(An Appropriate Distance)
FROM THE MAYOR'S DOORSTEP

by Piri Halasz

 

 

 

 

NO. 84: 1 JUNE 2009....HAPPY HUNDRED, CLEM!..... AND HERE’S YOUR BIRTHDAY PRESENT----A BOOK! On January 16, 2009, Clement Greenberg, our greatest art critic, would have become a centenarian. The celebrations began two summers ago, and are continuing on into this spring, with five tributes taking (or having taken) place in three countries. As I’m dealing with such a multitudinous phenomenon, I’m going to use a lot of space discussing it (doubtless more than I really need to, but if I’m going to meet my self-imposed deadline, I won’t have time to trim it down to size). It’s going to take so much time & space that I’ll have to forego any extended extra-artistic political comment. The economy is maybe marginally brighter than it was in February or March, but still nothing to cheer about, and with no big headlines to mark its progress (or lack of it). President Obama excels at announcing new governmental programs, but Congress is dragging its feet at enacting them, though some small legislation is seeping through (credit card policing, energy conservation, a budget). Anybody who ever fancied that Obama was or would become a wide-eyed liberal must by this time have begun to realize that he’s at least as interested in consensus governing as he is in Progress with a capital P, whether we’re talking about his waffling on how to deal with prisoners at Guantanamo, or his appeals for fewer abortions at Notre Dame. But hey! That doesn’t surprise me, as I’ve long maintained the U.S. electorate is fundamentally much more conservative than it was fifty years ago in economic issues, and Obama clearly believes that even in social issues, one has to move slowly in order to keep the entire team in step.

 

NOW, TO THE BIRTHDAY TRIBUTES

 

1) I’m afraid that the first of these tributes is of such consuming interest to me right now that I may shortchange all the others: it’s the publication of my book my book (after 14 years of researching, writing and preparing it for publication). I’ve been trying all week to buckle down and write this column, but keep being distracted by opportunities to plug the book: talking on the phone about it and writing about it in emails and snail mails to prospective buyers and/or reviewers, planning a book launch party for all friends who don’t yet have it (and might buy it), sending out review copies, trying to plan “events” for next fall (talks and/or readings, plus book signings), etc., etc. Those of you reading this online know that my website has already been revamped to feature the book, called “A Memoir of Creativity: abstract painting, politics & the media, 1956-2008.” It deals with many subjects, but in the context of CG’s centenary, I point out that he figures largely in it. To the (somewhat limited) extent that it has a hero, he’s it. I won’t please everybody with my portrayal of him, but I do believe what I’ve written compares favorably with books by Florence Rubenfeld and Alice Marquis – not in terms of the amount of information given, but certainly in terms of its tone.

 

REAL & PSEUDO-GREENBERG

 

Greenberg was hard to remain neutral about. You either took to him strongly or were rendered extremely angry by him, leading on the one hand to a tendency to airbrush your portrait of him, and on the other, to demonization. The longer he’s dead, the more antagonistic postmodernists in the New York art world seem to have become toward him – or rather, toward the pseudo-Greenberg, an Abominable Bogeyman they’ve dreamed up to justify their own mostly feeble and/or opportunistic art and toe-the-line art criticism as “youthful” and “revolutionary” in the face of Authority and Paternal Domination. This pseudo-Greenberg bears no more resemblance to the real Greenberg than do the effigies burned on November 5 in England to the historical Guy Fawkes, but he still seems sufficient to scare our conformist art lovers away from even going to look at art that the real Greenberg supported & admired in the last three decades of his life (so scarily does this mythical figure loom that galleries exhibiting even faintly Greenbergian art play down its association with him). It’s not much good telling such artists and critics 1) that Greenberg never intended his discussion of “flatness” in “Modernist Painting” to suggest that flatness was to be seen as a criterion of quality in art, and 2) that Greenberg believed (and wrote, in “Abstract and Representational”) that nobody has yet shown that representation in art either adds or takes away anything from its esthetic value: such truths roll off their tight little minds like water off a duck’s back. The fantasy that people outside the art world harbor is that anything goes in the free air of Artland. The truth is that stepping outside the boundaries of prevailing taste in Chelsea forces one to pay the price.

 

Thinking over my book, I realize that I didn’t deal with any of the more specific hoary misconceptions about Greenberg. I did try to explain why so many people had (and have) so much trouble with him, seeing it as having less to do with personalities & more to do with opposed tastes in art, as well as psycho-economic developments that favored (and continue to favor) second-rate art over first-rate. In my book, I’ve tried to demystify Greenberg, to bring him down to earth & make him into a more understandable human being instead of a god or a Satan – to humanize him, in other words. Posted at my website are the press release that I’ve concocted about the book, jacket copy, blurbs, table of contents, introduction, and index of names PLUS information on where to buy it – not only at Amazon and the online Barnes & Noble but also from yours truly, who at “Halasz’s Bookshop” offers discounts comparable to Amazon, and will autograph your book for you, too, and for any friends or relatives to whom you might want to give a copy. Most of this information will also be included in this issue of the print edition for my subscribers. Books make super presents – for birthdays and house gifts, as well as Christmas and a bar or bat mitzvah. Give a gift that I hope will prompt more people to pay more attention to the kind of art that Greenberg liked! Equally or even more importantly, read the book yourselves and talk it up to all your friends. The best way to sell any book is by enthusiastic word of mouth.

 

NEXT ON THE LIST OF THE CELEBRATIONS:

AN AESTHETICS SYMPOSIUM

 

2) The Summer 2008 issue of Æ:Canadian Aesthetics Journal/Revue canadienne d’esthétique was devoted to “Greenberg, Kant and Contemporary Aesthetics,” As edited by William Buschert and Eric Dayton, this issue has seven papers from a seminar held in June 2007 at Emma Lake, Saskatchewan, and sponsored by the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Philosophy. According to the Greenberg website presided over by Terry Fenton, which should be required reading for anybody wishing to write about its subject, and which has been featuring this event for some time, both the original symposium and the issue of Æ commemorating it, are “serious and sympathetic, a far cry from Greenberg’s treatment by the art world during Greenberg’s lifetime.” That is true, but if you read the papers themselves, you will see that, on the whole, they don’t airbrush Greenberg, and – on a very elevated level, to be sure – find bones to pick with his esthetic theories, especially his claims to a kinship with Kant. My own grasp of esthetic theory is tenuous, but, if you want my opinion, Greenberg’s theories about art were largely developed in specific contexts, and, taken out of those contexts, are far less significant than his capacity to appreciate the best art, and to distinguish between it and the worst art – his fabulous eye, in other words. His defenses of what he liked, and his criticisms of what he didn’t like, are for me always most helpful when phrased in relation to specific artists or works, in an empiricist mode. Being pretty much an empiricist myself, I tend to see this aspect of his thinking as more important than whatever Kantian theories or generalities he may have essayed in “Modernist Painting” and elsewhere - though I also know that art historians in the postmodernist era dedicate their classrooms increasingly to theory as opposed to practice, and that hell may well freeze over before the overwhelming majority of them will devote any time at all to what I’d consider the best art of the ‘60s and since.

 

To me, what Greenberg may have had most in common with Kant is suggested by the title of Kant’s best-known work: “The Critique of Pure Reason.” Like that title, Greenberg knew that rational discussion (of any kind, but especially about art) would take you only so far, and that ultimately the truest insights were not susceptible to rational analysis. This argument finds yet more basis in Freud, who argued that the conscious, reasoning mind is ultimately subservient to the emotional logic of the unconscious (which for me explains why so many people angrily insist that there’s no way to prove the existence of the unconscious: because they don’t like to think that they’re not in complete control of themselves). The tendency to rely exclusively on rationalism and repress the dictates of emotion is particularly prevalent in an artistic climate that elevates Duchamp to sainthood, and makes holy icons of his Readymades. They derive their particular strength from the fact that – unlike the emotional appeal of abstraction – they can be described in words, and words are coin of the logical, conscious mind, what it uses to keep the power of the unconscious at bay. With Greenberg, artistic insights – what was better or worse art, and why – were primarily arrived at by intuition, not logic, and, from the first time I met him, I saw how extraordinarily intuitive he was. He expressed this aspect of his evaluations by saying that there were rules that determined quality in art – but none that could be put into words. This pronunciamento infuriated opponents, who preferred (and prefer) to find all taste subjective, and culturally determined. Greenberg also maintained that the “proof” of his esthetic judgments would be the consensus that eventually developed among educated observers in the future. I would still like to believe this, but also believe that the future is determined by the present, and I’m not happy with the present consensus among many people who could be considered educated. In fact, I am rendered so unhappy by it that I keep on fighting to redress the balance in favor of what I consider the best art.

 

AMONG THE FIRST 3 SYMPOSIUM PAPERS

 

in Æ, and (given my empiricist orientation), the one I liked best was “The Greenberg I Knew,” by Terry Fenton. It’s moving, illuminating, and doesn’t dwell overlong on theory. Rather, Fenton offers an affectionate & vivid word picture of Greenberg going about his daily business of critiquing art: his kindness, positivity, and passion for looking at all kinds of it, plus (among other things) his insistence that although the best new painting might be abstract, so too was the worst, and that the best representational painting was better than the worse abstraction (he might have enjoyed the still life by Cara London that I reproduce in the supplement to the DeLuxe edition of this issue). John O’Brian, editor of the 4-volume “Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism,” presented “Greenberg on Hauser: The Art Critic as Book Critic.” This paper concerns itself with Greenberg’s book reviews, particularly his enthusiasm for Arnold Hauser (1892-1978), an early Marxist art historian whose writings have been excised from the newer canon of Neo-Marxism. (The paper is more a brief for Hauser than Greenberg, and in an earlier draft was intended for a book on Hauser, nor is this business of shoehorning Greenberg into a text primarily devoted to somebody else unique to O’Brian, as we shall see.)

 

The essay by Ken Carpenter is titled “Strengths and Weaknesses in Greenberg’s Aesthetics.” I couldn’t follow all of this sophisticated presentation, but if I understood it correctly, Carpenter argued that Greenberg’s thinking evolved so much that one could speak of Greenberg I (early Greenberg) and Greenberg II (later Greenberg). Further, that Greenberg I placed an emphasis on “feeling” as the content of art that Greenberg II rejected, and that Greenberg I was more consistent and/or effective (though maybe this last conclusion is what I’m reading into it, because it’s what I think). At the same time, I’d suggest that Carpenter’s presentation might have benefitted from placing Greenberg’s evolution away from the discussion of feeling into a historical context, and noting that in the ‘50s, the notion of “feeling” as the content of art was overworked and vitiated by application to the gestural brush strokes of de Kooning and his followers (few of whom were really good). I believe this situation may have been what prompted Susanne K. Langer to criticize the idea that ordinary human feeling was the crucial element in art in “Feeling and Form”(1953). She agreed that works of art often expressed “the artist’s state of mind,” but expressions of feeling “may also be found in wastebaskets and in the margins of schoolbooks,” because “all drawings, utterances, gestures, or personal records of any sort express feelings....” To rate as art, Langer believed, the work had to create “forms symbolic of human feeling”– forms that could evoke an esthetic emotion in the viewer that she equated to “exhilaration.” (Don’t give me credit for having discovered Langer; she was one of three authors whom Greenberg recommended, the first time I met him, the other two being Kant and Benedetto Croce).

 

DESCRIPTION V. PRESCRIPTION

 

A fourth paper that voices a controversial (though also familiar) point of view is “To See a Picture ‘as a Picture’ First: Clement Greenberg and the Ambiguities of Modernism,” by Jeanette Bicknell. At issue is the postscript that Greenberg added in 1978 to his well-known “Modernist Painting” (originally a radio broadcast delivered in 1960). In this postscript, he’d argued that “Modernist Painting” had been misinterpreted, and that he had only adumbrated the development of abstract painting from Manet to the present, not endorsed it – or, to use the phraseology into which this debate has so often degenerated, that he was only describing, not prescribing. To Bicknell, Greenberg’s insistence in “Modernist Painting” on seeing a painting “as a picture” first suggests

 

"the denial of illusionism. Instead of seeing a picture as the things it depicts, the proper way to view a painting is as a painted surface....the move from a robustly realist style of representation through impressionism to purely abstract painting was seen as natural, inevitable, and good. I say this in spite of Greenberg’s avowals, both in a postscript to ‘Modernist Painting’ and in later writings, that he was merely describing the trend and ‘internal logic’ of contemporary art without necessarily endorsing it. As a current scholar of Greenberg’s work notes, description and judgment are inseparable in his prose” (the footnote here refers to a 1998 article by Stephen Melville in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism).

 

True, Bicknell DOES avoid tired & completely erroneous insistence that Greenberg favored ONLY “flatness,” “purity” and abstraction (at the end of her paragraph, she mentions that he approved of some contemporary representational painters, among them Edward Hopper & Arnold Friedman). But Bicknell DOESN’T appear aware that Greenberg didn’t automatically approve of ALL abstract painting, either. As I see it, “Modernist Painting” was originally intended to account for the origins & development of what Greenberg considered “the best art of the last seventy or eighty years”: Louis, Noland, the greats of the first generation of abstract expressionists: Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko and so on. The article was written at a moment when the three-dimensional, figurative neo-dada of Johns, Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers was beginning to challenge abstract expressionism for the leadership of the avant-garde, though whether or not this figured into Greenberg’s thinking at that moment, or provided the impetus for this essay, I can’t say. I can say that it looks to me as if, while writing it, he wound up generalizing beyond his original intentions. I can find only that one vestigial reference to “the best” in the entire article. The rest of it deals with recent abstract painting on a theoretical basis, so it can be read equally well as a defense for all those many second-generation abstract expressionists whose work Greenberg deplored. I think when one takes into account these dichotomies, between intention and result, and between abstractionists he admired and those he didn’t, one can understand why Greenberg saw himself – in this article, if not elsewhere – as describing and not prescribing, adumbrating and not endorsing. He wasn’t defending every abstract artist he knew, merely explaining how all of them had arrived at their form of expression – whether he thought they were making a good job of it or not.

 

WAS CG ALONE IN

MAKING VALUE JUDGMENTS?

 

Since then, this whole issue of description v. prescription has been taken out of its original context, and debated as an issue in itself. I myself long acquiesced in the pro-Greenbergian mantra that he was merely describing, not prescribing, adumbrating and not advocating. Now I am going to CHANGE MY TUNE & say that in describing he was ALSO prescribing, and in adumbrating he was ALSO advocating. HOWEVER to that I will ALSO ask, how does this make him DIFFERENT from any other art critic or any art writer or art historian? When writing about art, do we not ALL limit our discussions to what we consider worth discussing, expressing our opinions and making judgments in so doing?

 

I learned this lesson 42 years ago, when I started writing the Art page of Time. Because I didn’t have a byline and primarily described the art under discussion, instead of drawing loud and obvious conclusions about it, I was scorned by highbrows as a mere “art writer,” and not an “art critic,” yet every Monday, when I made up a story list of the articles I’d write that week, I was playing the role of critic, too. My section usually had room for only 2 or 3 articles – and I was seeing at least 7 or 8 shows every week, while aware of dozens more. I knew that whatever I wrote about would get a lot of attention, so I limited my selections to art that I thought deserved such attention (almost always because of its goodness in those days; now I also discuss art that deserves mention because of its badness, but only of artists so famous that they deserve to be shot down). How does expressing a preference for “modernism,” as Greenberg did–by writing about it, and trying to explicate it – differ in kind from expressing a preference for Warhol or Damien Hirst by writing about them? Even if one is only bridling at the huge amounts of money such art or artists may be pulling down, by discussing their monetary value one is swelling their reputations.

 

Sure, many people who do “art writing” today about artists who enjoy high standing within the status quo like to say that their writing is “non-judgmental,” but for me there is no writing that doesn’t express a judgment of some sort. Comes with the territory, friends. Why is it necessary to flagellate Greenberg for prescribing and advocating, when every other writer does the same thing? Only because so many people simply can’t see the virtues of the art he prescribed & advocated, or appreciate its superiority to more popular styles. This fundamental difference of opinion is why his insistence upon his position still raises hackles. Similarly, he has often been accused (though not in Bicknell’s article) of “teleology” – which is to say arguing that the art he was advocating would continue on in the same direction. Yet again, he was no more “teleological” than any writer who prescribes or advocates any other kind of art. The argument that he alone was “teleological” arose only because other writers didn’t like the idea that the art he admired might flourish and endure.

 

I don’t have space to discuss the four other papers on Greenberg and/or Kant in AE’s summer issue, but the entire issue is only a click away. Should you wish to read it, click here.

 

A BIRTHDAY BUNNDLE FROM BRITAIN

 

3) The actual day of CG’s birth was delightfully celebrated in a UK blog called Fugitive Ink, which is written from “an unapologetically idiosyncratic, vaguely high Tory perspective” by Barendina (Bunny) Smedley. Here is a portion of what she wrote:

 

“Unless I am doing my sums wrong, today is the 100 year anniversary of Clement Greenberg’s birth. This notorious figure, surely as transformative of the art world in his own way as Lessing, Ruskin or Baudelaire were in theirs, died in 1994. And indeed his criticism, like theirs, lives on

 

“If the ability to ruffle feathers, start fights, occasionally to open eyes as much as minds, even years after one’s own death, is in any way an index of greatness, Greenberg was a very great critic indeed. Yet his relationship with what may yet prove to have been the absolute stellar zenith of American painting, the age of Abstract Expressionism, is still not very well understood. To what extent did he create this climactic Modernist moment? Could it have happened without him? And how different would it all have been without that extraordinary prose-style, clean and tough and distinctively American, through which – necessarily so, in those days before mass air travel, cheap colour reproductions and non-stop blockbuster exhibitions – the world beyond Manhattan first began to engage with Pollock, de Kooning, Still, Newman and the rest?

 

“Probably, as is famously the case with the effects of revolution, it’s simply too soon to tell. ...Yes, it’s terrible that Greenberg wasn’t as politically correct as the more bovine sort of present-day Ivy League undergraduate, that he was no more flawless as a father than he was as a husband, and that he often upset people. That, though, rather misses the point. Few people, I suspect, live utterly blameless lives. What was unusual about Greenberg was, in contrast, something to do with his clarity of expression, the astonishing range of literary and intellectual associations he brought to his writing, and the freshness, honesty and force of his responses. He really did look at art, not just think about it, and he had the ability to make other people look at it, too.”

 

For the rest of the column, click here.

 

SYMPOSIUM SPONSORED BY HARVARD:

A NOBLE CONCEPT....

 

4) In April, Harvard University’s Department of History of Art and Architecture sponsored “Clement Greenberg at 100: Looking Back to Modern Art,” a two-day symposium in the auditorium of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum with one 5-member panel, plus twelve givers of individual talks and three respondents. Pretty impressive homage to a critic who’s been dead for 15 years, the more so because it wasn’t conceived or organized by any of Harvard’s reverend professors, but rather by two Harvard graduate students, Miguel de Baca and Prudence Peiffer. I went into this conference a tad miffed because the proposal for a talk that I’d sent in had been unceremoniously passed over. Nor was I impressed with the advance poster listing participants, since I couldn’t see that any of them had been true friends to Greenberg. Certainly none, to the best of my knowledge, had ever written in praise of the art that Greenberg had supported in the ‘60s and later, except Rosalind Krauss, whose articles on color-field painting in the ‘60s had long since been negated by her later vigorous attempts to blacken Greenberg’s reputation. Admittedly, John O’Brian, another participant, worked with Greenberg while preparing the latter’s collected essays for publication, but I hadn’t liked the negativity of O’Brian’s titles for 2 of those 4 volumes (“Arrogant Purpose, 1945-1949,” and “Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969"). Nor had I had been taken with his Introduction to Volume 3, which gives undue prominence to Greenberg’s oft-advertised “anti-Communism,” and enhances the myth of his having been a dedicated Cold Warrior.

 

When I got to the Harvard symposium itself, however, and had a chance to chat with Peiffer during a coffee break, I saw why all of Greenberg’s true allies had been excluded, and could even see a noble rationale for it. Peiffer, an art historian, is doing her dissertation on Ad Reinhardt, while de Baca, specializing in the history of American civilization, has recently completed his dissertation on Anne Truitt. Seems that both had come across Greenberg in the course of their research, and started talking about him with one another. Apparently, they found something to like – as well as (I surmise, reading a little between the lines here) a feeling that certain scholars of the ‘‘80s had dealt with Greenberg less kindly than he deserved. These two grad students evidently began to wonder whether their fresh interest in Greenberg might not also be shared by others among their contemporaries, so they conceived this ambitious symposium and for it actively solicited talks from other graduate students, at Harvard and elsewhere. The final program began on Friday, April 3, with a panel in the morning of all the older and more hostile Greenberg scholars: not only Krauss and O’Brian, but also Benjamin Buchloh, Yves-Alain Bois, Thierry de Duve and Serge Guilbaut (author of the repellently-titled “How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art”) . This was the Older Generation. Then in the afternoon, and throughout Saturday, April 4, the Younger Generation got its innings, in a series of individual talks. This switch on generational conflict was just so welcome & refreshing–the notion that all the Clem-bashers were now the Old Folks, against whom Youth was Rebelling. I could forgive a lot for that.

 

.......BUT FLAWED EXECUTION

 

Although the panel of oldsters – on the whole – abundantly demonstrated their bias, presenting a composite portrait of Greenberg as an arrogant proponent of unacceptable esthetic preferences, few of the youngsters were as pro-Greenberg as one might hope. True, only occasionally were they overtly hostile (as with Caroline Jones, arguing in a paper entitled “Minimally Dead” that minimal art had terminally appropriated Greenberg’s modernism). More commonly, these younger scholars simply displayed ignorance about the art (especially the more recent art) that Greenberg had espoused. This reminded me of the second panel discussion I attended last summer in connection with the “Action/Abstraction” show at the Jewish Museum. In both cases, the attitude was of respect & admiration for Greenberg on a theoretical level, combined with an anxious desire to show how & why he would have approved of the art that they themselves preferred, or to talk about art that he had written little about, in an apparent effort to justify their own enthusiasm by his lack of it. At Harvard, this led to Ann Reynolds, Alex Bacon, Mark Godfrey and Eric Rosenberg talking about Isamu Noguchi, Pavel Tchelitchew, Brice Marden, Fred Sandback and Richard Diebenkorn, as well as two talks about photography, by Harry Cooper and Robin Kelsey.

 

The talks on photography in particular would have benefitted from their authors’ troubling to interview people who’d known Greenberg, instead of limiting their discussions to those rare occasions when he’d written about it. After all, his death in 1994 was not accompanied by mass suicides of everybody who had known & admired him. Since virtually all of those of us who were close to him were far younger than he was, there are still quite a lot of us around, and the reluctance of virtually all of the symposium’s speakers to indicate that they’d interviewed any of us doesn’t speak well for either the openness or research techniques of today’s scholars. With photography, they might have found different recollections regarding Greenberg’s views on it, but agreement that he took it seriously and looked at it a lot. Fenton, when I featured one of his own paintings in the DeLuxe edition in 2006, said, in his accompanying text, that “Clem Greenberg loved good photographs and lamented that he could never pin the medium down well enough to write about it.” On the other hand, the Sunday after the symposium, I enjoyed the privilege of studio visits with three Boston-area artists, Jaqueth Hutchinson, Marjorie Minkin and Thomas Barron. (Such a relief to get away from academic talk! Such pleasure to enjoy real – and fine – art!) When Minkin came to pick me up at Hutchinson’s studio, the three of us discussed Greenberg and photography. Minkin recalled running into Greenberg on a street in SoHo sometime in the ‘80s; he’d been making the rounds, and was just about to go in to see a photography show. She herself wouldn’t have gone to see it, but, she recalled, “He took it very seriously. Clem was one of the most open people I’ve ever met. He looked at EVERYTHING.” Hutchinson recalled how Greenberg had told her that he wanted art to “send” him. In photography, he was looking for the same “lift” that he got from painting and sculpture, but didn’t get it.

 

SIDEBARS & COMMENTARY

 

Hutchinson, incidentally, attended some of the symposium. Seems that she knew O’Brian, and that when he was still doing his graduate work at Harvard, he’d hobnobbed with her and with Friedel Dzubas. This willingness to at least socialize with Greenbergian artists did much to enhance O’Brian’s appeal for me. After Hutchinson had introduced me to him, during a coffee break at the symposium, he told us that the Greenberg business was looking up. In a subsequent email, he said that between 1995 and 2005, he’d received an invitation to talk about Greenberg once a year at most, but in 2006, he got three, and another three in 2007. Such was the interest that he felt obliged to reassess Greenberg himself, with a long piece for an aesthetics journal, a review of Caroline Jones’s book, “Eyesight Alone,” for the Art Bulletin, and an essay called “Greenberg Variations” for “‘The Back Room: An Anthology,” edited by Matthew Stadler. This last (which he emailed me) combines ruminations on Greenberg’s visit to Portland OR in 1935 with O’Brian’s own more recent visit to the same city, & viewing of the Greenberg Collection, as installed in the Portland Art Museum.

 

Four talks at the Harvard symposium were given by graduate students. None of these were particularly distinguished. I found myself wondering to what extent one can expect independent thinking from graduate students anyway. Some, like Peiffer and de Baca, are obviously capable of it, and all who’ve gotten to the dissertation stage have at least managed to single out one subject that hasn’t had a dissertation done on it yet. To that extent, they’ve demonstrated originality, too, but all must still turn in dissertations acceptable to senior scholars, and (usually) defend them before a committee of such scholars. In 1996, 14 years after I’d deposited my own dissertation, I gave a talk at the Smithsonian to a group of grad students on fellowships there. My subject came from the opening chapter of my book, and dealt with what I then saw as an atypically modernist childhood – being raised in a boarding school where my favorite teacher was already making Christmas cards in the style of Picasso, instead of spending all my spare time reading comic books; being served soup out of handsome modern ceramic crocks in the school’s International Style dining room, instead of sitting in the kitchen while my mother opened a can of Campbell’s. After the talk, I learned that one student had been deeply upset by it, saying that I’d invalidated her entire childhood. I mentioned this to an artist friend of mine who was also an art teacher. His response (as best I recall): “When did you ever meet a graduate student who wasn’t trying to second-guess her dissertation advisor?” I thought about it, and remembered how eagerly I’d sought to think exactly like my advisors. I hadn’t been capable of truly independent thinking until months after I’d deposited my own dissertation – so, in retrospect, I’m not too surprised that the two best talks at the Harvard symposium were by scholars who’d completed their doctorates, and were currently out in the world, teaching.

 

NOW, FOR THE BEST OF IT

 

The first of these two talks, “Greenberg in Outer Space,” was given on Friday by Darby English, who teaches at the University of Chicago. It dealt with “The Deluxe Show,” a 1971 painting and sculpture exhibition combining black & white abstract artists and held in an old movie theater in a ghetto neighborhood of Houston. Greenberg is listed as a co-author of the catalogue, together with Peter Bradley, the painter, and Steve Cannon, the author, though Bradley actually curated the show. To judge from the digital images that English showed, taken from photographs in the catalogue, it seems to have been an exceptionally handsome show, and well attended. Pictured were works by Anthony Caro, James Wolfe, Sam Gilliam, Ed Clark, Larry Poons, Kenneth Noland, Daniel Larue Johnson, Richard Hunt and Al Loving. It was so pleasurable to see art that Greenberg had liked – and to hear of him situated in a progressive political context, instead of belaboring those quaint old fables of of his supposed political conservativism. English explained that he was working on a book about black abstract artists in the ‘70s. He hadn’t been interested in Greenberg until he came across this show, but now he plans to make it into a chapter in his book. If I am reading my notes aright, he conceded that the show could be seen as an example of “bad faith,” but that “less cynical” people might see it in the spirit of “modernism as social work.” He himself would like to see it as something more than “exploitative.” In another phrase that I have in my notes, English referred to modernism’s “aspirational energy and content.”

 

The other talk that I got a kick out of was by Michael Lobel, who teaches at SUNY-Purchase. This talk (also given on Friday) was from another book that the speaker was working on, about John Sloan. On the program, the talk was titled, “John Sloan According to Greenberg,” but at the talk itself, Lobel explained that he was changing the title to “Greenberg According to Sloan.” The first virtue of this talk was that Lobel reproduced at least one very good painting by an artist who deserved discussion – an artist whom Greenberg had truly liked (he never wrote about Sloan at length, but the few brief references to him are respectful). Most of Lobel’s talk revolved around a “close reading” of Sloan’s “Hairdresser’s Window.”(1907). Lobel argued that in this painting, Sloan was more of a modernist than Greenberg had ever given him credit for, because Sloan had emphasized formal composition, with rectilinear building facades and spatial ambiguities (in other words, the picture had the “flatness” which according to postmodernist myth Greenberg favored above all else). This business about “flatness” was pretty silly stuff (since Greenberg never allowed himself to be bound by such specific and pedantic rules in evaluating pictures).Also, the latter part of the talk had more to do with Sloan’s use of written language (in the shop-window sign, for example) than it had to do with Greenberg. Still, in the question-and-answer period afterwards, Lobel shone.

 

A member of the audience (David Mirvish, of Toronto) observed that “It was a definitely a generational thing,” then asked Lobel if there was a value judgment involved in choosing Sloan? Well! At the Friday morning panel of all the dragons from the ‘80s, Greenberg had been taken to task for expressing value judgments (another postmodernist myth, as indicated earlier, being that only he and nobody else ever expressed value judgments). Yet here was a member of the audience, suggesting that Lobel resembled The Master in expressing a value judgment! Evidently, this was very flattering & pleasing to the speaker, just as it seems to have set off warning bells among the dragons, seated in the front row of the auditorium, right beneath the stage, ready to pounce on any younger speaker who might stray beyond the party line. Guilbaut started to jump down Lobel’s throat, taxing him about supposed formal shortcomings in the “Hairdresser’s Window,” but, apparently encouraged by the recognition he’d gotten from Mirvish, Lobel defended the Sloan with fervor. A most satisfying exchange.

 

Another member of the audience provided a satisfying conclusion to the entire symposium on Saturday afternoon. After all the speakers had given their talks (including Caroline Jones, on how Greenberg was minimally dead), the passionate voice of another graduate student asked something like this: “Why does everybody ask, why won’t Greenberg go away? Why don’t we accept the fact that he’s not minimally dead – that he’ll be with us for centuries to come?“ A stunned moment of silence followed. Then Jones clapped her hands together, announced brightly (if totally illogically), “You’re cured!” and almost immediately fled the stage.

 

IRVING SANDLER REVISITS AB-EX

 

5) The last celebration of Greenberg’s centenary that I’ll mention wasn’t intended as such. It’s “Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: a Reevaluation,” by Irving Sandler (Lenox, MA: Hard Press Editions, and New York: School of Visual Arts, in conjunction with Hudson Hills Press, Manchester, VT & New York NY, 2009). In this new book, after having published many others, Sandler revisits the subject of his ground-breaking classic, “The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism” (1970). I took Sandler to the cleaners over his misleading portrait of Greenberg in that book, both in my dissertation & the article on Greenberg that I published out of the dissertation in 1983. Among other things, I disagreed with Sandler’s interpretation of Greenberg as hostile to surrealism, and so committed to cubism that he initially opposed abstract expressionism – supporting my criticisms of Sandler with quotations from Greenberg. The following year, I ran into Sandler in an elevator at the College Art Association. He snarled at me (as best I recall): “You don’t read Greenberg like you read Kabbala. You listen to what people say about him!” However, I’m happy to report that in this new book, Sandler finds a lot more to like about Greenberg than he once did – winding up his discussion of surrealism, for example, with a quotation from Greenberg endorsing it, and concluding his argument that Clifford Still anticipated and influenced Rothko and Newman with another quote from Greenberg, saying much the same thing. My favorite example of a Greenberg “kicker” comes at the end of Sandler’s chapter debunking all the nonsense purveyed by postmodernist art historians in the wake of Vietnam about abstract expressionism as a weapon of the cold war. According to Sandler, Greenberg said that such talk was “a lot of shit – how the State Department supported American art and that it was part of the cold war, and so forth. It was only after American art had made it at home and abroad, principally in Paris, that the State Department said we can now export this stuff. They hadn’t dared to before that. The fight had been won.”

 

Sandler still has substantial disagreements with Greenberg, and the chapter on the critics of abstract expressionism rehearses many of the cliches about flatness and so forth. Sandler is a forthright partisan of Harold Rosenberg, and resents the posthumous recognition that Greenberg enjoys, but his claim that during the’60s, Rosenberg was “marginalized,” doesn’t hold water. Rosenberg was writing criticism for The New Yorker during the ‘60s, a much-admired publication with many times the circulation of any of the art magazines to which Greenberg was contributing; Rosenberg also published “The Anxious Object,” his best known book, in 1966. Another divisive issue is intentions v. results. Greenberg was only interested in results, whereas Sandler emphasizes the intentions of the abstract expressionists, quoting masses of verbiage (by Newman, in particular) that Greenberg might well have considered banal, and/or beside the point. To Sandler, Greenberg was only a formalist with no interest in the “subjects” and “content” of abstract expressionism – its concern with tragedy and violence in the period between 1947 and 1950, and its switch to openness and lyricism from 1950 onward. I myself am much interested in the “subjects” of abstract expressionism, but was disappointed in the few & simplistic images that Sandler associates with each artist – harrowing landscape elements with Still, a prehistoric brute of a man for Newman, nauseous colors with Rothko, frenetic & congested canvases for Pollock and so on. Not only are these associations at most only uni-referential, limiting the artists’ accomplishments to the narrow vision of the conventional art historian, but furthermore they’re negative, unlovely. Sandler argues that the abstract expressionists only wanted to portray truth, and abjured beauty, but in retrospect, many more recent observers have come to see the beauty in these paintings, and be profoundly moved by it. Thus the question arises, is this ugliness inherent in the pictures, or only a temporary byproduct of the fact that they were so radically new to their first observers? Isn’t it time to cite Greenberg writing that Pollock was not afraid to appear ugly, and that all genuinely original art looks ugly at first?

 

Although the many color plates in this book are handsome, the text bears signs of sloppy editing and proofreading. In chapter 5 are quotations from Francis Henry Taylor and Lincoln Kirstein, as well as the information that the Institute of Modern Art in Boston changed its name to the Institute of Contemporary Art. In chapter 6, one finds these same three references all over again. In one place, John O’Brian’s name is spelled correctly, but in another, it’s “O’Brien.” Karen Wilkin appears correctly spelled, but also as Karen Wilken. As a scholarly work devoted to a single subject, this book would have benefitted from not only an index but also a selected bibliography. It has neither. None of this is the author’s fault. Let us rather look to the publishers. Nor do I share the criticisms of David Carrier, in a snotty review at artcritical.com. Carrier is upset because Sandler criticizes some latter-day writers who have dealt with abstract expressionism, Michael Leja and Ann Gibson in particular. Carrier complains that there’s little or nothing “new” in Sandler’s book, and finds it old-fashioned. I’m inclined to wonder how much he himself knows about abstract expressionism: when he reviewed the abstract expressionist show at the Haunch of Venison gallery in the fall of 2008, he reported that “It has been 38 years since New York City has seen a full-blown exhibition devoted to its greatest school,” apparently unaware that the summer of 2008 had just seen such an exhibition, on “Action/ Abstraction” at the Jewish Museum. I haven’t done much research on the inner workings of abstract expressionism recently (being more concerned in my book with how the larger society reacted to it). But I did look at enough of Sandler’s endnotes to see that he’d incorporated many findings of younger scholars, and conscientiously acknowledged his indebtedness to them. In addition to this, the book is rich in the unique insights he possesses from having known so many artists and writers of the movement. I don’t happen to feel – as Carrier seems to – that “old” is necessarily bad and that “new” is necessarily good, just as I don’t believe that old people are necessarily wrong and young ones necessarily right. Isn’t it just barely possible that in sixty or seventy years on this globe, one may have learned a bit more than somebody who’s been around for only thirty or forty? In “A Memoir of Creativity,”“ I’ve done my best to bring my research up to date, and I too have found much worth quoting by younger scholars, but other younger scholars I’ve read have (without being aware of it) simply distorted the historical record. To argue that they’re right simply because they’re young is itself to be influenced by a historical tendency, the legacy of a compound of developments over the past forty years that I deal with in my book (but don’t have space to do so here).

 

ENOUGH ABOUT TALKS & BOOKS;

ON TO REAL ART

 

In the two months since my last column went to press, I’ve visited 28 exhibitions, three of them in museums. Of the remaining twenty-five, eight didn’t interest me enough to want to review them. Most of were of younger and/or lesser known artists, and my policy is to discuss such shows only when I really liked them. If I didn’t, I see no reason to dissect them, figuring that a) these artists have got enough problems already, without me landing on them, and b) if I give them a negative review, they may very well turn it around and take it as a compliment – boasting, in the perverse language of dada, that they managed to outrage Halasz, surrogate for the Greenberg Bogeyman Establishment, and they therefore must truly be the New Avant-Garde! The fact, as Greenberg’s true friends well know, is that he and they are at present so remote from the Establishment that it’s hard for us even to get minimum exposure, so what I do is save my fire for the big guys and gals, artists who are so truly accepted into the real (postmodernist) Establishment that nothing I can write will affect their careers a bit. As it happens, none of the twenty-five shows I’ve seen & want to mention are so world-shatteringly spectacular that I want to discourse upon them at length, so (the reader will doubtless be relieved to learn) I intend to discuss them only as briefly as I can.

 

THREE MUSEUM SHOWS

 

Across the East River, the Brooklyn Museum is exhibiting “Gustave Caillebotte: Impressionist Paintings from Paris to the Sea” (through July 5). Organized by Ordupgaard, Copenhagen, and the Kunsthalle Bremen, the Brooklyn presentation was coordinated by Judith F. Dolkart. It includes approximately 45 paintings and drawings, at least half of which come from private collections. Caillebotte evidently doesn’t seem like a “museum-quality” painter to most American museums. That said, this is still a very ingratiating show, with its domestic interiors and Parisian street scenes, studies of working class subjects, and views of outdoor life on the coast of Normandy and in rural villages where the artist and his family maintained affluent country homes. Caillebotte was friendly with Monet, Renoir, and other impressionists, and left his collection of their work to the French state, but he was trained academically and slow to acquire true impressionist brushwork and the bright impressionist palette. The earlier paintings in this show particularly display finicky attention to detail and grayish tonalities, putting me in mind of such other borderline impressionists as James Tissot and Alfred Stevens. What distinguishes Caillebotte from them, however, is not only the very distinctive way he captured his subjects from odd angles and with unusual perspectives, but also his choice of offbeat subject matter. Every once in a long while, he gets off a really good one, such as a small study of cobblestones that absolutely sings.

 

Down by the Schuylkill, the Philadelphia Museum of Art staged one of those mammoth exhibitions which it’s so very good at, this one entitled “Cézanne and Beyond.” Organized by Joseph J. Rishel, together with many of his Philadelphia Museum colleagues, the show presented more than 150 works, including a large and stunning group of paintings, watercolors and drawings by Cézanne, along with work by 18 later artists. The idea was to show the far-flung influence of the Master of Aix, but he alone was responsible for most of the masterpieces in this cornucopia of goodies, and (since I have a thing about Cézanne) this was ample reason for me to make the trip. Particularly moving and memorable was the large, high-ceilinged gallery centering around two of Cézanne’s greatest “bather” paintings, but most of the other artists in the show weren’t exactly chopped liver. Among them – and mostly represented by sterling examples of their work – were such early and mid-century moderns as Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian, Marsden Hartley, Léger, Braque, Charles Demuth, Max Beckmann and Arshile Gorky. The only drawback was that the show’s organizers felt the need to bring things “up to date” by also including recent postmodernists: Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, Brice Marden, Sherrie Levine and two even less known practitioners of “visual culture.” You want my opinion, this crowd really didn’t belong with the earlier artists. Sure, the labels all explained how each of them were indebted to or copying Cézanne, but it only made me think of poor relations trying to pass themselves off as members of the nobility by claiming to be relatives of the king. The basic problem was that modernism and postmodernism don’t mix. If Rishel and his colleagues had done a little research, they might very well have found that latter-day modernists like Noland or Frankenthaler also admired Cézanne, but hey, we gotta go with the flow, so we only honor what’s chic.

 

Meanwhile, here in Manhattan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is staging a modest but lovely show, “Art of the Korean Renaissance, 1400-1600" (through June 21). Organized by Soyoung Lee, this show features approximately 47 works: paintings, ceramics, metalwork and lacquer. It pays tribute to two religions or philosophies: the neo-Confucianism of the new “Joseon” dynasty that was established in 1392, and the Buddhism that had been the state religion in Korea for the previous 1,000 years and, though suppressed publicly, continued to be observed privately. The eye-filling ceramics – porcelain and buncheong ware – are mostly virginal white or off-white and beautifully simple, nothing fussy or overdone about them. One of the scroll paintings, showing a sloe-eyed mama dog suckling her puppies, is hilarious, and two scroll paintings showing large groups of very small government officials are piquant, but the 12 extraordinarily beautiful landscape paintings are the stars of the show, with dark, rich but extra-simple and elegant clumps of trees and hills, tiny buildings and people only incidentally included, wonderfully free and fanciful configurations – delicate yet strong.

 

ON THE BEATEN PATH:

57th STREET

 

At Lori Bookstein, I saw “Garth Evans: Sculpture from the Late 1980s.” Evans’ name was new to me, so I did a little research on him. Turned out that he was a Brit born in 1934. During the Swinging Sixties, he was a lecturer at St. Martin’s School of Art, while exhibiting at the prestigious Rowan Gallery. The big white or brightly-colored fiberglass sculptures that he was making then have worn well enough so that a relatively new London gallery, Poussin, gave them a show in March 2009. In 1979, Evans moved to the U.S., and is currently head of sculpture at the New York Studio School. I’m not sure that I’d be enthusiastic about his newest work. Though I’ve only seen it on the web, it looks kind of surrealistic to me, and I’m usually not much on contemporary surrealism, but I was quite enthusiastic about the work from the ‘80s that I saw in the flesh at this latest exhibition. It seems to have marked a transitional phase from the work of the ‘60s to the present. All these pieces were of thin slabs or thicker blocks of cardboard, resin, glass fiber and paint. Ten were affixed to the walls. To say they “hung” on the wall would suggest more passivity than they evinced, since they jutted out and up from the wall, or out and down from it. Being made of many flat surfaces marked off by straight edges, they were geometric rather than organic, but those flat surfaces were often at very odd angles to each other and no two surfaces were shaped alike. All the pieces were delicately colored, with pigment usually applied to undersides of the slabs and glowing through them to the external surface. I suspect that Evans first created them, then named them after what he was reminded of, rather than setting out to depict something specific. “Gift Horse” (1990) stuck out from the wall and down, like a horse’s head sticking out of its collar. “Gecko” (1989-90), a mischievous pale green, jutted up, and gave me a correspondingly up feeling. It was one of the wittiest pieces in the show.

 

Another show with a certain amount to recommend it is “Abstract Expressionism: Further Evidence: Part One – Painting,” at Michael Rosenfeld (through August 1). I found a number of very colorful and/or attractive paintings here, though as “ab-ex,” it’s sometimes on the late side, being more characteristic of the second generation of abstract expressionism, on the whole, than of the first. Among the earlier paintings here that appeal are an exquisite untitled Lee Krasner from 1948, small but perfect & delicate; also an untitled Beauford Delaney, (c. 1954), tall & narrow with vivid yellows and oranges over blue underpainting, and a long horizontal James Brooks, “#37 - 1951" (1951), with soft colors, obviously stained, not as chunky as later Brooks canvases. Among the later works are “Rednecks” (1960) by Norman Lewis, an excellent painting, with a white field and in its center, a small dancing area of smaller red shapes, as well as a mordant Alfonso Ossorio entitled “Mirror Point” (1959).

 

On the other side of Fifth Avenue, Katharina Rich Perlow is also exhibiting “American Abstraction: Works 1930's – 1980's” (through June 15). The artists on view include Milton Resnick, Stephen Pace, George McNeil, Yvonne Thomas, Tom Ferrara and Raymond Hendler. All tend to employ loose brushwork and fall into the category of gestural painting, as descended from de Kooning, very popular in the 1950s and staging a comeback in the 21st century. I however often go for a more disciplined approach, so I liked the recent painting of a shower of small gray slabs by Robert Goodnough .and especially a really neat little collage by Balcomb Greene, with rudder-like shapes (1936). Paintings by Jacob Kainen were listed on the show’s announcement, but none were on view, and the work by John Ferren, while adequate, wasn’t up to work by him that I’ve seen at this gallery in the past.

 

WHILST IN CHELSEA, I SAW...

 

a half-dozen shows worth mentioning, but in most cases, worth mentioning only very briefly. At Cheim & Read, Louise Fishman was carrying on with her trademark recapitulations of the messy gestural look of the ‘50s. I thought her show was at its best when she limited her palette to only a few colors, for example in “Geography” (2007), marked by yellow, black and white vertical strokes , plus only a touch of blue; also “Arctic Sea” (2007), with a black field, an overlay of brown, slathered on, then on top of everything, black swirls....

 

Evidently falling back on an “Old Master” because blue chips are doing better in this rough economy than more speculative stocks, Gagosian has been packing in the crowds with “Picasso: Mosqueteros” (through June 7). Curated by John Richardson, this exhibition focuses on those muddily-colored, wobbly and grotesquely cartoony paintings of men in 17th century garb that Picasso was painting in his last years, between 1962 and 1972 (the artist died in 1973, at the age of 91). Richardson’s catalogue notes that Picasso had small use for either Ducahamp, dada or neo-dada (“Same old thing,” the painter said. “They’ve simply changed the wrapping paper.”) What irony in the fact that it’s only the triumph of neo-dada and pomo, with its celebration of the deliberately ugly, that renders the current exhibition so much visited!. Ugly’s the new beautiful in Chelsea these days, and “Mosqueteros” has it in abundance. Having said that about the oils on canvas in this show, however, I must add that the works on paper – prints and a few drawings – are far more self-assured, & bloody marvelous. They occupy a full wall in the exhibit, and vaut le voyage. Here women as well as men play voluptuous roles and Goya, Velazquez and Rembrandt are successfully challenged. Don’t waste your time and good nature, trying to force yourself to like all those dismal paintings, with their staring eyes & junky palette. Just head for the wall with all the small, black-and-white images – and enjoy....

 

Another show considered worthy of a writeup by the NY Times was “Adel Abdessemed: Rio” at David Zwirner. What fascinated the Times enough to even take a picture of it was “Telle mère tel fils”(2008). This huge sculpture was housed all by itself in a garage-like space. Its three airplane bodies were woven in and around each other, with the cockpits and tail fins left intact, but the fuselages doctored up with soft felt, and filled with air.

 

NOW FOR THREE LESS-PUBLICIZED BUT

STILL DESERVING SHOWS IN CHELSEA

 

I sometimes find it hard to keep up with Peter Reginato: he has so many shows and so many pieces in group shows besides! His latest solo exhibition was “Peter Reginato: Steel Drawings” at Heidi Cho, and again, it signaled an unassuming but interesting departure. As in other recent appearances, he uses silvery-looking steel (instead of painting it bright colors, as he did of yore).. This time, in addition, he shapes the steel into narrow rods instead of (or in addition to) his more familiar small flat, biomorphic shapes. Four of the five sculptures in this show were roughly circular, raised in the center, hugging the ground at the circumference, reminding me of an Eskimo igloo or a modernistic jungle jim. “Slow Burn,” which I understood to be the earliest in the sequence, still incorporated many biomorphic shapes, while “Ghost,” the most recent, was all steel rods (plus a few pieces of Plexiglas). According to Reginato, at the opening some people preferred “Slow Burn,” while others preferred “Ghost.” For me, there’s no question: “Ghost” is by far the better sculpture, and I like the direction that it shows Reginato to be going....on a much less demanding note, I also got a bit out of “Anthony Rubino: Recent Sculpture” at André Zarre. These were quite pleasant small red clay sculptures, semi-abstract to abstract, either left as terra cotta or partially glazed. Among three I liked best were “Benin Bird,” “Allegro Blue” & “Orchestration”.....I also stopped by, once again, at the “Better History” show that I slammed so vehemently in my last issue. I didn’t like all the pop stuff & assemblage any more than I had before, but was delighted to find a dramatic improvement in the lighting on Paula De Luccia’s three paintings. With a powerful spotlight now trained on them, they looked much, much better .Although I said previously that the right-hand one was white on dark green, I could now see that instead it’s a combination of light and dark green.

 

ON TO SOHO

 

and “Extreme Possibilities: New Modernist Paradigms” at The Painting Center, an exhibition curated by Karen Wilkin and consisting of two works apiece by Frances Barth, Clay Ellis, John Gibson, Joseph Marioni, Marjorie Minkin, Jill Nathanson, Thomas Nozkowski and Susan Roth. The press release, without mentioning Greenberg by name, nonetheless invoked his aegis by rehashing this stale idea that “modernist painting jettisoned illusionism and narrative to arrive at the irreducible fact of paint on a flat surface.” Whatever the validity of such generalities, I suspect that Greenberg would have been disappointed by the specifics of this show. Nozkowski is a celebrity of sorts, but on the basis of his contributions here, only testifies to how vapid abstraction must be in order to appeal to prevailing taste. Michael Fried is on record in favor of Marioni, but as Greenberg remarked in one of his late interviews, Fried’s eye isn’t as good as it was, and Marioni’s painterly minimalism ranks far behind the painterly minimalism of John Griefen (not represented here). The only three painters in this show whose work I’ve followed over the years with enthusiasm were Roth, Nathanson and Minkin, but even they – with one exception – didn’t send me to the moon on this occasion. Minkin has worked for years with acrylic paintings on canvas, and acrylics on molded Lexan, a shiny plastic. Here she was represented by two Lexan pieces that suffered from being made of two contrasting layers, one on top of the other. I found their busyness distracting (though I very much liked “Cast Anchor,” a single-layered Lexan piece, and “Time Warp,” a painting, both of which I saw by appointment in the private display space further uptown of Jason Rulnick, the dealer who gave Minkin a solo show a year or so ago). Nathanson seems to be experimenting with acrylic mediums and pigment on paper, interspersing slanting bands of solid paint with areas of transparent gel. I thought “Wayward,” the simpler and less cluttered one of the two such works on display, worked quite well, but the only painting that really knocked me off my feet was “Gericault,” one of the two by Roth. Tall and slender, built of acrylic and acrylic skin on canvas, its soft and harmonious, rumpled grays and browns mingled tellingly with what looked like bare beige canvas beneath. At the top, a smaller bag-like shape appeared to be fill with brighter tones (reds, blues, greens and yellow). Up close, this element appeared disconcertingly disconnected, but, when seen from a distance, it blended in just fine.

 

Another show with affinities to modernism is “James Little: De-Classified,” at June Kelly (through June 9). These large, horizontal paintings, made of acrylic and wax on canvas, feature many narrow, vertical, multi-colored stripes combined with long, narrow, vertical spiky shapes. The spiky shapes alternate, top to bottom, so that the point of one shape abuts upon the bases of the two on either side of it. There’s a definite kinship here with Gene Davis and Washington School abstraction from the ‘60s, but Little’s compositions are more complex, and his palette is somewhat different, much more individual. “When Aaron Tied Ruth,” for example, on the left side has a broad area in which the spikes are blue, aqua and yellow. Next comes an narrower area in which orange and blue-gray stripes alternate, followed by another narrow area with spikes of baby blue and Kelly green. Finally, at the far right, is another broad area in which spikes of bright red and mauve alternate. Everything goes together right well.

 

OFF THE BEATEN PATH

(IN GEOGRAPHICAL ORDER)

 

At 136th Street and Riverside Drive, I saw “Jeannette Sura Sababa: Heaven, Hell, and Me,” an exhibition at Rio II. It, too, was abstract paintings, but in the painterly mode, not the geometric. The artist comes originally from Chile, and has studied at the Art Students League. I first became acquainted with her art through its inclusion in a show curated by Paula De Luccia at the Brooklyn gallery of the Asian-American Women Artists Alliance. At that time, Sura Sababa was studying with Larry Poons at the League, and painting monochromatic panels of color with a subtly modulated surface that was impressive, quite fresh and individual. Since that time, she has moved on to another teacher, and her paintings have changed dramatically. They’re now composed of many small shapes and flecks of bright colors, together with flame-like areas of red and blue that boil up upon the canvases, or pile down. Her touch is very light, and the work is mostly done with a palette knife as opposed to a brush, but there’s no denying that these paintings still have an awful lot in common with the gestural abstraction that is such a commonplace in Chelsea, and has been with us, in one form or another, since the ‘50s. Still, Sura Sababa’s colors are very likeable, and many of the paintings in this show are very pretty. I especially recommend “Leaving Hell,” a tall, narrow painting with a lot of browns, greens and golds whose flickering lines are very deft, and whose overall configuration somehow reminds me strangely of both of the side panels of “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Bosch – the Garden of Eden and the torments of Hell in a single image.

 

Moving on down to Central Park West and 100th Street, I checked out Peg Alston Fine Arts, where I found “Todd Williams: Constructions, In Concert with Lubaina Himid and Al Loving.” The single Loving on display was impressive, and the small pictures by Himid had their moments, but since the star of the show was Williams, I focused on him. A native of Savannah, he studied art at New York’s School of Visual Arts, and has executed many commissions for sculptures at schools and other public buildings. In this exhibition, he displayed 4 large constructions, 2 in the front gallery, 2 in the back one – 3 horizontal and 1 vertical. In the horizontal ones, the top part was painted with narrow horizontal strips, and vigorous designs underneath that hung half-way between figurative and abstract, while the bottom part was horizontal slabs of wood. The effect was lively, though perhaps a tad heavy. I preferred the vertical one, which seemed lighter and even livelier. It had a narrow strip down the center and variegated designs peeping through. On either side were more vertical stripes, broad bands of deep red and purple, separated by narrow orange one.

 

On East Third Street, between Avenues C & D, I visited a gathering of the tribes, the gallery where art and poetry meet. It is still presided over by Steve Cannon, co-author of the catalogue of that 1971 “Deluxe Show” that was being discussed at the Harvard symposium. In addition to celebrating the publication of the 12th issue of A Gathering of the Tribes magazine, the gallery was presenting “Difficult Dreams,” an exhibition of work by Lisa Renko and Sarah Valeri, curated by the poet Susan Scutti. Valeri is a painter who works with the blind. Her oil paintings were somewhat surrealistic, with lots of indigo and images of children with big staring eyes. Renko sees herself as “a radical expressionist;” she exhibited drawings on canvas – Matissean women, Picassoid men, with lots of white space surrounding the images, plenty of writing, splashes of color, especially orange, and collage elements (but not so theatrical as to overwhelm)..

 

In the Stanton Street Synagogue, one block south of Houston, I attended the opening of an exhibit of the Jewish Art Salon entitled “Tzelem: Likeness and Presence in Jewish Art.” The Jewish Art Salon is a group of artists who meet once a month to discuss their work, life, the Jewish themes inherent in their work, and the variety of sources that they draw upon to create it. In the book of Genesis, God creates man using the word “Tzelem,” meaning “likeness,” but (explained the curators for this show) “the Hebrew word does not imply a visual correspondence. Rather it denotes intelligence and is bound up with concepts of morality, language, and a unique spiritual paradigm.” Even so, nearly all the work in this exhibition of 29 artists was representational, not abstract. A few of the 29 were professional artists, among them Archie Rand, Jill Nathanson, Deborah Rosenthal and Tobi Kahn, but on the whole, the emphasis of this exhibition was iconographic, as opposed to stylistic – few if indeed any esthetic radicals here. I was invited to the opening by Menachem Wecker, who is better known as a critic and writer than he is as an artist (this was also true of several other participants in the show). Without wishing to appear overly influenced by his hospitality, I have to say that I thought his three drawings were almost, maybe even the best pieces in the show–nothing spectacular about them, just plain honest workmanship (their subject: three personifications of that enigmatic figure, the Wandering Jew, as rendered in three different artistic styles).

 

Finally, to Williamsburg – which isn’t really off the beaten track, but fits well into this sequence because the show in question concerns another artist better known as a writer. At Sideshow, I attended a “lecture/ performance” by Robert C. Morgan, best known to me as the editor of Greenberg’s “Late Writings” (2003). Needless to say, Morgan is also known for many other writings, as well as a curator and teacher, but before he attained celebrity in all these spheres, he was an artist with a string of exhibitions to show for it. At Sideshow, too, his art was on view, in “Metaphysical Painting, Performance, Conceptual Art, 1970 – 2009.” Before I saw his performance, I’d seen this show. I’m not an expert on the performing arts, so I can’t comment on his lecture/ performance. Moreover, the photographs in the show (especially of performances) didn’t interest me particularly, and the small mixed-media works that looked like pictures of wobbly chicken feet didn’t do much for me, either (though I understand that they refer to Buddhism and should be taken seriously). The small paintings of Korean writing were more interesting as writing than from a purely visual standpoint (or at least, they might have been interesting if I could read Korean, but like all such conceptual art, they’re language-bound). That left some small minimal paintings, oil or acrylic on canvas, and a series of mixed media pieces, all entitled “Palimpsest (Neruda).”

 

Some of the minimal paintings were quite attractive, but in a very quiet, unassuming way – I can see how they might not have been aggressive enough to capture much attention in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The “Palimpsests” had the most visual variety, a range of colors and shapes and textures that tickled my eye quite satisfactorily. I was especially drawn to Nos. 26 & 27 on the checklist (“Palimpsest (Neruda)/9,” and “Palimpsest (Neruda)/6"). On the whole, though, I found myself thinking back to my last year at Time, when I was reading Lionello Venturi’s “History of Art Criticism.” For the first time, I learned of the profound difference between line and color, as originally debated in the 17th century with the Rubenistes v. the Poussinistes, and then with the debate renewed in the 19th century, with Ingres v. Delacroix. Line equated to reason, color to emotion, and it came over me that most writers were really more attuned to line than to color, and to reason as opposed to emotion, while artists (or more especially, the color-field painters I was just becoming acquainted with) were more in tune with color and their emotions. Greenberg, as I saw it, was one of the very few writers who was also sensitive to color and emotion, whereas all of my colleagues at Time were heavily imbued or talented in the linear. So, too, I think it must be with Morgan (and maybe Wecker as well). If your talents are more linear than coloristic, even the art you make will be cerebral, and you will do best by exploring your linear talents in writing – as both Morgan and Wecker have.

 

 

OUT OF TOWN: At art placement in Saskatoon, “Robert Christie ‘Off Balance’” (thorough June 13).... in Edmonton, “Images of South America: An Exhibition of Photographs by Russell Bingham” at common sense (closed May 1)... “Camp Diaries,” a film by William Noland, screened at the full frame documentary film festival in Durham NC (April 2 – 5)... “Kathleen Staples: Out There,” at the Bas Fisher Invitational in Miami (closed May 9).... “Ronnie Landfield: Forty Years of Color Abstraction,” at Lew Allen Galleries at the Railyard, Santa Fe (through June 21)..... Two particularly splendid full-color catalogues, for “The Essential George Hofmann” at Martinez in Troy NY (through June 20) and “Gina Medcalf: Paintings,” at The Cut Art Centre, in New Cut, Halesworth, Suffolk (June 16 – July 18), and Chelsea Futurespace, Gatliff Road, London (September 22 to November 15).....

 

In the supplement to the DeLuxe edition: Cara London ......(© Copyright 2009 by Piri Halasz)

 

 

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