Tibor de Nagy Gallery
724 Fifth Avenue
Until April 23
Every few years, Tibor de Nagy Gallery offers up another selection of works by painter Nell Blaine (1922–96), allowing us to wonder again at the intensity of this artist’s highly original, self-possessed images. The present selection of work from her last four decades includes two dozen paintings, watercolors, and drawings, a number of which haven’t been on public view since the 60s.
These landscapes and still lifes reflect her typically forthright attack, with brusque strokes and colors that evoke keen sensations of atmosphere and place. But Ms. Blaine’s work has other qualities, as well. She had a sharp eye for the rhythmic ordering of forms, for subtly measured intervals and locations that turned her compositions into charged meditations. At Tibor, this spirit of formal inquiry is much in evidence, and reminds us of how much closer Ms. Blaine came to the expansive spirit of Matisse or even Chardin than most of her contemporaries.
Ms. Blaine claimed she never completely left abstraction, and we can see echoes of the principles of her teacher, Hans Hofmann, resonating in the landscapes, interiors, and still lifes she produced over the course of nearly 50 years. It’s especially apparent in a painting like “Cosmos in Night Interior” (1976), in which broad rhythms belie the canvas’ rather small dimensions. Up close, it’s a mosaic of paint strokes differentiated mostly by colors ranging from muted to strident. But at normal viewing distance, they coalesce into gestures.
At the canvas’ center, a configuration of pinks — varying from a fleshy paleness, to an elusive violet in half-shadow, to full-throated pale scarlet in shade — becomes the jagged passage of light over a bouquet. Below, the inert beige of its vase barely restrains an adjacent yellow — the tabletop behind, brilliantly illuminated. Simple in its elements, this sequence conjures up a complex of sensations: a ruffle of overspreading blossoms, their stolid support, an abrupt escape to places beyond.
Ms. Blaine’s coherent attack makes it all seem effortless. In fact, in the same canvas she then moves on to secondary rhythms, elaborating the table’s full expanse and surroundings without diluting the first. Overlapping colors, conveying the soft sheen of china, the acrid yellow transparency of a jar, and finally the quiet luminosity of a tumbler’s column of water, turns the picture into a busy plunge into space. The distance from near to far edges of the table becomes almost supernaturally tangible.
The artist’s confident touch and lucid colors lent themselves especially well to watercolor. Of the several here, “ Platform Garden ” (1988) is especially impressive; its washes are at once limpid in hue and muscular in outline. A handful of drawings round out the show, and their vigorous attack, exploiting both contours and tonal planes, remind us how thoroughly Ms. Blaine integrated processes of drawing and painting.
Paintings of an interior with a figure, and of a still life with fish, are capable but perhaps not up to Blaine ‘s highest level of energetic inquiry. But many others are, and the viewer can savor Blaine’s response to each motif — whether a view across rooftops, the coiled form of a sleeping cat, or the Hudson River at sunset — as she found new ways to make every element contribute to an unfolding impression.
“A minute in the world’s life passes!” Cézanne once exclaimed. “To paint it in its reality and forget everything for that!” Blaine ‘s best work shows this intense interest in her visible surroundings, as well as her unaffected virtuosity. For her, too, a discipline of forms liberated a deeper search for the real.