Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, June 3, 2004
 

 

"Neil Welliver: Oil Studies" through June 18 at Alexandre Gallery, 41 East 57th Street at Madison Avenue, 212 755 2828

"Jacob Lawrence: Prints and Selected Paintings" and "Gwen Knight: Selected Works, 1945-2004" at DC Moore Gallery through June 30, 724 Fifth Avenue between 56th and 57th Street, 212 247 2111

"Irving Kriesberg: Chageable Paintings, 1956-69" through June 18 at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, 37 W 57 Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, 212 750 0949


DAVID COHEN

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Neil Welliver Study for Little Spruce 1985
oil on canvas, 24 x 24 inches
Courtesy Alexandre Gallery

There are good things to say about Neil Welliver. To start at the top: he paints snow as nicely as anyone since Sisley. Along with the white froth of fast flowing brooks, his snow almost makes you think the Maine landscape has been smothered in cream. This mouthwatering suggestion is bolstered by the succulence of the (for him) small oil sketches that are the subject of his fourth exhibition with Alexandre. His oil sketches have a fresh, painterly directness usually absent in the tight, compulsively detailed, formally closed compositions for which he is better known.

Whatever the season, Mr. Welliver is a devotee of charged light. Even in dense woodlands, a favorite motif, he has the sunlight dapple the mossy ground and the edges of his pine trunks. He is much given to building representation out of perfunctory, almost digital dabs and strokes. But snow defeats a would-be pointillism to insist on rounded forms, extracting a voluptuous legato from an otherwise staccato brush.

Mr. Welliver is a substantial, original artist, but to my eye, one who is painfully flawed. He works in geographically and stylistically similar terrain to Alex Katz and Lois Dodd, who are his generational peers. But he has neither the high octane improvisatory verve of Mr. Katz nor the quirky, wonderous obstinacy of observation to be found in Ms. Dodd. Two other painters he resembles-and may perhaps have influenced-are Robert Berlind and George Nick, but he equally lacks the uninhibited frankness and compositional compactness of these men.

Examination of Mr. Welliver's sketches, arguably the most likeable of his works, are still suggestive of his underlying problem, which has to do with a kind of mimetic greed. Like another Mainer, Andrew Wyeth, he wants to record every blessed leaf, twig, branch. In terms of pictorial economy, this means missing the wood for the trees.

This proclivity, in a way, is the other side of the same coin as a horror vacui, a fear of open color, bare ground, ambiguous space. He finds brushstrokes appropriate in scale to each individual form he is painting, and then loads the composition to bursting point with what are, essentially, undifferentiated and perceptually gratuitous marks. This almost tapestry-like evenness of detail and attention results in a claustrophic closure that contradicts the natural order he has taken as his subject.

***

Gwen Knight Untitled (Barbados) 1945
oil on canvasboard, 24 x 20 inches
Courtesy DC Moore Gallery

The man and wife show at DC Moore of the late, legendary Jacob Lawrence and his nonogenarian widow, Gwen Knight, offers a rare, welcome chance to see a small overview of Ms. Knight, culled from her recent traveling retrospective organized by the Tacoma Art Museum. This stretches back to a poignant landscape of 1945 recalling her native Barbados, which she had left at the age of seven, as well as portraits and life studies of accomplished naturalism.

Lawrence is represented by works on paper, including a complete set of the 1986 screenprints based on his 1938 narrative sequence of paintings on the life of the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture, "the black Napoleon."

As the peerless pictorial story teller of African-American history, Lawrence was a natural for printmaking, "the democratic art". He was "graphic" in various senses of the word: powered by flat forms and emphatic lines, his images are emotionally articulate, visually immediate, compositionally uncluttered.

His art was "primitive" in a highly sophisticated way. He forged an expressive style suited to his mission, to tell his stories with urgency and charisma, in a way that was collectively rather than personally expressive. He also manages at once to be visually inventive and witty about the implications of his style. A painting in gouache and tempera, "Other Rooms," (1975) is energized by spatial compressions and pulsating areas of singing, open color that are both indebted to Matisse: the almost abstract baby, at once awkward and exquisite, recalls the late cut-outs.

Jacob Lawrence General Toussaint L'Ouverture (from the Toussaint L'Ouverture series) 1986
silk screen, 28-3/8 x 18-1/2 inches
Courtesy DC Moore Gallery

An allusion to Matisse's acanthus leaves in the decorative embellishment on the general's uniform takes on added symbolic resonance, for Toussaint was "dreaded by the French," as Lawrence's caption declaims.

You could say that Lawrence borrowed from a jazz inspired Frenchman to depict in his own style a black hero who borrowed revolution from the French to fight them for independence.

***


Irving Kriesberg The Lovers 1960
oil on canvas on board with aluminum, 79-1/2 x 33-1/2 x 17 inches
Courtesy Lori Bookstein Fine Art

In the 1950s, Irving Kriesberg hit upon a novel hybrid of mediums that arranged four double sided painted or drawn panels on a hooped armature which in turn was sunk into a base: the panels, free of the wall, could be manually rotated, thus presenting sixty-four potential configurations and the added variables of side views and slanted perspectives.

Within his individual compositions, Mr. Kriesberg was interested in collage and an abstract figuration. By making mobile sculptures out of these pictures, he very literally took the collage impetus beyond the frame.

Funky as it may sound, his new form was of ancient (or at least medieval) pedigree, recalling High Gothic altarpieces whose multiple panels could expand or contract into different scenes. Mr. Kriesberg's "Roslyn Diary (Altarpiece)" (1967) acknowledged this ancestry: No less than fourteen panels open and close in elaborate orchestrations. (Playing with it recalls the adolescent pleasure of being let loose at the Sir John Soane Museum, London, or the Gustave Morreau studio, Paris, with their ingenius flapping displays).

You'd think from the description that the young artist was in thrall to a gimmick; in fact, the paintings are made in complete earnest, and don't suffer in the least from their off the wall presentation. Besides collage, the artist was clearly exercised by narrative; his panels were a means to force the work of narrative construction upon the viewer. This radical, disjunctive aspect of Mr. Kriesberg's work could deem him a forerunner to minimal and conceptual art. His style, however, belonged increasingly to a very different camp: bestiaries and crucifixions looked to such contemporary European expressionists as Pierre Alechinsky and Graham Sutherland, as well, no doubt, to their forebears, Matthias Grünewald and the Book of Kells.


 

 

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