The Jane Street Gallery: Celebrating New York’s First Artist Cooperative and Jean Hélion: Selected Works
Tibor de Nagy Gallery
724 Fifth Avenue, 12th fl
New York, NY 10019
June 12-July 25, 2003
Everyone knows the story: after World War II, the newly dominant United States brought to the world’s attention a new kind of art. The new painting was one of wide spaces and practical purposes. It reflected a plain-speaking individualism and a belief in social mobility and self-reliance. It rejected the stagnating tastes and hierarchies of the old order, and it prevailed because of its originality and forcefulness.
Actually, extraordinary as the New York School was, one ought to be a little wary of any account so flattering to our sense of national destiny. A truer history would also examine the mechanisms by which modern artists move from obscurity into the public’s imagination (noting, for instance, Clement Greenberg’s influential arguments about painting’s necessary evolution). It would also include accounts of other vital, contemporaneous movements.
The Jane Street Gallery: Celebrating New York’s First Artist Cooperative, at Tibor de Nagy through July 23, presents one such movement, and there’s enough compelling painting here to make one wish for more. All twenty of the paintings here were at one point exhibited in the Jane Street Gallery, a cooperative gallery whose membership varied slightly over the years but seems to have hovered at around eight to ten members, each of whom paid $5 monthly dues. (Ah, 1940s rents!) The gallery operated only from 1943 to 1949, the same years that Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning were finding their mature styles. Most of the Jane Street artists were then only in their twenties-a fact all the more startling when one considers how fully-formed their work seems to be. Overall the selection at Tibor is strikingly confident in its philosophy of attack. Instead of the cathartic, autobiographical approach of their elder colleagues-the demonstrative process, the explicit brushwork-the Jane Street artists looked for discoveries within existing idioms. Many had studied with Hans Hofmann, and they sought to extend rather than overthrow the School of Paris. Not surprisingly, more often than the Abstract Expressionists the Jane Street artists show the virtues of the French School-and these lay not just in style and charm, but in a discipline of internal rhythms that bespoke its own kind of energy and courage.
After its first couple of years, changes in the gallery membership led to the dominance by artists pursuing pure geometric abstraction. Leland Bell (1922-1991), Nell Blaine (1922-96), and Albert Kresch (b. 1922) were particularly enamored of Arp and Mondrian, and the influence is apparent in all their work at Tibor. In every case, however, the impulses of forms and colors have the energy of personal discovery. In Bell’s small gouache Abstraction (II), 1942-45, a core of angling forms throws up two masses of concentric loops whose curves kink and chase each other in terse play; inside, succinct patches of pure cobalt, pale yellow, and a mild sienna pin down locations in a kind of expectant disequilibrium. The jostling, overlapping planes of Blaine’s oil painting Abstraction, 1948, suggest a tilted landscape, or perhaps a river pushing along resistant boulders; their colors-sturdy whites, a charged orange, a reserved blue, a static raw sienna-pile and slip against the flow. Kresch, the only artist here represented by both abstract and overtly representational work, employs unnaturally intense hues of cadmium red, yellow, and deep bluish blacks to boldly describe the natural plunges in space in Rockport Sea Wall, (1948).
No less geometric in style, three abstract paintings by Judith Rothschild (1921-93) are somewhat less intractable in their tensions; along with its more rounding rhythms, the Cubistic planes of Mechanical Personnages, 1945, recall a better-behaved Picasso. Rough depictions of figures in interiors in two oil paintings by Louisa Matthiasdottir (1917-2001) suggest at first an innocence of attack, but the keenness of light-with intense colors somehow communicating exact degrees of shadow-and the vigorous spatial placement of forms reveal a forceful temperament, balanced calmly at the crux between abstraction and representation.
The four paintings here by Larry Rivers (1923-2002) will surprise gallery-goers familiar with only his proto-Pop works. All these skillful works have a fluency (if sometimes a glibness) of style; three suggest rusticated Bonnard, while the last, an interior with still life, has the looping arabesque that might remind one a little of Braque were its coloration a little less equivocal. Rounding out the exhibition are single, lyrical paintings by Hyde Solomon (1911-82) and Ida Fischer (1883-1956).
Installed in Tibor’s smaller exhibition space are ten paintings, watercolors and drawings of the painter Jean Hélion, a leader of Abstraction-Création whose work particularly influenced Bell, Blaine, and Kresch. These works dating from 1937 to 1951 record the French artist’s gradual move in the 40s from crisp abstraction to a robustly modeled realism. To my eye, Hélion’s early abstractions are among the very few to rival the sensuous rigor of interval of a Mondrian or Arp, and here, in an untitled oil painting from 1943, Hélion neatly applies this energy to a portrait; in this stylized world of calibrated color planes, a necktie struggles to emerge from overlapping gray and white garments with unstoppable plastic force, while the subtle weights of hues capture, palpably, the space under a projecting hat brim. (Trifling stuff, with much of Europe then in flames? Hélion found different venues for recording his personal experiences: his paintings express the life of everyday objects, his published memoir recounts his service in the French army and escape from a Nazi prison camp.)
Hélion’s work forms a fitting afterword for The Jane Street Gallery, because his example inspired the gradual but permanent shift of Bell, Blaine, and Kresch toward representational painting in the gallery’s last years. Like Hélion, all carried the formal vitality of their abstractions into their more realistic work, but the shift may well have made the new paintings less interesting to critics. Clement Greenberg had previously singled out Blaine’s abstract paintings in group shows elsewhere, and in 1947 he described the Jane Street artists as “ambitious and serious” and “uncompromisingly determined to prolong and widen the path marked out by Matisse, the cubists, Arp, and Mondrian.” But to my knowledge, his only mention of the figurative work of any the artists here was a rave review of River’s 1949 exhibition (quoted in the excellent exhibition catalogue essay by curator Jennifer Samet). Other Jane Street artists found themselves in an ironic position: having wholeheartedly embraced abstraction before many of the Abstract Expressionists, they had turned away from it just as it was gaining critical favor.
History records that the sole Jane Street artist to gain celebrity status was Rivers, an artist best remembered today, ironically enough, as a progenitor of Pop art-the very movement whose genericizing detachment was scorned by Greenberg (and welcomed by others as an antidote to Abstract-Expressionism’s autobiographical angst.) Pop art was to bring figuration back into the limelight, but in an entirely new guise. One need only compare Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, 1962, to Hélion’s untitled portrait at Tibor to appreciate how fully the tradition of formal composition had slipped from critical attention.
Most of the Jane Street artists remained lifelong friends. The catalogue records the words of the lone surviving member, Albert Kresch, who aptly sums up their youthful venture and their view of the Abstract Expressionists:
“They felt they had invented something new, that easel painting had changed with New York artists…And in a way, we felt that what we were doing was more difficult, because we were trying to interrogate reality, and what we saw, and the visual. They were in the first ecstasies of success and triumph and we just didn’t agree.”
Much credit is due to Ms. Samet and Tibor de Nagy for illuminating an intriguing and too-little known episode of our own history. It’s a vivid reminder that good painting, whatever its incarnation, is always a matter of independent perception and spirit.