Freshness Can Be A Tradition: Robert Berlind and Elizabeth Neel
This article, from 2006, was originally published at The New York Sun and is posted here in tribute to the late Robert Berlind on the eve of his solo exhibition at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., opening in Chelsea Saturday, January 9, 2016.
Robert Berlind at Tibor de Nagy, Elizabeth Neel at Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert
The phrase “American-type painting” was coined by Clement Greenberg in the 1950s, in relation to Abstract Expressionism. With hindsight, however, that style looks both remarkably consistent across national boundaries and individualistic within the New York School. A stronger case can be made for an American-type realism that emerged in the postwar period, one alive and kicking to this day. I am referring to a frank, open, painterly naturalism based upon perception but as concerned with the fluidity of vision as it is with stasis: This almost cinematic sense of movement gives a whole school of landscape painting its unique, Yankee twang.
The tradition is probably rooted in a few strong individuals. If you imagine them as clusters of trees (which, almost symbolically, is a common motif among the painters I’m thinking of) then the tallest is Alex Katz — even if he is less known for his landscapes than his portraits — with Fairfield Porter, the late Neil Welliver, Jane Freilicher, and Lois Dodd as neighbors. Porter was Mr. Katz’s senior, but there has never been any doubt that the sense of inner light and the bravura smoothness first came from the younger painter.
Like Cornelia Foss, another painter currently showing, Robert Berlind could be thought of as a branch that teases the gaze as he flits between the upper rafters of these thicker trunks at Tibor de Nagy. (This could equally apply to George Nick, who recently signed up with Tibor.) In polite circles one tries not to describe an artist as a leaf off another man’s tree (as Oskar Kokoschka once dismissed Picasso, in relation to himself!). I point to this commonality not to question the originality of these painters, but to show that their style is part of a broad, collective endeavor specific in an enriching way to a time and place. Freshness can be a tradition.
Equally striking as Ms. Foss’s homegrown influences is her Frenchness. Her beachscapes in particular, painted in the Hamptons, bring Matisse and his disciples Marquet and Manguin to mind. Mr. Berlind also has a French connection, though in his case it cuts deeper into tradition: Delacroix, Courbet, and Cézanne are frequent visitors in his intellectually complex, deceptively charming works. Ironically, Mr. Berlind’s images, while more referential than that of Ms. Foss, also seems more casual.
Mr. Berlind often strives for the nonchalance of a snapshot. In this respect his work more closely resembles the painted Maine landscapes of Rudy Burckhardt than Mr. Katz’s mode of cropping, which is always aligned to the glamour of immediacy rather than quirkiness of chance. Mr. Berlind seems to look for the meaning within the slice of nature he has uncovered, rather than impose it by the a priori fact of making it his composition. This must have been what Irving Sandler had in mind when he wrote that Mr. Berlind “does not seek his subjects; they happen to him.”
There is a consistency of vision in Mr. Berlind’s paintings, such as this new group of work from the last three years, but there also is considerable variety of speed and touch, as if each subject demanded a different approach. He can veer from tight, meticulous, draftsmanly application to almost luxuriant scumbling; from obsessive faceting, in which each stroke is given specific weight and measure, to a kind of bravura flourish of serpentine strokes (Cézanne one moment, Sargent the next). The choice doesn’t seem the result of some inner caprice, but rather, on each occasion, a phenomenon caught his attention and demanded specific treatment.
Mr. Berlind has a great love for the reflection of trees and light in agitated water. “Stream and Rocks” (2004) is a tour de force within this genre: you get the contrast of solid, actual fixed rocks and the ephemeral film of reflectivity sluicing around them. Such an occurrence in nature obviously draws upon hidden reserves of virtuosity. But Mr. Berlind is never a show-off, always preferring his painterly plainspokenness: American-type painting has a stiff upper lip.
Mr. Berlind is insistently un-photographic: He is not about freezing a moment in time, but also avoids the modish Gerhard Richter-style smudge that suggests a camera overwhelmed by movement. Instead he brings fresh verve to old-fashioned means, demanding from paint a sense of the plasticity of time.
Elizabeth Neel’s must-see debut solo at Gasser and Grunert offers a radically contrastive response to landscape to that of Mr. Berlind and his tradition: There is nothing in her temperament to suggest puritan empiricism. She paints what seem at first to be neo-romantic jungles and forests — dense, wild, pulsating with life and danger. An accompanying text by John Reed informs us that the artist culls all her images at random from the Internet. Maybe the World Wide Web, in its chaos and unlimitedness, is a kind of contemporary wilderness: The locus of the sublime. Nature or ’net, however, Ms. Neel is herself a force of nature, painting with a majestic, violent bravura that recalls de Kooning and Francis Bacon.
Her work also bears a striking similarity to certain British painters from the 1980s that I’d be very surprised if she is aware of — Maurice Cockrill, Ken Kiff — as well as the Australian landscape painter Sidney Nolan. Perhaps there is a kind of eternal recurrence among modern romantic painters of exuberance when they are drawn to nature and its archetypes.
The wonder of her images is that with all the splash, splutter, scumble, pouncing, and dabbing going on there is amazing chromatic clarity. Many of her effects make you aware of the surface, yet she builds dense intimations of deep space. This comes about through an extraordinary balance of big, restless shapes and gestures, on the one hand, and tight, finessed detail on the other, with the washed out and the painterly fearlessly juxtaposed. It is very rare to encounter such a combination of energy and assurance in a young painter: Ms. Neel looks, literally, like an old master.
Berlind until July 8 (724 Fifth Avenue, between 56th and 57th Streets, 212-2625050).
Neel until June 18 (524 W. 19th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-807-9494).