier parts of the show, I admit that I got a little tired of large Virgins with sour expressions and hoods on their heads like cauls, to say nothing of those Greek Orthodox monks chanting prayers on a recorded sound track (I was reared by an atheist mother, and when force-fed religion, tend to revert to her outlook). I was also reminded that late Byzantine art doesn’t do it for me, though I often adore early Byzantine. Still, there were a number of paintings that I truly liked, especially the several showing saints riding horses and/or slaying dragons. The most delightful was “Saint George on Horseback, Slaying the Dragon,” by Georgios Klontzas, from the late 16th century. A brightly-colored vertical panel, it shows the saint in heavily-decorated armor, sitting on a big-necked, big-bottomed grey horse with a tiny head and short legs. The saint rises triumphantly above a cute little dragon, with landscape elements in the background – blue sky, hills, and a tiny town. Another winner by the same artist was his “Illustration to the Hymn ‘In Thee Rejoiceth’” (also late 16th century) with dozens of tiny figures in registers at the bottom & in a spiral at the top, circling around a small Virgin & still smaller baby Jesus.

 

“CÉZANNE AND AMERICAN MODERNISM”

IN MONTCLAIR

 

This fall, the best place to see the Western tradition of early modernism was in Montclair, New Jersey (only a short bus ride from Manhattan). There, the Montclair Art Museum was mounting the most ambitious exhibition in its 95-year history, “Cézanne and American Modernism” (in collaboration with the Baltimore Museum of Art, where it is on view February 14 through May 23, then at the Phoenix Art Museum, July 3 through September 26). Curated by Gail Stavitsky, Montclair’s chief curator, the show examines the influence of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) upon modern American artists from 1907 to 1930, with 131 works, including 18 by Cézanne himself and paintings, works on paper, photographs, and archival documents representing 34 American artists (plus some critics). I have to compare this show with “Cézanne and Beyond,” staged by the Philadelphia Museum of Art last spring and reviewed in my June 2009 issue. That show was only slightly larger, with 150-plus works, and again attempted to show the influence of Cézanne on artistic successors. Since it didn’t limit itself geographically, it could include great paintings by Matisse, Picasso and other European masters that Montclair, having limited itself to Americans, couldn’t match. On the other hand, Montclair, by limiting itself to works produced no later than 1930, spared us the half-dozen postmodernist losers that Philadelphia included (Jasper Johns, Brice Marden, etc.) By eliminating both the best & worst that Philadelphia chose to offer, Montclair produced an exhibition of equal average quality.

 

The larger galleries at Montclair compared larger oils by Cézanne with similar paintings by American admirers, usually when the American artists were still in their own formative stages.. Near the beginning came American pictures made in the first 20 years of the 20th century. They mostly tended to look like second-rate Cézannes, and the genuine Cézannes looked terrific next to them. However, when the American work on view represented those artists in their mature phases, after they’d passed out of their direct indebtedness to Cézanne, it could look very good indeed. I was particularly taken with some such work by Maurice Prendergast, Charles Demuth, Oscar Bluemner, and Marsden Hartley, among others. Some early work, modeled on Cézanne, looked as good or better than later, better-known work by those same artists: an early, intriguingly naturalistic landscape by Man Ray, of all people, and the best Leon Kroll I’ve seen. With paintings executed in the 1920s, Cézanne’s influence led to paintings that, in the context of the time, looked less radical than what else was being done. Nevertheless, he continued to attract adherents who’d later go on to other, more avant-garde styles – Willard Nash and Hale Woodruff to cubism and Mexican-style mural techniques, Arshile Gorky all the way to becoming a founding member of the New York School.

 

Still, the part of this exhibition that wowed me most was the small, cramped gallery at its beginning that documented how Americans were exposed to Cézanne in the earliest years of the century, prior to and during World War I. Though composed largely of works on paper, photographs and documentary material, it nonetheless succeeded in conveying the excitement of discovery. Here were displayed Cézannes actually seen by Americans, either in New York or Paris, together with pictures by Americans directly or at least supposedly inspired by them. Also on view was evidence of where the Cézannes were exhibited, including photographs of the apartment of Gertrude & Leo Stein in Paris & Camera Work, the magazine published by Alfred Stieglitz and used by him to expand the audience for modernism beyond the four walls of his pioneering gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York. All the Cézannes, needless to say, were beautiful, but the one to die for was the late pencil-and-watercolor, “Still Life with Carafe, Bottle and Fruit” (1906). Also powerful were two 1910 watercolors by John Marin of Tyrolese mountains whose inspiration from the Master of Aix was indirect at best; a neat little study of three apples from 1910 by Morgan Russell very directly descended from Cézanne, but appealing in its own right; and a remarkable series of photographs of Cézanne paintings made by Eugène Druet, a Parisian photographer and dealer, and exhibited at 291 in 1910. Although these photographs were only black-and-white, they served admirably to show how unique – and influential --- were Cezanne’s dramatic compositional effects and highly arbitrary use of perspective. Among other American artists who distinguished themselves in this exhibition were Stanton MacDonald-Wright, Alfred Maurer, Patrick Henry Bruce, Arthur B. Carles, Andrew Dasburg and Walter Pach. It was also very interesting to see three distinguished early modern photographers taking their cues from Cézanne: Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Edward Steichen.

 

SALANDER IN THE SUBURBS

 

Knowing that delights awaited me in Montclair, I also ventured to the peaceful suburban village of Millbrook, New York, to visit Phoenix Art. This gallery is run (though not owned) by Lawrence B. Salander, while awaiting trial on manifold charges of defrauding artists, collectors, & estates at his Manhattan gallery (shuttered two years ago). The December group show at Phoenix featured an eclectic mix of paintings by Salander himself, his daughter Ivana Salander, five local artists including Baron Corso de Palenzuela, Pam White, Annemiek Do Gersten, Perry Rollins and Joyce Weinstein, and three artists who exhibited with Salander in New York: Stanley Boxer, Paul Weingarten and Tom Goldenberg. In addition, there were two survivors from Salander’s formerly headlined business in Old Masters, a small Delacroix horse study, and an 18th-century copy of the well-known Roman sculpture of a boy taking a thorn out of his foot, attributed to Canova. The baron was born in Cuba but raised in the U.S., where he is an editor at The Country and Abroad, a local glossy magazine. He was given a full gallery in which to display his amusing & very sophisticated “primitive” reminiscences of pre-Castro Cuba. Ivana Salander contributed abstracts, while her father showed a large, striking and similarly semi-primitive figure study entitled “Somali Magdalene.” Goldenberg was represented by “Grand View,” a landscape of high hillside that reminded me of Pissarro, Boxer by late & excellent work, similar to that in his retrospective (which I reviewed in my October issue). Weinstein’s four lively abstracts were distinguished by bright, jazzy colors, delineating vivid circles or ovals and heightened by spatterings & driplets of paint. The two best were “Country Fields with Yellow and Pink” and “Autumn Country Fields with Magenta.”

 

NOODLING AROUND TOWN IN SEARCH OF THE ABSTRACT

 

Since even Holland Cotter has conceded (dourly) that abstraction is having “a moment,” I took in a handful of abstract and semi-abstract shows recommended by various sources, to wit: “Stanley Whitney” at Team (through February 6), “Roy Newell: The Private Myth” at Carolina Nitsch in Chelsea (through February 20), “Julian Jackson: Will’O The Wisp; new paintings” at Kathryn Markel (through February 6); “Lloyd Martin: Shift” at Stephen Haller (through February 20); Noah Landfield in the Hunter College MFA Thesis Exhibition at Hunter College Times Square Gallery (through January 16) and “Helen Frankenthaler” at Ameringer-McEnery-Yohe (through January 23). Of the first four I would say that all are (or, in the case of Newell, were) competent and entirely worthy craftsman, laboring valiantly in the vales of abstraction to realize their dreams. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the fruits of their endeavor. Landfield’s four semi-abstract cityscapes are the highlight of the Hunter show, but this is very faint praise, considering how pathetic the rest of the show is. All the world knows that I consider Frankenthaler a great artist, but this is not her best show, nor did she have anything to do with it. Ameringer’s doesn’t represent her, as far as I know. They simply display works available on the secondary market, and this show suggests to me that the economic downtown has persuaded collectors who own the big-ticket Frankenthalers from the ‘50s and ‘60s to hang on to them for the present. Everything on view is more recent, and accordingly less expensive. Still, several are lovely, among them “Tar” (1979), a dark, plum-colored painting with a few flesh-colored shapes swimming around in it, and the flavor of a Boschian hell. “White Joy” (1981) has a Miró-esque spontaneity & liveliness, with the bottom of the field green, the top orange, and dancing white, black and orange blobs to contrast.

 

PHEORIS WEST, PETER G. RAY

 

Two earlier shows that stood out beyond most of the six just mentioned were “Pheoris West: Small Collages” at Peg Alston Fine Art and “Peter G. Ray: The Rising Tension of Inescapable Desire” at bridgegalleryny. West, born in 1950 and with an MFA from Yale, earned in 1976, is best known as a representational painter, but in this show, he exhibited small, charming collages, with occasional tiny figurative elements but predominantly abstract. It’s awfully hard to do something fresh with collage, but West managed it by employing bright colors, pure paper, and making no attempt at nostalgia or associations with “society” via recognizable candy wrappers, etc. Best were “Rebirth (Mother and Child),” “Blues Singer,” and “Walking.” Ray, despite his Anglo-sounding name, hails from Bulgaria, where he earned his MA at the Bulgarian National Academy for Visual Arts. Now in his 40s, he is based in Montreal, and has exhibited widely but mostly in Canada & France. The work on view fell into two categories: larger & smaller. The smaller was a “Velocity” series of 8 small paintings made of oil, acrylic and varnish on silvery metallic panels. The varnish coated the paint with a glassy covering, so the pictures looked almost more like photographs of paintings than paintings themselves, particularly since all but one were black & white, and one was only red & black.. Exuberant, rollicking forms alternated between brushlike, abstract shapes and shiny, almost slimy semi-figurative ones, the best being “Velocity #2,” “Velocity #9,” and “Velocity #4.” The larger work in the show primarily combined painted elements similar to the “Velocity” series with various objects. “Milina” was a huge aluminum shopping bag with cord-like handles dangling from its top, while “Just another rainy day” had a lock and chain embedded in it, along with collage elements, including a tiny reproduction of an Old Master painting showing the martyrdom of St. Steven. Kenworth Moffett, who strongly recommended this show to me, was very enthusiastic about all of it, including the large pieces. He felt that with them, Ray had managed “to integrate the postmodernist achievement.” For me, the large pieces didn’t come off. Some pomo work appeals to me (as the reader will see, when s/he gets to my review of the group exhibition at Sideshow in Williamsburg). But I didn’t agree with Moffett about the big Rays. Well, isn’t that what makes horse-racing?

 

TWO SHOWS OF REPRESENTATIONAL WORK

 

At Elizabeth Harris, I saw “William Carroll: Walking New York” (through February 6). I first met Carroll when he was working at the Harris gallery as a desk attendant, but after I saw this show, I realized he had much more to recommend him than a sympathetic attitude & useful information about other artists. The work on view is small grisaille cityscapes, ghostly silhouettes of the skyscrapers, bridges, warehouses, elevated highways, churches and street signs of New York, very simplified but also complex, almost cubist shapes, close to abstract, but never minimal or dull. Carroll bases these magical little pictures on drawings that he’s made while patrolling the Big Apple on foot – walking on occasion all the way from his home in the East Village to Coney Island, and (according to the gallery’s press release) throughout all five boroughs of the city. He was born in the Bronx, raised on Long Island, got his BFA from Pratt, and spent the ‘70s in San Francisco. Since then, he’s worked in many New York art-world venues, including the DIA Foundation and the Brooklyn Museum, as well as at Harris (currently, he’s with the Nancy Graves Foundation). Approximately half the paintings on view are around 9 x 12, and made with stencils and spray paint (Krylon) on canvas. The other half are smaller, typically 3 x 7, and made with acrylic on paper. Among the larger, spray paintings, I went especially for “New York #36" (ecclesiastical buildings), “New York #17" (a mystery building, combining a slanted roof with a flat one), and “New York #21" (street signs). Among the smaller, acrylic ones, I liked especially “nyc 466" (a bridge with an arched superstructure, reminding me of the railroad bridge next to the Triboro) and “nyc 435" (the Citicorp Building, flanked by other office towers).

 

Two very young painters have a show together at a gathering of the tribes. Both took their MFA’s in 2009 from the New York Academy of Art in TriBeCa, where the emphasis is on training students to paint, draw & sculpt figuratively, just like the Old Masters (and like the Royal Academy & French Salon painters of the 19th century, and the academic branch of surrealism in France in the 1930s). Both these young painters appear to have learned their lessons, as can be seen in “Philip J. Hardy/Michael Gibson: Language Paintings” (through January 29). Gibson is still struggling to find himself, although some of his pictures display sound academic technique, among them “Enter the Red Shirt” and “They’re Year Five Thousand.” Hardy has not only mastered academic technique, but is beginning to have ideas about how to employ it, utilizing a blond palette & fanciful themes that resemble an ultra-contemporary version of say, René Magritte. In only one instance (among the nine paintings on view) would I say that Hardy’s technique is inadequate to convey his ideas, but many of his images are haunting, including “Transcendent Cars, “ in which small automobiles float amid clouds, “Flying Pig,” a porker with wings, and “Pigggy,” which shows another pig, this one under a bridge, with a wheelbarrow & foliage. Most impressive is “Toad Lover,” a symphony in greys and browns. It depicts a monstrously large greige toad in a greige landscape with a smaller greige toad on his shoulders, while strapped to the head of the smaller toad is a little house with light shining out of its windows.

 

A MEMORABLE GROUP SHOW: “WINTER WHITE”

 

White (like black, and for that matter every other hue in the spectrum) can be used & misused, creating effects gorgeous or irksome. Of the latter type, we have the blank hostility of the machine-made panels ordered up by Robert Rauschenberg, the fashionable inanities of Robert Ryman, and the cutesy artifacts of Piero Manzoni. Of the former type, we had the classic white of Anne Truitt in my last issue, and for this one, a splendid group show at Tria entitled “Winter White” (through January 21) Well after the season for incessant replaying of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” is past, whiteness continues at the back of every mind in the nation’s Snow Belt, not least in 2010 because in just three weeks we’ll be assaulted with the Winter Olympics, ice and snow furnishing the backdrop to all those skaters, skiers and tobogganists.

 

For this exhibition, the proprietors of Tria asked nine artists to make works inspired by the phrase “winter white.” The artists produced seven paintings, one inkjet print, and one sculpture. Howard Kalish is the sculptor, represented by a globe made of many short & asterisk-shaped ice-like acrylic rods. The inkjet print is called “Winter White (Wavehill Magnolia),” and comes from Andrew Millner. Atop a deep brown field, he has used a computer to draw a tall and elaborately leafy tree with dozens of very narrow, interwoven white lines.

 

Among the paintings, the two by Sue Contessa and Jenny Nelson try hard, but the five others have either more or much more to recommend them. Serena Bocchino’s white-on-white grid of dots is only in the “”more” class, but the remaining foursome are all in the category of “much more.” Alexandre Guillaume (according to the gallery’s press release) also makes photographs and videos, yet his “Adrift” is strangely reminiscent of the gesturalism of the 1950s – not a drawback, in his case, because of the vitality of his whiplash strokes and the purity of his white-on-white palette. Daniel Rosenbaum introduces a band of soft pastel colors into the billowing white snowdrift of his energetic composition entitled “Blizzard,” to very pleasant effect. Michela Martelo is (besides Millner) the other representational painter. She creates a fine feeling of space by depicting a classical-looking white sculpture of a woman on one side of her composition, plus a pair of wings that may belong either to a Renaissance angel or a Hellenistic Nike. Coming down hard on the side of the Renaissance is “Dream Life of Angels,” by Francine Tint. This for me is the finest picture in the show, a sensuous horizontal partially covered with just the right number of vigorously curving and interwoven strokes of paint – mostly white on a brown field, but with a little smatch of blue for accent.

 

THE BEST SHOW IN TOWN:

“IT’S A WONDERFUL 10th”

 

“Over-hung” is a phrase that has no meaning at Sideshow, where Rich Timperio has, since the turn of the century, mounted his annual far-flung exploration of the contemporary scene. This 10th anniversary year, the show is called “It’s a Wonderful 10th” (through February 20). As usual, the walls of the spacious gallery are covered from floor to ceiling with works of every imaginable description and media, mo and pomo hanging companionably side by side. The 15-page checklist carries the names of 368 artists. Most are probably best described as moderately well-known, mid-career artists, but some are celebrities, among them Dorothea Rockburne, Jake Berthot, Nicolas Carone, and Forrest Myers. Others are younger – still in school, earning their bread as studio- or gallery-assistants, or, in the case of. Alex White-Mazzarella still selling their art upon the street. White-Mazzarella’s mixed-media painting, “The Artist at Work,” is a bizarre concoction of abstract and sci-fi forms done in blue, white, purple, green and black oil, pastel, charcoal, acrylic and pencil. Indeed, the range of media on the checklist as a whole boggles the mind, including as it does oil, acrylic, pencil, ink, gold leaf, vinyl, gelatin print, C print, wood block print, screen print, gouache, pastel, collage, woven cotton, horsehair, aqua resin & casein, plaster, bronze, steel, wood, marker on banana peel, porcelain and other ceramics, glass, coffee, corn meal, flock and enamel, cashmere, Plexiglas, beeswax, inkjet print, charcoal, encaustic, and video – to say nothing of that ubiquitous umbrella-term, “mixed media.”.

 

Two dealer-artists are here: Paulien Lethen, of Holland Tunnel, with a small paper piece, and Janet Kurnatowski, with a sizeable & subtly altered bird-cage. Critic-artists are welcome: Mario Naves shows a small collage, while Robert C. Morgan is represented by a minimalist painting that distantly resembles one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Lake George Window” series (I liked the Morgan better than the O’Keeffe). Some beloved figures now departed are seen: Al Loving, Dan Christensen, Willoughby Sharp. Dan’s surviving brother, Don Christensen, is also in the show, but more commonly, this is a living family affair, with both Noah and his father, Ronnie Landfield represented (Ronnie’s contribution this year is especially fresh); Willy and Cheyenne Timperio (like their father, abstract painters, but geometric rather than gestural like Dad); Paula De Luccia and Lawrence Poons (the husband of this dynamic duo seen to exceptionally good advantage in a delicious little pale grey poured-paint segment from 1984); the twins Carol and Cathy Diamond. While the bulk of the roster comes from the New York area, Rich Timperio also hosts visitors from afar. Peter Young, who now resides in Bisbee, Arizona, is seen in a smallish, good-looking, rough-textured, white-on -white abstract. High above it hangs a large, ultra-realistic and mystifying picture of three women, garbed in ornate costumes that suggest either seductiveness or Moslem modesty (one wears a gown with a low-cut neckline, while another wraps a shawl around the lower part of her face). This painting is by Taha A. Al-Douri, who lives in Abu Dhabi and runs the architecture school there. He flew in to New York for the opening.

 

A number of works by artists I’ve admired for some time greeted me: Fran Kornfeld, with “Staccato,” five colorful pieces of handmade paper; Peter Reginato, with “Wonder Wheel,” a sculpture made out of brightly-painted stainless steel rods; Francine Tint, with “Cybele,” a richly-impastoed painting in blues and greens (very different from her contribution to “Winter White”); and Michael Filan, with “Yellow,” a multi-colored combination drip-and-pour. Roy Lerner is another artist I’ve long admired. In his first appearance at Sideshow, he exhibits “Kick and Swing,” a handsomely riffled panel of acrylic and gel that seems almost too luxurious for Williamsburg (though I understand that even Williamsburg is getting too gentrified for young artists to afford). It’s always nice to see what Ann Walsh and Jim Walsh are up to. Ann in this case opts for a tall, narrow panel that hangs against the wall, with horizontal bands of scarlet, tan and orange, while Jim’s signature molding paste is employed to deploy small blobs of dark blue, brown, gray and mustard upon a completely flat & striking orange field. Other artists always welcome include Lauren Olitski, Randy Bloom, Carolana Parlato and Sasha Silverstein, but it’s particular fun to pick out artists whom I haven’t dealt with previously (or at least recently). Among the more sedate entries, I noted a very sweet little abstract acrylic on canvas by Terrence Miele, a small but energetic abstract bronze sculpture by Ernest Marciano, and a cute little fantasy/landscape oil on linen by Margery Mellman (herself practically a New York institution). Brandon Pilcher is responsible for a small, pretty photograph of tree branches, irregularly shaped and mounted, while Amy Hill exhibits two oil-on-panel paintings of formally-posed young women in very contemporary attire, painted in the style of a 15th century Flemish primitive. Of the two, I preferred “Young Woman with Instant Freeze Hairspray” (she has a Mohawk & is wearing a red Italian-made down vest). Among the portraits is an almost photorealistic oil study by Phyllis Herfield of the head of Larry Poons above the heads of three beige cats (or maybe one beige cat in three different poses), also a fascinating photograph of the young Jasper Johns, taken in 1964 by Dan Budnik.

 

Leaving the hairiest (or maybe the funniest, or maybe the most defiantly pomonian) till last, I come first to “Shalom, Salaam, tomodachi,” by Noa Bornstein. This is a literally hairy brown life-sized great ape (gorilla? baboon? chimpanzee?), anyway, twisted into the most contorted pose with one arm over its head, and made of Structolite and Vitracal over wire, mesh and metal, with water base paint. Much more life-like and fun than King Kong.....Somewhat dustier but also highly inscrutable is “I. R. S. Desk,” by Judy Richardson. This is 7 years’ worth of receipts impaled upon 8 tall stationery spikes that sit upon an old wooden desk. How appropriate for the opening days of the income tax season! If she’s audited, the artist jokes, she’ll have to come & take it all away....Finally, one unusually clever conceptual artist who often makes me smile: Loren Munk (who also writes, under the pseudonym of James Kalm). His picture’s title is written straight across it: “12 Logical Reasons Why You Should Stop Painting.” At the center is the only pictorial element: a red circle with a diagonal cross bar, superimposed on a hand holding a paintbrush. Around the edges are lettered the 12 logical reasons, among them: “Warhol killed it in 1963;” “Replaced by ‘New Media;’” “Requires sensitivity lacking in current critical discourse;” “So last millennium;” “It’s become an exersise [sic] in unachievable potentials;” “Went out of fashion;” “A medium that has become an anachronism;” and “It has no theory.” All of this writing is enshrined in oil on linen – in other words, it’s a painting. So much for logic in art.

 

BEYOND THE COMMUTING BELT

(IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER)

 

In London, Rollo Contemporary Art exhibited “Zippers: New Works by Frank Bowling R.A.”......”George Bethea” was featured at Edge Zones Art Space in Miami.... “Wood Forms: Sculptures by César Alvarez” is at Common Sense in Edmonton (until February 28)... The Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY, will present “Tim Scott: The Sixties – When Colour was Sculpture,” organized by David Mirvish of Toronto (January 30 – April 11)....“Larry Poons: Recent Paintings” will be at the Esther Massry Gallery of the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY (January 31 – March 21). Gallery reception: February 5, 5 to 7 pm, with artist’s talk at 7 pm in Saint Joseph Auditorium. .....

 

Featured in the Supplement to the DeLuxe edition: Willard Boepple, with his installation, “The Way Things Work,” at 545 Madison Avenue....(© Copyright 2010 by Piri Halasz)

 

 

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