Nowadays the once virulent opposition, abstraction versus representation,
really is as an old chestnut. The very act of painting has been isolated
in such a fashion as to thrust rival camps into comradeship, rather
like Tsarists and Mensheviks sharing a common exile. Furthermore, enough
contemporaries bridge the divide between the two idioms, like Gerhard
Richter with his hyperrealism and his painterly abstraction, to make
the dichotomy redundant.
But Mr. Barnet,
who is ninety two and going strong, is of a different vintage: like
Richard Diebenkorn or Philip Guston, his shifting back and forth between
paradigms is almost a defining aspect of his career.
The pattern for
these artists was to start realist, then discover abstraction, and thence
to and from between syntheses of the two. Mr. Barnet is now, in fact,
revisiting his (for him) purist abstraction of the post-war period in
reworkings of old compositions. Like Guston, his second volte face (the
readmission of depictive content during the heyday of formal abstraction)
was met with incredulity and vitriol.
Which seems bizarre,
looking at Mr. Barnet's works of that decade, so well behaved are representation
and non-objectivity in each other's company. All four paintings here
are tightly composed, coolly executed, gentle on the senses, and lyrical
in the interplay of shapes. The non-representational pair are themselves
politely poised between constructivism and organic abstraction. The
figural works, highly stylized mother-child groupings, find their tenderness
equally in humane content (they feature the artist's wife and daughter)
and unabrasive shape coordination.
acknowledge Matisse, but without any hint of that master's angst. They
also look rather like de-sexualized Balthus's, sharing his sweetened
orientalism, and there is more than a hint of Milton Avery, though without
the latter's energetic primitivism. The overriding qualities in Mr.
Barnet are always softness and charm- hardly characteristics to guarantee
a modernist his place in the pantheon. But these paintings that so unabashed
about what they are and represent they seem likely somehow to survive
on their own terms.
the point of view of current credibility, form consciousness is more
acute and sophisticated in the figural works than the abstract ones.
It is as if human content proved a decoy rather than a distraction.
When left to dominate, the abstract objects became obsessed with their
own identity. Precisely because the portraits are so upfront in their
decorative stylization and shameless in their sentiment, they are less
like period pieces than the abstract paintings.
Mari Lyons Broadway
with Zabar's in Early Spring 2002
oil on Canvas, 72 x 72 inches
If Mr. Barnet puts
you in the mood for soft modernism then two other shows closing this
weekend will warrant attention. Mari Lyons is having her ninth show
at the First Street Gallery, the most consistently energetic of the
several veteran artist cooperatives that have migrated to Chelsea. Her
Upper Westside street scenes betray her tutelage under Max Beckmann
in their vertiginous exuberance and their vibrant plasticity. They can
also put you in mind of Red Grooms in their Breughelesque social density.
Her expressive naivity (outsized automobiles, expressive street lettering)
genuinely seems unforced. Dashing colors and deft little figures ensure
that these paintings are real charmers.
Ballydehob, County Cork 2003
oil on panel, 20 x 12 inches
Courtesy George Billis Gallery
brings a similar sunny disposition to bear on decidedly less metropolitan
townscapes. Her topography stretches from country lanes in her native
Ireland to wastelands along American rivers. Ms. O'Reilly wears her
mentors on her sleeve, and luckily they are good ones: Lois Dodd when
it comes to smart but unflashy composition and George Nick (or it could
be Mr. Nick's own mentor, Albert Marquet) for lyrical color and fluent
application. Ms. O'Reilly's quiet, fresh unpretentious paintings have
more going on in them than might seem obvious to the quickly satisfied
gaze, particularly in shadow-play. The collective shadow of anthropomorphized
houses along the sinous street in "Ballydehob, County Cork,"
2003, for instance, is a ready-made abstract shape as quirky and autonomous
as the pulsating jigsaw pieces found in Will Barnet.