At the Galleries
Given the cacophony of today’s art world, it’s not surprising that variety was the only constant among last season’s exhibitions. The most compelling ranged from cerebral abstraction to expressionist figuration and a lot in between. (There were also some vapid, overrated shows at several of Chelsea’s most high-profile galleries, but that’s another matter.) Among the most engaging and rigorous exhibitions were Brian O’Doherty’s “Speaking in Lines,” at Simone Subal Gallery; Kenneth Noland’s “Into the Cool,” at Pace; and Ron Gorchov’s recent works at Cheim & Read. Each presented a different conception of what an abstract painting might be. The polymath shape changer O’Doherty—physician, television commentator, conceptual and installation artist, critic, novelist, maker of mesmerizing individual works of art, and more—showed works from two series made in the late 1960s and the 1970s, some of them executed by his alter ego Patrick Ireland. The 1960s works, last seen at Betty Parsons Gallery almost four decades ago, were tall, slender, wall-hung constructions, narrow blades of painted color enclosing shiny, reflective aluminum interiors. Reticent and elegant from a distance, they yielded up some of their secrets when we came close and discovered a staccato network of incised lines interrupting the reflections. These, we learned, were Ogham characters, a translation of the Roman alphabet into serial, crossing lines, devised by the Irish in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. O’Doherty points out that while his use of Ogham “drawing” can be considered simply as drawing, we should also keep in mind that the characters can be read and spoken by the initiated, which should alter our response in some way. The tension between the dispassionate abstractness of the vertical Ogham pieces and their arcane literary content is typical of O’Doherty’s deceptively straightforward, extraordinarily complex work. In “Speaking in Lines,” a pair of eye-testing, achingly subtle canvases and a group of Ogham drawings on paper intensified the battle between faint but ravishing visual presence and ungraspable meaning. An uneasy truce was negotiated by a work on mirror where neatly aligned rows of emphatic black and white strokes were arranged in groups reminiscent of the sequences of Ogham lines. O’Doherty’s severe, fiercely intelligent work, like its author, resists categorization. He seduces and per- plexes, offering us alluring, delicate objects that seem intended for pure delight and then making us struggle with complex, richly layered allusions. All this with a sublime touch and abundant wit.
Noland’s refined and restrained “Into the Cool” paintings, made in 2006 and 2007, were the last works he completed before his death at 85 at the beginning of 2010. A lifelong, knowledgeable lover of jazz, he named the series in homage to Gil Evans’ music. The tender, apparently fragile paintings, with their centralized compositions, rang changes on the circle motif that signaled the beginning of Noland’s maturity, yet the “Cool” series was ultimately unlike anything that preceded it. A patchy structure of thinly applied, pale hues, sometimes corralled by drawn or painted rings, seemed closer to Paul Cézanne’s late watercolors than to any of Noland’s own previous work, which was always notable for its clearly-bounded areas and full-bodied color. The “Into the Cool” paintings read, in fact, as translations of Cézanne’s responses to the Provençal landscape into a fully abstract, confrontational language.
Despite the “Cool” paintings’ serial nature—almost all of them were square, frontal, and pastel—each had an individual rhythm, mood, and temperature, and a suggestion of a slightly different space. The unfettered Into the Cool No. 7, 2006, with its syncopated, staccato overlay of crisp greens over transparent swipes of pink, blue, and paler green, seemed verdant and energetic, while the pulsing constellation of disembodied rose-colored sweeps in Into the Cool No. 4, 2006, appeared relatively dense and slow moving within a slim halo of brushy white. A few works on paper, with large swipes of color and tremulous circles that read as poignant evidence of the artist’s hand, suggested where Noland might have gone next with this wonderful late-style series. The painter’s sight was deteriorating in his last years, yet he kept working. “I have the proportions in my bones,” he told me, “and I can see the color, if I get it up to my nose.” The vitality and sheer beauty of the “Into the Cool” series was testimony that Noland continued to challenge himself—and us—to the end.
Gorchov’s densely brushed, vaguely saddle-shaped paintings, with their rounded corners and suave curves, supported by thick wooden “sculptural” stretchers, offered a different kind of challenge. Like O’Doherty’s narrow vertical wall-hung pieces, they made us rethink our definition of “painting”—as Gorchov’s work has done ever since he abandoned the traditional rectangle years ago. His unnamable, shield-like objects at once project toward us, retreat toward the wall, and seem to imply a concave space within themselves, declaring a kind of spatial elusiveness that contradicts their forthright, confrontational physicality. This ambiguity is further complicated by the soft, declarative shapes that Gorchov imposes on his indescribable fields. Uneasy relationships of edges and hues turn apparently simple statements about likeness and unlikeness into absorbing dramas. We become fascinated by the proportions of these shapes. Whether or not one of them tilts, melts, curls, or holds itself erect, in relation to its opposite stroke or to the expanse of color that supports it, or whether that swooping support is vertical or horizontal, pale or intense, become crucial. The most attesting works in the show were Gorchov’s tour de force stacked paintings—incremental constructions that threaten to declare themselves as sculpture, made by assembling a vertical, overlapping series of different color “saddles.” In the recent show, I was completely smitten with a stack of violet, lemon, deep green, pale rose, pale cerulean, and roughly brushed cobalt, each hue applied with a slightly different touch and density. Gorchov, as Noland was when he painted the “Cool” series, is an octogenarian. Like the “Cool” series, Gorchov’s most recent paintings are fresh and youthfully energetic. He makes us look forward to what he will do next.
Anyone who admired Katherine Bradford’s 2016 exhibition at CANADA, “Fear of Waves,” with its sometimes poetic, sometimes discomfiting meditations on the meeting of human beings and bodies of water, could savor six more of her large, roughly stroked canvases at Sperone Westwater last winter. Most were about the swimmers with whom she is obsessed, plus one vaguely sinister painting of an enormous bonfire surrounded by disconcertingly similar, minimally indicated but unmistakably female figures, and a wonderfully strange image of three figures trapped in vast ball gowns, rather like Winnie in her mound, in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Bradford is a master of unstable meanings. Her rosy swimmers first attract us with their quasi-naïve charm, but the longer we spend with them, the more we discover subtleties of drawing that animate the simplified figures; Matisse-like elongations and compressions, exaggerations and croppings, suggest movement and articulation. Similarly, while we first read Bradford’s brushy expanses of saturated color as the surface of water, while also acknowledging them as the surface of the canvas, we soon begin to interpret them as suggesting boundless space. Bathers become voyagers traveling freely through the cosmos and then revert to being holiday-making swimmers once again. Bradford’s implied narratives are ultimately impenetrable but compelling. We feel certain that we are faced with subtle metaphors without knowing precisely what those metaphors might signify. I’ve sometimes preferred her small paintings because of the intensity gained by the relatively large size of the brushmark in relation to the support, but both the CANADA show and the Sperone Westwater exhibit made it clear that Bradford is a painter to reckon with at any scale.
At the Bowery Gallery, John Bradford’s “Over again After All: Recent Paintings” presented a group of his oddball mythological and biblical narratives, and some riffs on the history of art. (N.B. The typographic eccentricity of the title is the artist’s. And he’s no relation to Katherine, as far as I know.) The title refers to Bradford’s extremely free interpretation of Paul Cézanne’s famous observation that it was necessary “to do Poussin over entirely from nature,” although Nicolas Poussin was not the only artist invoked by Bradford’s quirky disquisitions on the past. With bold, economical strokes and a subdued palette that suggested hazy light, he took as his points of departure themes from Cézanne himself, Jean-Antoine Watteau, Edouard Manet, the American naïf painter Edward Hicks, and the nineteenth-century Hudson River school in general, with overtones of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Claude Lorrain, among others. Sometimes, Bradford’s agile, schematically suggested protagonists enacted obscure biblical and mythological stories against recognizable Hudson River landscapes. Yet even though we constantly caught echoes from the history of both old master and modernist art, there was nothing literal about Bradford’s allusions. His recent paintings were about other art, with the history of art treated as a source, in place of unmediated nature or direct experience. But the result was neither quotation, appropriation, nor pastiche; nor were the paintings ironic or nostalgic. Rather, they were smart reinventions, simultaneously witty, deeply felt, and completely of the moment.
Bradford’s figures bent, reached, and gestured like modern dancers determined not to be conventionally graceful, but their angular postures and their relationships across the canvas seemed thoroughly informed by the past—the way even the most radical of George Balanchine’s ballets were informed by what he always called “Petipa’s technique.” The sheer oddness of Bradford’s work was extremely appealing. Witness the wacky charm of works such as Birth of Dionysus, 2016, near what seemed to be a rural swimming hole, or Hudson River Drawing Class, 2016, with a histrionically posed model and a gang of artists at their easels, on either side of a famous view of the river, framed by tall trees. I wasn’t wholly convinced by the way Bradford sometimes scratched accents and counter rhythms into the surface or built up textures. His loopy imagery and seemingly “artless” paint-handling seemed sufficient. But he won me over anyway.
David Humphrey’s recent works, “I’m Glad We Had This Conversation,” at Fredericks & Freiser, continued his ongoing investigation of implied but ultimately incomprehensible narratives, here generated by collisions of divergent pictorial languages, from abstract gestures to carefully reproduced images pulled from the vernacular world, including digital sources. Humphrey can suggest the mysterious and the transient, as he did in The Morning After, 2014–2017, by forcing a pair of stippled, leaping creatures to coexist with clean-edged pools of intense color and then cancelling the abstract color-shapes with a crude, overscaled graffiti-style head. He can hint at the ominous, as he did in Recharge, 2016, by thrusting a crisp photo-based image of a dark skinned boy, face down on a futon sofa, while his phone charges, into the lower right corner of an eight-foot-wide canvas. The boy seemed pushed into place and weighted down by a mass of bravura gestures with a loaded brush and sweeping, controlled, calligraphic lines. Humphrey’s brash billboard palette of saturated pastels and primaries, sparked with black and a lot of white, intensified the implicit contradictions on which his work depends: the calculated conflicts between dissimilar visual codes that he refers to as a kind of “self-collaboration.” His virtuoso paint-handling pulled it all together.
“I’m Glad We Had This Conversation” also included two modest-size wood and plaster sculptures whose bulbous forms, bold polychromy, and raucous, Joan Miró-like energy made them convincing equivalents of the paintings, more spatially articulate of any of Humphrey’s sculptures to date. The color on the more complex of the two, Personage No. 1, 2016, which played slender elements against a swelling core, extended onto the base on which it was set. The resulting, slightly irrational mating of cube and organic form nicely fused Humphrey’s two- and three-dimensional concerns into a single hard-to-ignore object that entered into an intense dialogue with each painting seen behind it, expanding the meaning of the word “conversation” in the exhibition’s title.
Mia Westerlund Roosen’s solemn, evocative concrete sculptures and elegant, disciplined drawings at Betty Cuningham Gallery explored a very different set of emotional temperatures through formal conceptions rooted in eloquent simplicity—mostly. (A pair of eerie heads made in 2016, irregular balls of yellow glop, supported by concrete “shoulders” to suggest parodic, melting “busts,” were far from simple.) The entry level of the two-story gallery was dominated by the boxy, mysterious Architectural Folly 8, 2015, a foursquare sarcophagus-like enclosure, five feet across, open on top, placed on a table. Constructed of crisp rectangular concrete elements placed on end, alternating with groups of soft-edged projecting vertical slabs, with everything strung together along a metal rod, the exterior was distinguished by the way light penetrated between the loosely assembled elements, rather the way it does between the boards of a weathered barn. A different kind of analogy, with the triglyphs and metopes of classical architecture, also suggested itself because of the rhythms and oppositions of the “hard” and “soft” slabs, despite the obvious differences in proportions between Westerlund Roosen’s structure and a classical frieze and despite the absence of images in the “metopes.” The pale, warm grey of the refined concrete evoked both sun-warmed stone and ceramic. These associations, together with the sculpture’s generally human size, made us think about ancient clay burial containers, mausoleums, and funerary monuments. Since we could see into the interior through a fairly generous doorway, we began thinking, too, about abandoned monuments, a notion intensified by the narrow, casual spaces between the elements, which suggested age and ruin. As the title implied, Westerlund Roosen would like to construct Architectural Folly 8 at the scale of a modest building—a modern-day, neoclassical garden pavilion. It was exciting to imagine the piece transformed in this way, especially if we remembered an embracing enclosure-bench-fountain, installed by Westerlund Roosen several years ago opposite the United States District Courthouse, in nearby Foley Square, creating a private oasis in a much traveled zone. Yet Architectural Folly 8 also seemed completely satisfying at its present size. So did a dark, faintly gleaming wall-mounted piece that reprised the layering and alternating projections of Architectural Folly 8 at a smaller scale, in more geometric and clearly defined terms, but with equal potency. Both works were enriched by a sense of the hand, something Westerlund Roosen stresses as distinguishing what she does from minimalist works, which are deliberately anonymous, either actually or apparently machine made. Her sculptures, she points out, are reductive but always reveal the presence of the artist and the history of their evolution.
On the lower level, a pair of enigmatic horizontal sculptures made of blunt-edged slabs, Bedding Down, 2014, and Spanning Time, 2015, insisted that we pay close attention to nuance. How each slab touched another, how it extended along the floor, and where it warped away from flatness seemed of enormous significance and demanded acknowledgement. Westerlund Roosen’s drawings depended on similarly subtle distinctions, here among rectangular fields differentiated by their degrees of whiteness or grayness and by the varieties of marks that generated those tones. But where the drawings were disembodied and what used to be called “optical”—for the eye only—the slab sculptures also made us consider weight and mass, despite the relative thinness of their forms. Simultaneously, however, the delicately inflected slabs seemed to hover above the floor, creating an enlivening, absorbing tension in our reading of the works. Some years ago, Westerlund Roosen installed a large site-specific sculpture at the Storm King Art Center whose starting point was a slot excavated into the ground. The slab sculptures at Betty Cuningham seemed to reverse the implications of the excavated piece. They suggested hidden, secret spaces beneath them, burial places or passages to another realm. But the soft edges and proportions of the concrete slabs provoked contradictory associations with quilts, bedding, and mattresses. They cancelled out the funerary allusions and moved us into the domain of the domestic and the quotidian. Westerlund Roosen’s work has always lent itself to multiple interpretations, evoking intimate parts of the body, metaphors for the body, architecture, or natural phenomena, sometimes at the same time. The works at Betty Cuningham seemed plainspoken, even a little reticent, at first acquaintance but suggested more and more possible readings, the more we studied them. At a time when a great deal of art seems made of empty calories for rapid consumption, like fast food, Westerlund Roosen’s slow, meditative works offer rich, nourishing fare.
All this, and a modest gem of an exhibition at the Morgan Library, “Treasures from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden: The Collections of Count Tessin,” on view until mid-May. Carl Gustaf Tessin, a cultivated eighteenth-century diplomat, connoisseur, and collector, was a lifelong Francophile who commissioned and bought works from the leading contemporary artists of the day during his assignment in France. The exhibition showcases Tessin’s impressive paintings by François Boucher, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Nicolas Lancret, and Jean-Baptiste Oudry, along with an engaging portrait of Tessin, in opulent at-home attire, with some of his holdings, by Jacques-André-Joseph Aved, and delicious drawings by Jean-Antoine Watteau, among other notables of the era, several of whom he came to know well. Tessin was also an avid collector of old master works and took full advantage of the sales of French, Italian, and Northern European drawings and paintings during his stay in Paris. The exhibition’s drawings by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Raphael, Annibale Caracci, Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, and Nicolas Poussin, to name only a few high points, are dazzling. So are the rare examples of the sheets of decoratively mounted drawings that Giorgio Vasari prepared to accompany deluxe editions of his celebrated Lives of the Artists. Tessin’s ambitions eventually outstripped his means, and he was forced to sell his collections to the Swedish Royal family, with whom he had long-standing connections. We’re fortunate that his lovingly assembled works were kept together, and we’re fortunate, too, since these wonderful works, which seldom if ever travel, are in spectacular condition. The drawings were kept in albums, and the paintings were never relined, so everything looks remarkably fresh. The show offers abundant pleasures simply because of the excellence of its inclusions, but it also offers a fascinating glimpse into the discerning taste of an extremely interesting eighteenth-century man.