At the Galleries
My friends in academia tell me that today’s art history students regard Western painting with suspicion and hostility. Painting is tainted, it seems, by its practitioners and patrons having been, almost exclusively, (dead) white males, capitalists, imperialists, and all the rest of it. In a stunning demonstration of self-hatred, high-minded, modish young scholars in the U.S. prefer to deal with the art of Africa, Asia, and Mesoamerica. I’m not sure if sculpture—made of stone, wood, or metal, whether carved, cast, or constructed, rather than assembled out of miscellaneous detritus—fares any better in this context. But rumors of the death and irrelevance of painting, now and in the recent past, were put into serious question by many of the outstanding exhibitions of the past season. It’s plain that for a great many ambitious, dedicated, and gifted artists at work both today and over the past half century or so, paint—despite or even because of—its freight of history, has been and continues to be not only a desirable, responsive, expressive material, but also a downright seductive one.
Think of Wayne Thiebaud’s celebrations of the creamy lushness of oil paint, in the 1960s, or his equal enthusiasm for its ability to be transparent and glowing, in the last decades. “I love painting,” Thiebaud said in a recent interview. “It’s one of the most difficult things to do but one of the most wonderful things to do.” That enthusiasm is palpable in “Wayne Thiebaud 1958–1968,” at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, University of California, Davis, a survey of the first decade of a long, distinguished career—Thiebaud is a vigorous, tennis-playing 97 and a half, making strange, wonderful paintings with no apparent diminution of energy. The show begins with the loosely referential Electric Chair, 1957, painted about the time Thiebaud spent a year in New York, which explains the flavor of Franz Kline in the painting’s broad, slashing strokes. But there’s also a hint of Graham Sutherland’s spiky expressionism. Agitated, brushy canvases of beaches, shop fronts, and a meat counter, from the mid- and late 1950s, announce Thiebaud’s future preoccupations but not his future approach.
Then suddenly, after 1959/60, the harsh fluorescent light of the diner, the candy store, and the supermarket snaps on, color intensifies, everything clarifies, and we are presented with a lexicon of unremarkable desserts, truck stop meals, food counters, and the like, often magically multiplied, always brought up close for our delight and attention. Everything is eminently recognizable, but the closer we look, the more abstracted the structure becomes and the more the sheer gorgeousness of paint competes with the food imagery, creating an invigorating sense of pleasure and playfulness, while the images pulse in and out of reference. The paintings are further animated by the tense coexistence of all-American (as opposed to regional) vernacular subject matter—items found in unpretentious establishments anywhere in the country—and the overtones of art that Thiebaud admires and challenges by translating it into his own quotidian language. We think of Manet’s broad, direct brushwork and clarity, in his early work, of Morandi’s tacit geometry and subtle adjustments, and occasionally of Bonnard’s casual records of the domestic tabletop; the broad, frontal planes of the meat and cheese counters begin to remind us of Noland’s clean, geometric stripe paintings, and more. It’s worth pointing out that we are not reminded of Pop Art, with its dependency on mass-culture commercial prototypes and its anonymous surfaces, even though Thiebaud’s work is sometimes assigned to the movement. His hand, his touch, and his distinctive point of view are always present.
The exhibition at UC Davis includes a group of Thiebaud’s hieratic, full-length, life-size figures, ranging from an eerie group of five seated men and women, all notably disconnected from one another, to a standing man in a suit and tie, posed like Watteau’s white-clad commedia dell’arte figure once known as Gilles, now titled Pierrot. Equallly uncanny are a broad-shouldered seated man, his back turned, and a woman in a bathtub, with only her head visible above the broad, horizontal plane of the tub’s side; she is at once a glimpse of the ordinary and a modern, domesticated riff on David’s Death of Marat.
In New York, “California Landscapes: Richard Diebenkorn/Wayne Thiebaud,” at Acquavella Galleries, attested to the lifelong friendship between these California coevals—Diebenkorn, born 1922, died in 1993; Thiebaud was born 1920—and presented an aspect of Thiebaud’s work absent at UC Davis. Thiebaud says that Diebenkorn encouraged him to explore landscapes and cityscapes, but the works on view demonstrated individuality more than cross-fertilization, in part because most of the Diebenkorns dated from the 1950s and 1960s, while the Thiebauds were painted later, even though he made his first landscapes in the 1960s. Both men were preternaturally responsive to brilliant California light, but in different ways. Diebenkorn’s brushy Berkeley landscapes are relaxed patchworks that point the way to his geometric Ocean Park abstractions, represented in the show by a major painting and some fine drawings. Thiebaud, by contrast, plays fast and loose with space, shifting angles, now hovering above his motif, now confronting it; San Francisco streets induce vertigo, water shimmers, mountains loom. Yet surprising commonalities also emerged. Witness the shared taste for high viewpoints or the congruence of the suave curves of sidewalk and roadway in a Diebenkorn cityscape of 1966 and the swelling shapes of a 1998 Thiebaud canvas of river-lands. It’s clear the two had a lot to say to each other, even though, Thiebaud maintains, they rarely talked about painting. The fine, albeit staccato selection of works at Acquavella suggests that they didn’t have to. Their connection was deeper and wordless.
Also in New York, another approach to landscape (mostly) was feted in “Milton Avery: Early Works on Paper and Late Paintings,” at Yares Art, in an impressive museum-worthy selection. The early, rowdy images of bathers and New England landscapes, from the 1930s, none exhibited before, reminded us that the expressive economies of Avery’s late canvases had their origins in careful observation of actuality, freely recorded. The views of robust women in bathing suits and brooding, forested hillsides offered a glimpse of the artist before he had fully found his own voice (born in 1885, he died in 1965), but the strength of the show were the large, late works: meetings of sea and sand, breaking surf, choppy waves and dunes, and more, pared down to expanses of luminous hues and oversized patterns. The works ranged from the classic Brown Sea (1958), with its play of acid green hillside, scumbled blue-black foliage, and surf reduced to rhythmic curves, to the eccentric, marvelous Sails in Sunset Sea (1960), an all-over sheet of loosely stroked pink, scribbled with hotter pink, and punctuated with a couple of narrow shapes and curved sweeps that we suddenly recognize as sailboats. Avery’s tightrope walk between abstraction and reference, between profound seriousness and humor, looked as fresh, inventive, and potent as ever. And the ambitious catalogue, with essays by William C. Agee and David Ebony, and many additional works reproduced, is a significant addition to the Avery shelf.
Further evidence of the health and currency of painting was the critic, novelist, and abstract painter Peter Plagens’ exhibition of recent work at Nancy Hoffman Gallery, a group of jaunty, accomplished disquisitions on the expressive power of different kinds of paint application and formal concepts, from unbounded, spontaneous gestures to sleek, hard-edged planes. If that sounds overly cerebral and dry, think again. Plagens’ canny, ample canvases, for all their thoughtful consideration of the fundamentals of picture-making, were also lighthearted, playful, and improvisatory—as well as rewarding of close attention.
Each painting begins with a “bed” of overscaled scrawls of rough strokes, overlaid with a centralized field of relatively uninflected color whose ragged edges enter into a conversation with the underlying layer of thin, agitated marks. “Carving” of the edges of those marks by over-painting with white intensifies the complex rhythms of the two superim- posed events. Floating on top of the large, opaque plane is a large geometric shape, now centralized, now off to one side. It’s usually a hexagon, more or less distorted, whose crisply defined facets allow Plagens to set up apparently endless color relationships. Smaller versions of these faceted configurations have appeared in Plagens’ work before, but they’ve never before played such a central, leading role; they’ve become a wildly diverse cast of characters performing in a series of one-person plays.
Surrounded by a selection of these recent works, along with a few earlier works on paper that anticipate the new paintings, we were immediately aware of the serial nature of Plagens’ approach. But we were just as quickly captured by the varied moods, affects, and spatial qualities of each painting. An essentially cool or neutral warped hexagon offset against a flat, jagged plane of an intense color, for example, behaved very differently from a more or less symmetrical hexagon of clear hues against a warm gray plane, with the diverse, subtle colors of the “escapes” of the underlying field of casual strokes further modifying each painting’s emotional temperature and visual pulse. Nothing could be more tedious than describing this sort of thing, but seeing it was exciting and engaging, with each work demanding a different response. Plagens has been a painter to take seriously for a long time. A lot of us who’ve been paying attention thought this was his best show to date.
“Matthew Blackwell: Nueva Frontera,” at Edward Thorp Gallery presented us with a group of the haunting, sometimes disturbing, always ravishingly painted oddball narratives we have come to expect of this politically engaged, wildly inventive artist. At once vaguely familiar and strange, his paintings of the adventures of his constantly evolving cast of characters—equivocal women, human-animal hybrids, peculiar men, obsolete cars, and a recurring, somewhat menacing striped cat—along with a wall of cobbled together constructions in sometimes unidentifiable materials, took us into territory as all-American as Thiebaud’s lunch counter still lifes. Were we dealing with migrants? Were we in New Mexico, Maine, or Brooklyn, all of which figure in Blackwell’s life? Or were we in a wholly imaginary world suggested by the fragments of pop and folk songs Blackwell sometimes scribbles onto his canvases? We were, as always, intrigued by the images, often disquieted by the suggested narratives, and entranced by the sheer gorgeousness of Blackwell’s paint-handling and orchestration of color.
The standout in a show full of compelling works was Unblinking Eye (2011–2017), a large, mysterious canvas, somehow about the radical abolitionist John Brown, personified as a lean, saber-wielding, bearded figure with a single giant eye as a head, framed by a pleated, multicolored fan. A tall, elegant woman in a striped skirt echoing the fan and an elongated painter with brush and palette look on while a handsome, improbably hued donkey and a wizened elephant—emblems of Blackwell’s despair at the current political system—march by, accompanied by a long-legged, guitar-playing woman. As we wander through the painting’s patchwork landscape, with its delicious combination of hues and lush surfaces, we discover more and more incidents—a giant shoe, mysterious quasi-figures, a dark-skinned wraith who smokes, and more. Blackwell’s world seems to be as charged with meaning as one of Nicolas Poussin’s mythological landscapes and demands to be read with the same kind of incremental attention. But we never quite decipher a specific narrative. We suspect something important is at stake, but we are forced—or allowed—to invent our own stories, follow our own associations, and encouraged to lose ourselves in the way Blackwell puts on paint. He keeps us guessing, but he makes us think—and believe in the power of painting, even in today’s troubled times.
At Mnuchin Gallery, on the Upper East Side, “Sean Scully: Wall of Light” revisited a representative group of the confrontational, geometric paintings for which this authoritative painter is best known. The series, triggered, we are told, by seeing a Mayan stone wall at different times of day and weather conditions, had its origins in watercolors made in 1984 and has continued, with alterations along the way, pretty well until the present. The selection at Mnuchin, which included watercolors, pastels, and paintings of various sizes, ranged from a 1984 watercolor to a good-sized canvas made in 2013, with key works borrowed from important museum collections. As Scully has taught us to expect of him, his deceptively straightforward arrangements of vertical and horizontal blocks reveal delicate variations within the relationship of the parts and shifts away from symmetry, if we pay attention. In the most powerful works in the series, these subtle surprises are underscored by Scully’s unpredictable use of color and by opulent surfaces whose feathered edges often attest to repeated campaigns and accumulated layers.
The most compelling of the Wall of Light pictures evoke the natural world, with all its mutability and instability, through their color, at the same time that they affirm the materiality of paint, the agency of the artist, and the solidity of the built world. Perhaps because this sense of aggressive physicality is a significant part of the paintings’ character—rather like the artist himself—the large works usually are the most effective, facing us down, like actual architecture, demanding that we pay attention to nuance. Among the most memorable of the selection were Wall of Light Desert Night (1999, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth) and Night (2003), both notable for subdued, but strangely radiant palettes. Wall of Light Desert Night is a gathering of unnamable, apparently infinitely variable grays, off-grays, and off-whites tending now toward blue, now toward green, now oddly warm, but always resisting labels, punctuated by a few tawny blocks; Night, more uniformly dark and brooding, is at once forthright and threatening to dematerialize, because of the “escapes” of warmer hues visible at the edges of the blocks. Both paintings were puzzling and elusive, demanding that we keep paying attention but never fully revealing their secrets—which is what Scully does best.
Also on the Upper East Side, through early May, “Colors,” at FreedmanArt, brings together the work of more than twenty-five artists, all known for their inventive, expressive use of color, whether brilliant, raucous, or muted. It’s a notably diverse group of works on paper, paintings, and collages by such luminaries as Josef Albers, Jack Bush, Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Larry Poons, Susan Roth, Kurt Schwitters, and Frank Stella, among others. The gallery has been doing interesting thematic shows for some time—everything from works of art given by artists to their friends and colleagues to prints by painters who devoted a good deal of time to exploring other media. This exhibition takes as its point of departure a poem written by then twelve-year-old Zoe Kusyk, a student in Charlottesville, Virginia, a 2016 winner of “Writer’s Eye,” an annual competition held by the Fralin Museum of the University of Virginia that “challenges writers of all ages to create original works of poetry and prose inspired by works of art on display in the Museum.” Ms. Kusyk’s winning poem, titled “Colors,” was a response to a 1977 painting by Larry Poons, a cascade of liquid hues pulled by gravity into parallel but active rivulets, now remaining distinct, now mingling.
The poem isolates individual colors and personifies them—in part: “Pink is a boy from Boston, / Who dreams to be a writer, / But is forced to be a soldier. / Orange is a girl from Houston, / With a drunk for a father, / Who runs away from home.” The show does not include the Fralin’s picture but includes several other canvases by Poons, all unstable accumulations of unexpected, complex hues that could be described in similar terms, along with an impressive selection of works by other artists that are testimony to independence of mind and innovation. Schwitters’ Untitled (22.214.171.124.5.6.7.) (Merz Drawing), 1922/1925, a handsome collage with a color list, could be the show’s emblem. A zany Hofmann, with lingering still life qualities and a hint of surrealism, is a memorable inclusion. A Frankenthaler radiates energy and authority. Some works pit large zones of clear hues against one another, while others trade in nuance. One reminds us that black is a color and another asserts the impact of full-throttle chroma deployed for maximum contrast. Susan Roth’s small constructed painting, with applied elements in a variety of materials, is an exercise in the play of closely related colors differentiated by physical differences. The basis of “Colors” is relatively simple and straightforward, but the result is thought-provoking and visually engaging. There’s a lot to look at and to think about. And I’m told that Larry Poons and Zoe Kusyk met at the exhibition opening and had a lot to say to each other. I’m not surprised.