Arts Review

At the Galleries

Last season, with only minimal effort, New Yorkers could experience a notably broad range of exhibitions—art of the past and present, from the conceptual to the perceptual, “outsider” art of astonishing power, nineteenth-century genre paintings, abstractions of the past seven decades, and more. An equally broad range of mediums was represented: photography, paint on canvas, sculpture in steel, assemblages of scavenged materials, video.

At Andrew Edlin Gallery, in Chelsea, a selection of works by Thornton Dial provided some consolation for the regrettable fact that “Hard Truths,” the Dial retrospective organized by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, will not travel to the Northeast. The self-taught, prodigiously inventive “outsider” artist, born in Alabama in 1928, is acclaimed for his “collages” of improbable materials—loosely woven accretions of twisted fabric, thickly piled branches, discarded machine parts, old toys, dead animals, artificial flowers, and broken furniture, among many other things—salvaged and transformed into unignorable wall-mounted and freestanding constructions. Dial’s impeccable sense of rhythm, his ability to orchestrate densities and forms, along with his gift for ravishing color, are put into the service of deeply felt political messages and comments on the vexed history of race relations, along with such themes as his personal heroes, ecology, or the essential role played by black women in the South. The potency of the result makes Dial’s lack of conventional training irrelevant. His layered, confrontational structures defy categories. They demand and reward our attention, resonat- ing in complex ways—aesthetically, conceptually, politically, emotionally.

The well-chosen Indianapolis retrospective gives us Dial at his best and, because of its scope, alerts us to some of the recurring images that percolate through his thorny structures: a tiger, emblematic of the African-American male and, sometimes, of the artist himself; willowy, often fragmented female forms; shorthand evocations of nature and the man-made world. The Chelsea exhibition, while welcome as Dial’s first New York solo show in a decade, was not only more modest but also less consistent than “Hard Truths.” His dominant motifs were visible, but in a few works, the original character of the elements remained so visible that they never disappeared into the new whole. But others, especially the vigorous freestanding Freedom Cloth, 2005, attested to Dial’s magical ability to transubstantiate crumbling detritus into eloquent, ambiguous images. It’s possible to connect Dial (like his fellow Southerners Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg) with the Southern tradition of “yard shows”—discarded items arranged in surprising ways for decorative effect. But Dial’s flickering, evocative expanses, with their eerie depths and shadows, and their complicated, knotted “drawing,” require no special pleading. He’s an extraordinary artist. Period.

On 57th Street, at Jason McCoy, “70 Years of Abstract Painting—Excerpts” demonstrated, we were told, “the timelessness of the abstract language in painting” and revealed a conversation among generations. Established figures from the recent past—Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Al Held, Friedel Dzubas, to name just a few—cohabited with iconic modernists such as Hans Hofmann and Josef Albers. The earliest was a 1939 gouache of floating, polychrome shapes by the influential teacher Vaclav Vytlacil; among the most recent were Joe Fyfe’s hovering white disc against a blue field and Martin Mullin’s playful evocation of water in motion—both 2011—which shared Vytlacil’s faith in the power of shape and color. Works from various decades were intermingled; well-known and “emerging” artists, some represented by the gallery, some recruited for the occasion, were placed side by side in engaging and eye-testing combinations.

Davis’ 1969 candy-colored vertical bands greeted us, their brash energy equaled by a bold 1961 Noland tondo of concentric rings of yellow, red, and blue. A pale 1964 John McLaughlin minimalist work cooled things down, reinforced by a small black-and-white 1967 Held, while a radiant little 1940s Hofmann on paper, all slashing black outlines and saturated color, heated things up. A snappy 1995 Thomas Nozkowski—off-kilter white and green grids superimposed on red bars—propelled the surprising color, warped geometry, and laid-back demeanor of the Hofmann, the Held, and the McLaughlin into new, contemporary regions.

That kind of cross-generational conversation was evident throughout the show. We discovered reprisals, sometimes with a twist, of—say—Davis’ stripes or McLaughlin’s monochrome, Held’s perspectival drawing or Dzubas’ brushy expanses of color, among the work of the current artists, reinterpreted and personalized. Many recent paintings were small, although that may have been a practical choice, not a given. They also shared an improvisatory spirit and a keen appreciation for the expressive qualities of paint. Among the most extreme manifestations of these qualities was Leslie Wayne’s fierce little orange picture from 2007, a thick pile of “skins” with varied textures, dragged and crumpled to reveal substrata; it seemed to have been constructed not by depositing paint on a surface, but by actively manipulating paint as a viscous, independent substance.

The recent works often seemed to investigate fresh possibilities while nodding at both their predecessors and each other in various ways. Russell Roberts played with a distant memory of the grid, as Nozkowski does, in a vigorous 2004 picture, deploying dun-colored strokes at irregular intervals against a rosy ground. Nick Lamia’s 2010 picture seemed haunted by illusionistic geometry at the same time that it explored subtle bleeds and superimpositions. Cora Cohen’s broad, layered strokes of pale color, in her small but monumental 2009 canvas, seemed to happen as we watched, but paradoxically also reminded us that painting can be a slow, thoughtful, cumulative process, no matter how spontaneous the result may appear. Sharon Horvath’s delicate 2009 painting, a wrenched blue oval, tensely disposed against the rectangle of the canvas, was very different from Cohen’s but similarly seemed to be the result of fluent, considered gestures and fragile drawing, like an ancient palimpsest.

As the word “excerpts” in the title alerted us, “70 Years of Abstract Painting” made no pretense of being comprehensive. Described as reflecting the gallery’s ambition of “furthering the understanding of abstraction from a contemporary point of view,” it was a quirky selection of works that, for the most part, engaged us by their individual merits as well as by the relationships that emerged among them. Let’s hope this free-wheeling overview becomes an annual event.

Unexpected relationships were also the raison d’être of “Atget and Contemporary Photography” at Leslie Feely Fine Art, on 68th Street, a provocative pairing of black and white images by the early twentieth-century French master with works, often in color, by such present day notables as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gregory Crewdson, William Christenberry, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, Alec Soth, and Thomas Struth. The intention was to reveal the effect of the emotional temperature, formal character and, sometimes, the conceptual basis of Eugène Atget’s mysterious pictures on the current practitioners included. The result? An often persuasive argument that this determined recorder of Parisian exteriors and interiors, building façades, parks, and shop windows, tirelessly lugging his enormous view camera into the streets at dawn, to avoid the visual distraction of the city’s inhabitants, profoundly influenced some of today’s most compelling photographers.

Struth’s deadpan views of Munich, Chicago, and Berlin, made in the 1980s and 1990s, seemed to pay overt homage to Atget’s scenes of an unpopulated Paris in the 1920s, similarly exploiting empty foregrounds and blank streets (or tracks) carving wedges into the center of the image. Friedlander’s flowering and fruiting trees, made in 1999 and 2003, echoed Atget’s confrontational “portraits” of a heavily loaded apple tree and a pear tree in bloom. In addition, just as Atget deliberately used obsolete technology, remaining faithful to his cumbersome, outdated camera, both Struth and Friedlander adopted antique methods, using a gelatin silver print process to obtain the subtly inflected, wide tonal range typical of vintage prints. More unexpected but no less convincing were the parallels between the exhibition’s Atgets and Christenberrys. The likeness between Atget’s 1919–1921 image of the Hameau at Versailles (here labeled “Versailles, Trianon”) and Christenberrry’s 1981 derelict clapboard building, once home to a palm reader in rural Alabama, was uncanny. Both photographers kept well back from the nominal object of their attention, emphasizing the contrast between the buildings and the bare, enormous trees before them.

Eugène Atget, "Poirier en Fleurs"
Eugène Atget. “Poirier en Fleurs.” 1922. Gelatin silver chloride print, 7 x 8 7/8 inches. Landscape-Documents 1029. Private Collection.

Lee Friedlander, "New City"
Lee Friedlander. “New City.” 2003. Gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy Janet Borden, Inc.

Eugène Atget, "Versailles, Trianon"
Eugène Atget. “Versailles, Trianon.” 1919–1921. Matte albumen silver print, 6 7/8 x 8 7/8 inches. Landscape-Documents 725. Private Collection.

William Christenberry, "Palmist Building (Winter), Havana Junction, Alabama"
William Christenberry. “Palmist Building (Winter), Havana Junction, Alabama.” 1981. EverColor print, 23 7/8 x 30 3/16 inches. Edition of 25. Copyright © William Christenberry, Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

The exhibition affirmed that Atget made it possible for a photograph to be dispassionate, frontal, and enigmatic, and, at the same time, to concentrate on the transient, the imperiled, and present it, like a mounted specimen, for contemplation and study. That was the spirit of the Bechers’ 2010 series of nine water towers, arranged in a grid as if for scientific comparison and evaluation, or of Christenberry’s tender records of disintegrating vernacular architecture. Crewdson’s melancholy black and white ancient Roman street, with tall weeds between the paving stones, seemed like a straightforward allusion to Atget’s Paris scenes (unlike his usual staged dramas) until we realized that the buildings were not ancient and ruined, but recently constructed and intact, albeit in bad repair. We were not in an antique city, but on an abandoned movie set at modern Rome’s Cinecittà—a temporary reconstruction of a fictive past now showing signs of age, preserved by Crewdson’s having turned his attention to it. But important differences were also made clear. Eggleston’s 1980 color image of a carved mourning figure in a classical robe at first seemed startlingly like Atget’s 1921 black-and-white photo of a statue of a draped nymph at Versailles. Then we realized that where Atget’s stone nymph almost fills the entire field, becoming a near-abstraction, threatening to burst into our space, and leaving us in doubt about where we are standing, Eggleston locates his carved mourner, rationally, with a cemetery behind her, as she leans on a stone sarcophagus in an elaborate portico. Atget raises questions; Eggleston offers a complete explanation.

Most surprising were three images of figures, including a recently rediscovered print of a reclining male by Atget—one of his very few nudes, made in 1921, although “naked” seems more appropriate for the hairy fellow posing coquettishly on a neatly made bed in a room with flowered wallpaper. It’s an odd image, a brutal male Olympia, absent Manet’s seductive paint handling, which became odder still when we noticed that the eyes, nostrils, and mouth were cut out of the print. A 1972 Eggleston dye-transfer print nearby presented an equally naked, almost equally hairy type with a moustache, awkwardly seated in a sort of Yoga pose on a couch, below a gun rack. Again, the specificity of the Eggleston accentuated the ambiguity of the Atget, yet both images seemed staged, in deliberate contradiction of the assumption that photographs record actuality. Between the two male nudes was Soth’s large, 2004 chromogenic portrait “Michele and James,” an affectionate, notably fleshy couple, seated on a red couch. Michele huddles against James, discreetly concealing her body with her arm and crossed leg, but Soth presents, in pitiless detail, more than we really want to know about James’s ample midsection and spread thighs, or the texture of his pale skin, although the subject seems completely untroubled by this exposure. Just when the phrase “too much information” comes irresistibly to mind, we find we are in Peter Paul Rubens’ territory. Michele’s pose and generous haunches evoke the lusty nude maidens abducted by Castor and Pollux in The Daughters of Leucippus, while James’s vast white paunch conjures up the enormous belly of the drunken Silenus. What this had to do with Atget, given the obscurity of his raunchy nude male, is hard to say, but Soth’s perplexing figures certainly provided contrast to everything else in the show.

Back in Chelsea, perplexing figures dominated “Leland Bell: Theme and Variation,” at Lori Bookstein Fine Art. Bell, a dedicated teacher in Yale’s painting department who died in 1991 at sixty-nine, began as a champion of such abstract artists as Piet Mondrian and Hans Arp. As a member of the Jane Street group, which included former Hofmann students and other high-minded young artists, Bell first exhibited purely abstract works but soon embraced figuration, in defiance of the presumed “necessity” of the gestural, angst-ridden abstraction current among most ambitious young New York painters at the time. Yet Bell never abandoned the rigor and clarity of the abstraction that first attracted him, finding it in the work of such figure painters as Jean Hélion and Balthus.

“Theme and Variation” concentrated on major works from Bell’s last decade—serial versions of large, enigmatic, stylized figure groups enacting narratives that seem, at first, to invoke ordinary experience but then become inexplicable. In one series, a trio, who often resemble Bell, his wife, the painter Louisa Matthiasdottir, and their daughter, the painter Temma Bell, deal with the intrusion of a butterfly (or a bluebird) into their dining room with elegant theatrical gestures. In another series, a cat brings a dead bird into a couple’s bedroom; the man remains horizontal, while the woman, a statuesque nude, has risen and steps towards the cat and his prey, waving her arms in graceful arabesques.

Also included were energetic studies and works on paper, related to the serial images, but far looser and more improvisatory. With their sweeps of thick line diagramming trajectories through space, and detached touches of color, they made us feel privy to Bell’s thinking. Their intimacy was a welcome contrast to the formality and discipline of the large paintings; there, everything is accounted for in terms of crisp black outlines and uninflected planes of saturated color, trued and faired in relation to the rectangle of the canvas. These characteristics and the basic composition of each “story” remain more or less constant from picture to picture, although the protagonists can change positions or locations slightly. The bold hues, the flat planes, the simplified but suave drawing, and the “stop-time” sense provoked by the sequences of related images—not to mention the sheer oddness of Bell’s narratives—combine to suggest a kind of profoundly serious cartooning. Yet despite this vernacular association, we are also intensely aware of Bell’s deep understanding of the art of the past. Renaissance prototypes, among others, haunt his utterly contemporary figures. In the bedroom scene, particularly, we seem to witness an ancient ritual; the man in bed suggests a classical hero; the standing nude, a goddess; the cat and bird, a sacrifice. In the family group, the trio’s focus on the butterfly—or the bird—seems at once faintly comic and immensely important.

Bell is a cult figure, greatly admired by his fans but not a household word. His most ambitious pictures, such as those at Lori Bookstein, are so cerebral, cool, and dry, and crafted with such assurance that they can be hard to like. They risk reading like demonstrations of how to construct a modern narrative figure painting, while honoring the spatial conventions and lessons of the past. Over time, however, Bell convinces us that we are confronted by an entirely original rethinking of history painting: lively, vernacular in subject and, in some ways, in execution—the even-handed line, the flat color, that faint cartoon flavor—but as uncompromising and geometrically lucid as Nicolas Poussin’s great mythological scenes. Paul Cézanne aspired “to do Poussin over from nature.” Did Bell want to do nature over from Poussin?

“Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century,” uptown at the Metropolitan, included works that provoked the same adjectives as Bell’s paintings—cerebral, cool, dry, assured—tempered by a pervasive intimacy of scale and subject, and a sense of domesticity. The included works were small, almost all by Northern Europeans—Danes, Germans, Austrians, French, and the rare Italian—all from the Romantic period—roughly 1810 to the 1840s—and all united by the inclusion of a window as a key compositional element. We entered austerely furnished scholars’ studies, monastic artists’ studios, rigidly formal sitting rooms, the occasional cozy bedroom and cluttered atelier, usually bathed in cool Northern light; a few views of the Villa Medici quarters of French Prix de Rome winners and one of an amateur painter’s beloved studio in Parma provided notes of warmth.

Most of the interiors were inhabited by a single person absorbed in a task: a young woman embroidering, a tall man at a stand-up desk, a painter at his easel. Behind them, the geometry of a large window disciplined the composition and, by framing a view, presented an alternative to the depicted contained space and the contained existence lived within that space. Some paintings were merely anecdotal: “this is what a studio in the French Academy looks like, with Roman landmarks out the window.” At times, the view was blocked by closed shutters. Most often, the distant world outside the window was visible and made to seem not only different from the interior space, but also desirable but distant—a visual metaphor for Romantic yearnings.

The section devoted to drawings included two works by the quintessential German Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich, sepia wash drawings of his studio window facing the ElbeRiver, made about 1805–06. The images are really about how a rectangle of light and a suggestion of vast space can be made to coexist on the page with a fictive wall/plane made congruent with the surface of the paper. That plane, dark against the radiant window, is established with small details: framed pictures, a delicately depicted scissors hung on a nail. Through the window, we see masts, a distant shore, indicated in fragile line.

According to the wall texts, Friedrich’s elegant representations were unprecedented and inaugurated Romanticism’s fascination with the window motif. (I suspect the lack of precedent was for the window as the dominant motif, since windows opening onto distant landscapes frequently appear in Renaissance portraits, albeit always subservient to the image of the sitter.) Whatever their historical significance, Friedrich’s sepia drawings were among the most compelling works in the show. So was his iconic painting of a young woman, her back towards us, gazing out the window of his Spartan studio—we recognize the view of the Elbe and the masts. The pared-down composition, the subtle earth tones, and the surprisingly direct paint handling, along with the backlighting of the slender figure and her smallness in the picture’s space, conspire to create a mood of longing and loneliness. The woman seems isolated in the bare room, yet able to see something of what exists beyond her boundaries. Since what she gazes at is largely hidden from us, she becomes an emblem of the act of seeing itself, our surrogate in Friedrich’s pellucid, uncannily still, fictive world. The picture distills Romantic aspirations for transcendence and that particularly Germanic desire for union with nature into the most economical of images: figure, wall, window, an implied rather than a depicted view.

Everything in “Rooms with a View” had to be measured against this enigmatic little painting, and most of the other works seemed fairly pedestrian by comparison—which is not to say that the exhibition was not worth a visit. Many pictures were charming, offering glimpses into an orderly world of (mainly) tidy, bare rooms and straight-backed furniture. The technical achievement of all the included artists was impressive, and there were many interesting surprises, such as an accomplished studio interior with a view of the Bay of Naples by—of all people—the Piemontese statesman, novelist, and painter, Massimo d’Azeglio. The strongest works, however, drew our attention by exploiting the formal drama of the motif, making the window a kind of “picture within a picture”—a frontal plane that echoes the shape of the support, establishes the rear wall of a stage-like, confrontational space, and hints at deeper space behind. That’s enough to keep any serious painter busy for years (see Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, and late Pablo Picasso) and to keep any attentive spectator engaged for quite a while.

A real, not a depicted view, provides the background for “Caro on the Roof” at the Met, a miniature retrospective of the British sculptor’s work. Five large works, spanning half a century, testify that Anthony Caro, who at eighty-seven shows no signs of slackening his energy in the studio, has never been content to rely on comfortable habits. Instead, as he has often said, “You make rules for yourself and then you break them.” The selective survey at the Met, constrained by the need for work substantial enough to be exhibited outdoors, bears witness to Caro’s potent inventiveness. MoMA’s brilliant yellow Midday, 1960, constructed of recognizable industrial beams, seems weightless, drawing-like, and animate, pushing itself up from horizontality and holding elements up for our delectation. The most recent work, the unpainted End Up, 2010, by contrast, announces Caro’s interest in contained, massive, pregnant forms. We try to peer into the tilted, geometric enclosure’s haunting depths, aware of the generous contained volume before us without being able to penetrate its mysteries, and are surprised by the seductive swell of the sculpture’s other side.

Between are two very different works of the 1980s, the Met’s sensuous Odalisque, 1987, whose rich curves offer an enlivening contrast to its massive steel components, and the orange Blazon, 1987–1990, which turns vaguely architectural references, including a displaced balcony railing, into a confrontational vertical structure that enters into a lively conversation with the buildings across the park. The largest work, the pale grey After Summer, 1968 (last exhibited at the Hayward Gallery decades ago), with its wing-like, serried, sliced tank ends, and long, low horizontal members, shares the weightless “for the eyes only” quality of the works that established Caro’s reputation but also, because of its sheer extension, anticipates the architectural allusions of the artist’s most powerful recent works. After Summer seems at once about to levitate and to restate the horizontality of our own space. On view through October, “Caro on the Roof” will reward repeat visits.

In Brooklyn, at the Triangle Arts Association’s DUMBO studios (full disclosure: I’m a board member), two young women, one German, one Pakistani, exhibited compelling works about how we perceive the world and are perceived. Pia Linz builds facetted transparent polyhedra that she sets in public places, then sits inside, recording on the inside of the Plexiglas planes what lies beyond. Her lacy drawing, with its shifting perspectives, collapses on itself, when viewed from the outside, now becoming perfectly intelligible, now making us question how we view our surroundings. Linz is also involved with complex, even more labor-intensive “mapping” of parks, creating schematic drawings that measure her chosen subject with her stride, enriched by meticulous depictions of views from specific spots. Like the “inside-out” drawings of interiors, the result is fascinating and makes us question our own senses.

Hamra Abbas, who is increasingly well known for her varied, conceptually-based improvisations on Islamic culture, on being female, on living in Europe and the U.S. as a young Pakistani artist, and more, exhibited a video work remarkable for its concision, currency, and reach. We were apparently allowed to read an e-mail as it was being written, following the evolution of its message, with corrections and rephrasing. We were given a revealing slice of a complex moment: pressure from family for a young woman to have a child, the stress of pregnancy, the effort to maintain a practice as an artist—an entire novel in a few sentences. Like all of Abbas’ work, the low-key video was full of meaning, told with great economy and intelligence.