At the Galleries
The fall-winter gallery season was the proverbial embarrassment of riches, at least for those of us who admire paintings and sculptures that are more about the expressive potential of the visible than about readily articulated verbal “concepts.” Exhibitions ranging from inventively recorded perceptions of the world around us to free-wheeling abstractions, from exquisitely refined investigations of painting languages to robust sculptures, from traditionally presented landscapes to aggressively shaped disquisitions on vernacular culture filled the galleries. And that’s not to forget some stunning drawing exhibitions, including a dazzling retrospective of works on paper by a Renaissance giant.
First, the drawing shows: “Leonardo to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Robert Lehman Collection” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and “Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection” at the Morgan Library, both celebrations of discerning eyes and munificent donations to their respective institutions. At the Met, sixty works carefully chosen from the Lehman Collection offered a rapid, staccato trip through the history of European art, distinguished by such spectacular inclusions as a scrupulously observed walking bear by Leonardo da Vinci, from the late quattrocento, a cranky Dürer self-portrait from about the same time, an exquisite Fra Bartolomeo landscape of figures moving through mountainous terrain, from the very beginning of the cinquecento, and a startlingly intimate, casual study after Leonardo’s Last Supper, drawn in red chalk by Rembrandt in the early 1630s, when he was still in his twenties. For lovers of elegant Neo-classicism, there were incisive portraits by Ingres from the eighteenth century and early nude studies by Degas from the nineteenth century, plus for dessert, a gorgeous, urgently scribbled Seurat of a silhouetted colt, c. 1882–1883. At the Morgan Library, a generous sampling of 150 works from the Thaw Collection’s more than 400 sheets offered a more leisurely journey over a longer span of time, from a group of crisply delineated standing saints by Mantegna, made in the mid-fifteenth century, to a cluster of spiky, unidentifiable, compelling forms drawn by Jackson Pollock five hundred years later. In between, we encountered wonderful works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Watteau, Goya, Delacroix, Degas, Cézanne, and many other luminaries, usually represented in some depth, by both signature and surprising works. Both shows required concentration and close attention; both amply rewarded the effort.
Through February 12, even more concentration and attention, ideally over several visits, are demanded by the Met’s astonishing “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer,” a once-in-a-lifetime overview of the Florentine master’s thinking in two dimensions, from youthful studies after Masaccio’s frescos in the Brancacci Chapel, in Santa Maria delle Carmine, to mature drawings of athletic, straining nudes. It’s worth fighting the crowds to study the impeccable (and amazing) selection of what are often Michelangelo’s most intimate works—drawings of muscular limbs, tests of poses for figures in the Sistine Chapel, architectural schemes, a highly finished portrait of a beloved boy, anguished religious scenes—set in an informative context of works by his early teachers and influences, plus later collaborators. A few sculptures and a photographic reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling enlarge the story told by this remarkable exhibition, allowing us to see some of the results of Michelangelo’s deeply felt testing of possibilities of paper. It’s like watching the Renaissance master at work.
“Ardent Nature: Arshile Gorky Landscapes 1943–47,” at Hauser & Wirth’s Uptown gallery, allowed us to follow the thought processes of a twentieth-century American master during one of the richest and most productive periods in his too-short life. The show’s more than fifty works included important canvases from private and public collections, but the most spectacular inclusions, in many ways, were the works on paper, ranging from intimate pencil studies with little or no color to pastel and crayon-enriched images, as complete as paintings; many of these had rarely—if ever—been exhibited before. Gorky is undeniably one of the greatest of modern draftsmen and, as always, the intimacy and urgency of the drawings was irresistible, with their powerfully associative but ultimately ungraspable configurations and “characters.” These loosely indicated, fraying biomorphic forms always seem completely improvisatory and unpremeditated, until we realize that, for Gorky, they were so specific that he could reproduce them at will. In “Ardent Nature,” prompted by the exhibition’s title, we began to read these unstable images as landscape allusions, now imagining ourselves confronted by echoes of trees and distant, rolling fields, now by an ant’s-eye view among blades of grasses and leaves. Ultimately, however, we were captured by fluid relationships of breathtakingly sensitive lines, smudges of color, and assertive scribbles and forced to think of these potent inventions, once again, as evocative, multivalent, and deeply moving, but unidentifiable. Gorky is usually associated with the Abstract Expressionists, with whom he enjoyed close friendships, with whom he exhibited, and whose directions he sometimes influenced. Yet, as “Ardent Nature” made clear, he remains all-but unclassifiable, endlessly fascinating, and uncompromisingly individual.
A very different relationship with nature informed “Robert Berlind, Reality Is Everything: Selected Works 1995–2012,” a group of unexpected views of the familiar, shown at Lennon Weinberg, in Chelsea. The show’s paintings, ranging from small, rapid studies to large, ambitious canvases, made it explicit that Berlind was always fascinated by actuality. He worked continuously from nature, using his direct, spontaneous, small paintings as the basis for larger improvisations on motifs that obsessed him: trees against the sky, tide pools, reflections, and more. Conventional as this list of subjects may sound, Berlind’s images are always surprising and a little disorienting, with everything pulled up to the surface of the canvas and aggressively cropped, so that the references are wrenched from the ordinary. There’s usually no suggestion of where we, as viewers, are located; we concentrate on the webs of leaves or expanse of rocks before us as intensely as the artist did himself, as individual, detached, purely visual phenomenon. The large, tawny Light Play, Ten Mile River, 2004, turned a leaf-strewn, light-dappled stream crossed with the shadows of trees and branches into an all-over abstraction. Were we looking at things floating on the surface of the water, shadows, or things on the bottom of the light-flecked stream? All of the above, almost interchangeably, but it didn’t matter. The new whole dominated. The dazzling, unstable, eight-foot Fence, Trees, Raindrops, 2002, played similar havoc with our perceptions, reversing our reading of perspectival allusions with a tapering alignment of the black bars of an iron fence, spread before us. Finally we understood them as reflections, but then the expanse of puddle before us seemed to dissolve, set in motion by the widening rings of the title’s raindrops. Like all of Berlind’s best works, Fence, Trees, Raindrops was powerfully evocative of real experience and completely absorbing as painting. “Robert Berlind, Reality Is Everything” was a splendid tribute to a fine, fiercely intelligent painter (and a revered teacher), who died at 77 at the end of 2015. The exhibition underscored how much he is missed.
Uptown, at Alexandre Gallery, “Lois Dodd: Selected Paintings,” organized in conjunction with the publication of a monograph on the artist by Faye Hirsch, could be read as both a context for Berlind’s evolution and an affirmation of the continuing currency of paintings that examine perception. The exhibition was a miniature retrospective, beginning with works from the late 1960s, when Dodd, like a number of her artist friends and coevals, including Alex Katz, reacted against the dominance of abstraction by beginning to explore a plainspoken, forthright brand of figuration. The small Apple Tree, 1965, trod delicately between faithful observation of the particular and the bold gestures of improvised abstraction. Later works, such as the cityscape View from the Window, March, Men’s Shelter #3, 1968, were unequivocally about perceived reality, bolstered by an acute awareness of the geometry of urban buildings. A pair of large “portraits” of staircases, both made in the 1980s, compelled us to share Dodd’s delighted discovery of the complexities of nothing in particular. The works on view from 2017, which included close-ups of spent wildflowers and seed heads, and the terrific, compressed Chicken House, Laundry + Leafy Branch, were notable for their direct, fresh, straightforward paint handling, their luminous variations on local color, and their deceptively “artless” compositions. Dodd, who turned 90 in 2017, keeps making wonderful paintings. Let’s hope she does so for a long time to come.
In some ways, Leslie Wayne’s recent paintings, in “Free Experience,” at Jack Shainman Gallery, could be read as dissections of the underlying assumptions of both Berlind’s and Dodd’s work. Unlike the two perceptual realists, Wayne values actuality but plays with ideas of fact and fiction, contrasting what the critic Michael Fried called “objecthood” with illusion and conflating literalness and metaphor. Wayne’s earlier work was made of supple sheets of layered oil paint—which she called “paint rags”—draped over armatures. Her recent series sometimes employs more conventional stretchers or hangs layers of sheets over rectangular, wall-mounted supports, intensifying the independence and physicality of her richly articulated, intensely colored assemblages. But we soon realize that much of what we are considering as “real”—wood grain, cobbled-together strips, patterned cloth—is, in fact, the result of a kind of casual trompe l’oeil. We toggle between believing the illusion, enjoying the artifice with which it has been generated, and appreciating how Wayne uses her materials. She plays, just as delicately, with allusions to the work of other artists. A pinkish “drapery” made of what we might read as a collapsing brick wall briefly reminded us of Philip Guston, while a tangle of narrow white bands, with slender, lengthwise black lines, somehow evoked Frank Stella, at the same time that an overhanging cluster of white rectangles outlined in black conjured up Fernand Léger and Jean Dubuffet, simultaneously. This kind of wit enlivens Wayne’s work, but what ultimately made the modestly-sized, robust “paintings” in “Free Experience” so satisfying was their marvelous orchestration of materials, their often surprising color, and their forthright material presence. Wayne’s paintings are definitely paintings, yet their vigorous projections and varied (sometimes fictive) surfaces and hues can suggest a new kind of relief. However we wish to categorize what she does, the results get a little more exciting with each new body of work.
An equally bold investigation of divergent painting languages informed “Frances Barth: New Paintings 2011–2017” at Silas von Morisse Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Barth is a virtuoso of shifting spaces, gorgeous hues, and subtle surprises. A dedicated abstract painter fascinated by narrative, she is also a maker of award-winning digitally animated films and oblique graphic novels, both of which depend on fine line drawings. Barth’s profound knowledge of the highest of high modernist art coexists with a taste for cartoon-like simplifications and a deep appreciation of the banalities of the New Jersey streets where she lives and works. In her recent show, all of this magically came together. From a distance, her abstract canvases declared themselves in terms of unexpected color relationships and suave shapes calling tensely to one another. From a closer view, we were engaged by nuanced incidents of fragile, tremulous drawing, exquisite surfaces, and ravishing expanses of color, but we also discovered collaged digital fragments, most overtly in five related paintings intended to be read sequentially, like a wordless graphic story. Yet Barth’s classically harmonious canvases are also unsettling. Our relation to the paintings keeps changing. Now we hover at a great distance above them, now we are confronted by something vaguely perspectival, now two-dimensional structure dominates. Barth’s paintings demand that we read them slowly, the way we do complex seventeenth-century canvases, savoring the invigorating tug of war she establishes between assured abstraction and ambiguous, elusive narrative, between the hand and technology, and more.
“Elizabeth Murray: Painting in the ’80s,” at Pace, in Chelsea, similarly proposed a fusion of the high minded and the vernacular. When Murray first began making her raucous, eccentrically shaped, often multi-part paintings, during the decade under review, their burgeoning, layered shapes, sci-fi images, and, often, high-key color, made them read at once as affronts to the reductive qualities of minimalism and as aesthetic challenges to the mass-culture quotations of Pop art. Now, Murray’s brash combination of graphic shapes and incipient illusionism seems to ally her with the slightly older Frank Stella. In their work of the 1980s, both artists not only refused to be limited by the traditional rectangle or by conventional conceptions of “good taste,” but also pushed against the idea that flatness and close-valued color, not to mention a certain amount of decorum, were essential to high-level abstraction. The best of the sixteen works in Murray’s show affirmed her independence of mind and daring, as she flirted with both the legacy of Cubist construction and vulgarity. An enormous, multi-part, aggressively articulated work from the Colby College Museum of Art, in particular, was impossible to ignore, despite its subdued color.
Equally impossible to ignore was “Larry Poons: Momentum,” a stunning group of recent works by the irrepressible abstract painter, seen at Yares Art, Uptown, along with a small selection of earlier efforts, like a miniature retrospective, as context. Poons’s large, airy, light-infused recent paintings dominated, insisting that we give ourselves over to their swirling, pulsing skeins and sweeps of color. Variously scaled swipes and loops of fierce pinks, tender roses, and saturated blues, set off and clarified by unnamable neutrals, seemed to fray apart, coalesce momentarily, and then shift into a new configuration. The vast Sudden Feral, 2017, nearly fifteen feet wide, with its rich, roiling blues and an emphatic swoop of burnt sienna, seemed windblown and oceanic, as well as delicate and musical, and as unstable as breaking surf. Poons’s recent work is entirely his own, but at the same time, it seems to pay homage to such precedents as Jackson Pollock’s all-over poured and dripped expanses, Claude Monet’s ambiguous expanses of water, reflections, and waterlilies, and the scintillating broken color of Pierre Bonnard. It’s as if Poons were exploring the otherwise unrealized implications of all of these artists’ work, internalizing them, and using them as the basis for a newly invented, fresh, and personal kind abstraction celebrating the expressive power of color and light.
At Yares, we could follow Poons’s evolution, admittedly in staccato fashion, in a gallery of such key works as a pulsating “dot” painting from the 1960s, a voluptuous cascade of thrown paint from the late 1970s, and a vibrant composition from the 1990s in which crisp, eccentric collaged-on shapes competed with brilliant hues, erratic drawing, and near-psychedelic patterns. Despite the obvious differences between these notably varied earlier paintings and Poons’s most recent work, everything in the exhibition shared the generous scale, the mobile complexities of unpredictable color, and above all, the uncompromising abstractness of even the earliest included works. Not all long-lived artists develop what art historians call a “late style”—a way of working marked by the daring, expansiveness, assurance, and insouciance gained during years of intense engagement. Poons, who has never failed to surprise us over the years does so even more with his late-style works. At 80, he keeps getting better.
Sculpture was equally well represented this past season. At Hauser & Wirth, Chelsea, “David Smith: Origins and Innovations” traced the complex interrelations of the great American original’s work in the many media he restlessly investigated—drawing, painting, sculpture in many materials, relief, and photography—over three decades, from 1930 to 1960. It was possible to follow the trajectory of Smith’s ambition and accomplishment, from an early, Picasso-inflected painting, to a construction in wood, coral, and wire, to his pioneering metal sculptures, to masterly Tanktotem constructions. We could note, as well, his lifelong interest in combining color and three-dimensional form, and we could track both his fascination with Surrealist notions of mining the unconscious for imagery and with Cubist ideas of building open, linear structures.
Everything in the beautifully installed exhibition rewarded close attention, but it can be argued that the show’s most important gift was its revelation of persistent themes and formal ideas evident in the works from all periods, no matter what their medium, whether in two or three dimensions, in terms of Surrealist inflected images, or (apparently) unfettered abstraction. Almost everything, whether two- or three-dimensional, seemed to result from a process of addition and accumulation, a unifying quality that intensified the provocative interplay of motifs and forms among just about all the exhibited works. The standing figure, now more explicit, now less, haunted both a group of small, seductively modeled Surrealizing bronzes from the 1940s, and the show’s superb Tanktotem IV (1953, Albright-Knox Art Gallery) and the polychrome Tanktotem IX (1960, Private Collection), both fragile verticals balanced on precarious tripods, both assertively non-literal in form and proportion, but eminently human in the way they confronted us and demanded our attention. (The long span of dates within the “series” is typical. Smith habitually worked on many different types of sculptures at the same time, pursuing the implications of the current works in progress, no matter where they led him, and establishing the coherent “families” implied by the numbered series long after the fact.) The selections made clear that the crisp, intimate Unity of Three Forms, 1937, anticipated the geometry of Tanktotem IX (and in some ways, the shiny stainless steel boxes of Smith’s well-known late series, the Cubis, which were absent from the show), while the poise and ambiguous “personhood” of Tanktotem IV could be related to the small, swaying, planar Leda (1938, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). The longer we spent with the works, the more these subtle connections became visible, confirming yet again the potency of Smith’s wide-ranging creativity. His reputation is deservedly bound up with his sculpture, but the more we investigate the other aspects of his work, the more seamless the connections appear to be and the more impressive their author.
“William Tucker: Sculpture and Drawings” at Danese Corey, in Chelsea, proposed a very different idea of what sculpture could be from Smith’s additive constructions. Tucker is at once a hard-core modernist and a Romantic, a brilliant artist whose urgently modeled volumes announce their descent from Rodin’s most radical inventions but move those eloquent masses into new, mysterious territory. Tucker’s expressively inflected forms change scales and change the associations they provoke as we move around them. Even the explicitly titled horse sculptures, bent fragments that easily read as powerful equine heads and necks, often with open mouths and flaring lips, can suggest alternatives—a muscular arm, a flexed, substantial leg—before reasserting their taut “horseness.” The exhibition’s eight-foot-tall Chinese Horse, 2003/2017, rising athletically from a narrow base, seemed to pull itself upward and reach into space, so that from some views it suggested not a portion of a sturdy animal but, instead, a straining headless torso, fighting against the pull of gravity. Like many of Tucker’s most compelling works, Chinese Horse seemed archaic, even primordial, a manifestation of the very first conception of what sculpture is and, at the same time, immensely sophisticated, like an abstract distillation of the entire history of three-dimensional art.
Smaller works, especially the various examples of the Oedipus series, 2014, explored similarly multivalent conceptions. From some views, some of the Oedipus sculptures evoked the literal meaning of the tragic king’s name, “swollen foot” (see the story of the infant Oedipus’ being abandoned out of doors, in an effort to thwart the prophecy he eventually fulfilled), with their blunt, bent shapes—rather like simplified versions of the horse heads. Yet other, more extended pieces in the group suggested different body parts or natural forms. Casually displayed, as if dropped without calculation onto the supporting surface, they seemed to offer no privileged view. Rodin’s unanchored hands and free-floating dancers, sculptures notoriously without fixed orientations, immediately came to mind, but the implied mobility of the Oedipus sculptures seemed to have larger implications, provoking an infinite number of interpretations like serious puns. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the red patina of Oedipus III, a horizontally extended, sensuous L-shape, but I was so entranced by the form of these lush, severe sculptures that it didn’t seem to matter.
A group of chunky, similarly disoriented bronze heads was aligned near a series of very large—larger than the sculptures—“Imaginary Portrait” drawings in charcoal. From what I know about Tucker’s methods and because of the emphasis he places on the visible history of his work’s physical, material evolution, I suspect that the drawings were not preparations but were done after the fact, from the sculptures. Interestingly, the swelling, passionately-modeled, illusionistic charcoal images made the bronze heads more legible as heads, encouraging us to read blurred projections and hollows as relatively specific features, dispelling some of their mystery. Still, it was possible to consider the bronzes independently, as well as in relation to the informative drawings. Tucker, at his best, is such a provocative artist that his work is not exhausted by a single interpretation.