Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN
This article first appeared in the
New York Sun, September 18, 2003
Head of Persephone 1935
Three stunning, timely exhibitions of celebrated but underrated American modernists remind New Yorkers of the incredible resource offered by the more serious commercial galleries. Among them, right now, Knoedler, PaceWildenstein, and Robert Miller form a kind of second Whitney - one for which you don't have to stand in line, or pay!
Richard Pousette-Dart was a first-generation abstract expressionist who has been consigned to the second tier. He stares out at history from the left end of the middle row of Nina Leen's canonical 1951 group photograph for Life magazine of the so-called "irascibles" - one of the youngest in the line-up. But where, say, Adolph Gottlieb or Clifford Still get a chapter each in "The Triumph of American Painting," Irving Sandler's landmark study of the movement, Pousette-Dart barely earns a couple of mentions. And yet he was both a forerunner and a great painter.
History is comfortable, however, to dwell on as few strong names as possible. You might expect revisionist art histories to correct injustices, but the opposite happens: The academics - who aren't connoisseurs interested in quality - compound the canonical lineup by accepting them as givens, focusing their revisions on theoretical issues. It is left to artists and collectors to engage in genuinely critical revaluation.
This show of Pousette-Dart's precocious "mythic heads" of the 1930s will throw a spanner in the works as far as sorting wheat from chaff is concerned. Dwelling on the period 1935-42, the exhibition shows an artist hitting the scene as a ready-formed individualist. The works are both of, and ahead of, their time.
If you stopped the clock in, say, 1940 and judged the protagonists on what they had achieved so far, Pousette-Dart would stand head and shoulders over Jackson Pollock. Of course, the clock didn't stop, and it was precisely in the act of working through the frustrations and pent up energies of his misdirected earlier efforts that Pollock forged so unique and revolutionary a personal expressive language. In Pousette-Dart's case, in fact, the sense of crystalline resolution that always blesses his work might also be its fatal flaw.
The mythic heads look with fierce critical intelligence at the possibilities offered a young American by Picasso and Braque, Miró, and Klee, and above all, non-western art. They also relate to a new direction in American painting, at once modern, classic and mythopoeic, explored by the "three musketeers," whom Pousette-Dart befriended: John Graham, Willem de Kooning, and Arshile Gorky. Actually, Pousette-Dart, whose mother was the poet and theosophist Flora Louise Dart, anticipated Graham's subsequent turn to the occult.
The portrait of Flora from 1939-40 is an extraordinary work. It relates as much to Marsden Hartley as to the artist's continental mentors, while it anticipates a painter like Richard Lindner. It might seem remote in touch and ambition from the open color fields that Pousette-Dart would pioneer in the following years, but it connects to the spirit of abstract expressionism in the way symbolism and plastic intensity form a synergy.
Isamu Noguchi Strange
Bird (To the Sunflower) 1945-72
In the year the Pousette-Dart show ends, 1942, the Japanese-American Isamu Noguchi slipped out of the internment camp he had entered voluntarily six months earlier and made his way to New York. He found in MacDougal Alley, long established as a haven for sculptors, "an oasis ... perfect in every way" for sculpture. The environment he created there looked forward to the Zen garden he went on to establish amidst the urban industry of Long Island City. This later became his museum (it is currently under renovation).
The 1940s were miracle years for Noguchi, in which he produced some of his most exquisite and characteristic works. The exhibition includes around a dozen pieces that have their genesis in that period as marble carvings and some decades later would be cast in bronze and other metals. (The artful lighting of this design heavy installation obfuscates the differences in surface quality between metal and polished stone.) Like Pousette-Dart, Noguchi was looking at once to European and extra-European sources while finding his own voice. Many of his biomporphic standing figures look like surrealist personages from the paintings of Picasso, Miró, and Tanguy rendered three-dimensionally.
What gives them particular edge is the way they are formed from interlocking planes. Noguchi found a cheap and suggestive material in marble slabs, which had been prepared that way for the building trade (for façades). Carving directly with pneumatic tools, he devised a technique of interlocking that by-passed welding or gluing. The effect is to make them seem more ethereal and other-wordly. Indeed, what's extraordinary about these standing figures of Noguchi is that they dissolve the opposition between the constructive and organic that mattered so much to sculptors at that time. They are at once jagged and rounded, and they intimate liveliness without disguising the mechanical logic of their facture.
When Jackson Pollock rushed into town for the "Irascibles" photograph, it had never occurred to anyone to include his wife, Lee Krasner (except, of course, Lee Krasner herself). The one woman to break into that class portrait was Hedda Sterne. This was undoubtedly a grave injustice, for Krasner was as significant a player in advanced painting as plenty of the men who were included.
Her 1999 retrospective (it was at the Brooklyn Museum in 2001) revealed an artist as interesting for her inconsistencies as her accomplishments. This should not be misunderstood: She had high points, but the very restlessness and risk that continued to characterize her career ought to endear her to history, not alienate her.
While the Pousette-Dart and Noguchi exhibits visit their protagonists at early career moments, Robert Miller presents a sumptuous display of late works, from 1966 to the year of her death, 1984. In many of these, however, the artist herself critically revisits her youth, for she found a fecund art material in her own early, failed drawings.
It is not so rare for artists to cannibalize their own efforts in this way. The process can be related to the way a painter might use prints or reproductions of their own work as a compositional starting point. The fact, incidentally, that Krasner first sorted her discovered cache of drawings, which had been made while a student of Hans Hoffman, and kept the good ones diminishes any notion of exorcissm in this exercise. What is more startling about these late works is what they say about the relationship of expressivity and style in her mature aesthetic outlook.
The 1960s paintings show Krasner
capable of painterly exuberance and gestural gusto. But energy is always
contained by form. These loose, "automatic" paintings give way
to hard-edged designs of almost constructivist precision in the following
decade. The last phase is a synthesis of these preceding opposites. By
incorporating charcoal drawings that were passionately engaged with a
cubist sense of space into radically flattened, cut-out compositions (forcing
the duality by leaving the background canvas raw), Krasner places her
own authentic and formative search for depth within quote marks. Hard-won
drawings that had been so specific about space are reduced to generalized
texture, a kind of ready-made pentimenti. Such liberty with language connects
in a surprising way with younger contemporaries. Paintings that are the
culmination of long career are equally and bizarrely of their time. The
point would be driven home were one to place a 1984 Krasner next to a
David Salle of the same year.