September

Erwin Pfrang’s drawings at the David Nolan Gallery. Although Pfrang was born in Munich just over forty years ago, the packed panoramas of weirdly contorted figures that pour forth from his pencil look like products of the Germany of sixty or seventy years ago. Pfrang’s scenes of monstrous, teeming humanity have a vitriolic, nightmarish aura which suggests that this child of the Fifties has steeped himself in the work of Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, and George Grosz, along with the Belgian James Ensor. Taken one by one, Pfrang’s figures don’t have the succinct graphic elegance of the individuals in the Beckmann or Grosz works in black and white; but his figures, which emerge out of accumulations of light, tendrilly, sketchy lines (which may be in part inspired by the drawings of Joseph Beuys), do suggest a kind of nervous, bridled energy. This series of drawings was inspired by “Circe,” the Nighttown section toward the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which Pfrang, in a catalogue essay, says has a “structural rhythm [that] is seemingly determined by accumulated masses of detail relating to figures and scenes; now and then the flow of events solidifies into definite form. One cannot speak of stasis, but such moments furnish an occasion to stand and stare.” Pfrang follows this idea of a structure that is achieved through accumulation in his drawings, where figures of widely varying sizes and shapes appear above and below and behind and in front of one another to create a lumpy mass of bodies. Pfrang’s drawings are full of strange costumes and endless figures posing, pontificating, fornicating. And the way he lets the figures mingle and doesn’t worry about relative size or perspective fits the chaos of the “Circe” section, which has been called Joyce’s Walpurgisnacht. Pfrang’s shivering, slightly addled pencil strokes catch the setting, where strange figures appear out of the mist—“A form sprawled against a dustbin and muffled by its arm and hat moves, groans, grinding and growling teeth, and snores again. On a step a gnome totting among a rubbishtip crouches to shoulder a sack of rags and bones”—and so on. Pfrang’s drawings are somewhat too random and meandering in their structure—one feels that anything could happen anywhere, which is ultimately not a very satisfying way to feel about what’s happening on a sheet of paper. But the references to Ulysses (some drawings carry specific page numbers) give these crowded gatherings of will-o’-the-wisp lines a framework. Pfrang is doing curious chicken scratchings on the borders of James Joyce’s Ulysses; he’s doing modernist marginalia.

 

October

Nicola De Maria’s paintings on paper at Galerie Lelong. De Maria (who is much better known in Europe than in the United States) uses brilliant Chagallish colors to fill all kinds of surfaces with circles and dots and scumbled lines and starlike and leaflike forms. His subject matter, such as it is, is `o1950s intergalactic; he has a way of juxtaposing slabs of color that recalls Hans Hofmann, and some of the bits of imagery (such as a wobbly ladder) evoke Miró. De Maria does De Marias in every size imaginable. He’ll take a whole wall (there is one wall work in this show) and paint it deep blue, and then scatter it with twinkling abstract elements. Or he’ll scale way down, onto the eight-and-a-half-by-six-inch pieces of paper that make up most of this show. The main gallery is hung with these small paintings on paper. I go around and I enjoy the panache with which De Maria wields colors, textures, patterns—scattering circles over a field, then dabbing spots over the circles, then scratching lines into the paint with a pencil or the wrong end of the brush. In another room there are small paintings in painted frames, the paintings mostly consisting of patterns of triangles in red, orange, yellow, and two blues. De Maria’s work has the zest of children’s art, and it is not nothing to be able to fill our eyes with a succession of blazing hues. Whether he’s working big or small, the work is festive. The effect of a De Maria show is as surefire and as ephemeral as a whole party full of crepe-paper streamers and balloons.

Peter Hristoff’s paintings at the David Beitzel Gallery. Why do so many younger artists paint paintings whose surfaces look hard and lacquered, as if whatever is going on in the painting is going on at a great distance from us? These paintings can be representational, such as Joan Nelson’s (in which a bit of the top of a tree is seen at the lower edge and above that there is nothing but sky), or abstract, such as Peter Hristoff’s, which are rather small works broken up into many smaller compartments by means of an irregular grid. Hristoff’s paintings (he was born in `o1958) are mazy and labyrinthine, with heavy, often earthy color. Sometimes it seems that we’re seeing things going on inside the rectilinear compartments. The bits of texture and squiggly lines that appear in one or more of the compartments suggest life and movement (and often resemble miniaturized versions of the curving, unfurling shapes that appear in David Reed’s paintings). Hristoff’s paintings have somewhat the look of collages, with differently textured and shaded and shadowed bits juxtaposed. There’s a sense of adventure that gets going in these paintings, but the broken-up, Cubist space (which may be derived from the early, hard-edged work of Ad Reinhardt) is rather too predictable, as if Cubism were just a design lesson learned in school. The contrast between the grid and the swirling little elements gets to feel programmatic. And then there is that glassy surface that pushes everything off into a tasteful remote world, that turns it all into Cubism in aspic. That glassy surface (is it some kind of clear varnish? or is the paint mixed with a shiny medium?) is probably Hristoff’s idea of authority and finish; but it detaches us from the artist’s hand, it muffles everything that’s going on in the paintings. Artists may be using such surfaces to suggest their respect for the art of the museums, but the results mostly suggest the artists’ respect for the glossy reproductions of museum art in the coffee-table books.

 

November

Giulio Paolini’s installation at the SteinGladstone Gallery. Only in Italy, where Sophia Loren is thought the right choice to play an ordinary person, could anything as smashingly elegant as a Giulio Paolini installation be called Arte Povera—poor art. Paolini may not use particularly expensive materials in his installations, but he tosses around whatever props he does use to such glamorous effect and he gobbles up space so cavalierly that high-priced materials are beside the point. (Loren in a cotton housedress is still Loren.) Paolini’s latest installation in New York, called “Hic et Nunc,” fills the main floor at SteinGladstone with a dazzling three-dimensional emblem of the art of painting. The room—deeper than it is wide, completely open on the front end, completely closed at sides and back—is treated like a stage. Approaching the room, we are part of the audience; going into the room, we become part of the drama. The brilliantly white space is dominated by an immense but simple structure—a grid (made of seven pieces of what turns out to be veneered wood) that is jammed into the space so that one corner is pressing against the bottom of the right wall and the diagonally opposite corner is shoved higher up against the left wall. This regularly divided structure functions in Paolini’s room the way the pattern of floor tiles or ceiling beams does in a Renaissance painting: it accents the thrust of the space. But since the orthogonals of Paolini’s grid are receding at a somewhat skewed angle to the walls and floor and ceiling of the room they lend to the perspective of the space a slightly perverse, mannerist twist. The other elements in Paolini’s huge stage set suggest a postmodern Attributes of the Arts: amidst the giant grid there is an easel, a lamp, a heap of canvas; on the back wall two pediments top two canvases that have been attached to the wall—one with its front to us, and empty save for a few lines; one with its back to us—so that the canvases are turned into windows, a literal illustration of the Albertian a-picture-plane-equals-a-window idea. Paolini knows how to present big ideas glancingly, as if they were just passing through his head. As I duck my head to get around the grid and take a closer look at the back wall, I have the slightly giddy sense that I’m becoming a part of the stage set, that I’m caught up in the unbearable lightness of perspective.

Lucas Samaras’s “Slices of Abstraction/ Slivers of Passion/and/or Mere Decor” at the Pace Gallery. In the catalogue of Samaras’s new show, the artist interviews himself and asks, “Don’t you dread being trite?” To which the answer is, “Style and accent will defend me.” This particular exchange comes at the end of a rather long interview, and it might be interpreted as Samaras’s writing his own negative review, except that by setting the critique within the house of mirrors of a self-interview Samaras keeps reminding us that the questions are themselves a style statement, a matter of accent. The effect is to disarm us—that’s always the effect when somebody says about himself things that we think about him but dare not say to his face. Samaras is playing with us. (The interview is coyly printed in what looks like typewriter type on onionskin paper, so that we have the feeling that we’re reading an original document.) Samaras asks, “What do you think about the avant-garde?” And answers, “It spoils fast”—which is clever. Right after which he asks, “How do you feel about younger artists?” And answers, “If they kiss my hand I’ll kiss their crotch”—which tells us that we were stupid to think he was just going to be clever. He talks dirty, he talks philosophy, and he switches back and forth so fast that it’s all just brittle little fragments in which we dare not presume to find a pattern or a direction. His work has that air, too. The main attraction in this show is a new group of abstractions, called Mosaic Paintings, which are made of many pieces of painted canvas that have been glued together—mosaicked—on pieces of board. But around these new works Samaras has arranged an anthology of earlier abstractions, dating all the way back to some drawings that he did in high school in the early Fifties. One of those high-school drawings has bright patterns that are juxtaposed in ways that don’t look all that different from the arrangements in the new paintings, and the fact that Samaras includes this juvenilia suggests that he likes the resemblance, that he wants us to understand that everything he does has equal weight, equal value. The new paintings don’t look all that different from the sewn paintings that Samaras did in the `o1970s (a few of which are included here). In the Mosaic Paintings Samaras juxtaposes colors and textures, and he includes a few figurative elements (a hand holding a hypodermic needle, a finger dripping blood) that may allude to the AIDS epidemic. The paintings—some of which are irregularly shaped and include cutouts—have been carefully put together, and what holds us is Samaras’s evident absorption in the activity of arranging pieces of canvas painted in bright acrylic next to one another. The paintings suggest enigmatic gameboards, and in this sense the work reminds me of psychedelic art, of all the interweaving Tantric-influenced arabesques and mazes that were created in the `o1960s and `o1970s as visual analogies to a personal journey of discovery. Samaras’s work has the weird prettiness and the impenetrable self-absorption of psychedelic art. We watch as Samaras embarks on a visual journey, but it is in the very nature of his narcissistic appeal that we do not presume to understand where that trip begins or ends. Sometimes Samaras’s main achievement seems to be not what he’s doing but the fact that he’s persuaded us to watch him do it. In the Mosaic Paintings the colors and textures interview one another. And we eavesdrop as best we can.

 

December

Selected Works from the Contemporary Realist Gallery of San Francisco, at the New York Academy of Art. The centerpiece of this exhibition of works from a San Francisco gallery that specializes in representational art is Gabriel Laderman’s recent male nude, Brian as Helios. Completed after the paintings that were in Laderman’s show at the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery a little over a year ago, it is more satisfying than any one work that was in that show. The model, who is mostly outlined in black, stands, feet apart, arms apart, hands clenched. The pose is forceful yet immobile, and the main drama is in the way that the massive torso, in sun-burned flesh tones heavily worked in black, is set against the jumpy yellow of the back wall. It’s a studio nude; but the unreality of that high-pitched background color and the way the articulation of the figure breaks into calligraphic passagework carries the model Brian into his role as Helios, the Greek god of the sun. He’s a beautiful, imposing, somewhat fearsome figure, and when I read in a classical dictionary that Helios was “a celebrated favorite of the emperor Nero, put to death by order of Galba, for his cruelties,” I thought it possible that Laderman had that Helios in mind, too, when he painted this sensual, violent, late-classical man. Laderman’s brushwork here is heavy and choppy, but there is neither the overworked feeling of the large Family Romance paintings in the last show, nor the flashiness of some of the female nudes in that show. This is Laderman’s first large-scale male nude, and it is a relief to see him getting away from the old subject of the female model in the studio. Laderman appears to be caught up in this image of male force, and the rich articulation of the torso and the head (which is the first head that Laderman has ever painted eloquently) turns into a series of near-abstract meditations on the beauty of muscle, the beauty of flesh. The painting is about male beauty and power, but it is not about sex. All Laderman’s previous successful figures have been puppet-like, reminiscent in their scale and jerky movements of the not-quite-human figures of the Japanese Bunraku theater. This is the first Laderman figure that has a free-standing authority: Helios presses toward us, a dense, weighty mass. Looking at the painting, I feel that Laderman is following his instincts as he turns this studio nude into a metaphor for the sun and for male force, and it’s an artist’s willingness to follow a painting idea into regions where he hasn’t been before that sets Brian as Helios apart from everything else that’s included in this show. There are other artists in the show whose work I have followed with interest and will continue to follow with interest, but the event as a whole, aside from the Laderman, is a graveyard. Realism—or whatever one wants to call the mixed bag of Neoclassical and Neobaroque and more or less painterly work that they show at the Contemporary Realist Gallery—need not be a graveyard. Laderman’s painting proves the point.

Philip Taaffe’s paintings at the Gagosian Gallery. If you can get beyond the announcement, which reproduces a photo of Taaffe at work in one of the huge rooms in his palace in Naples; if you can get beyond the exhibition brochure, which includes such Taaffe pensées as “From Matisse’s comfortable armchair to Rouault’s ‘painting is like a prayer’”; if you can get beyond the executive-suite elegance and uniformed guards that set the tone at the Gagosian Gallery —well, it’s evident that Taaffe is a better painter than he was a few years ago. He has gotten over his rehashes of Barnett Newman and Bridget Riley, the first works he exhibited in that rather strange technique of his which consists of hand-printing designs on paper and then pasting the paper onto canvas. He still alludes to the patterns of Islamic tiles and Mediterranean wrought iron, as he was doing in his last show in New York, but he now seems to be interested in transforming and extending those patterns rather than merely quoting them. A lot of the paintings are still little more than wall coverings, but in a couple of works in this show Taaffe is turning into a creditable abstract painter. Kaleidoscope, about 120-inches square, is collaged out of many smaller squares, each decorated with a meandering, looping calligraphic line that resolves into a delicate centralized design. The canvas, covered with these decorative fancies in pale colors, has a twinkling, fantastical elegance. The best painting in the show is Cinema Posillipo. This painting consists of two vertical canvases, brought together to make up a seventy-six-inch-wide horizontal composition. Here the surface is divided into twelve equal areas, which are filled with a repeating pattern of collaged shapes, one a sort of crown shape, the other a bonelike shape. These collage forms, in clear colors such as green, orange, purple, pink, lime, and tangerine, are set against a murky, mottled background; and what holds me is how the repeated shapes add up to a crisp, rhythmic movement that carries through the painting’s twelve compartments. The shapes are obviously done with an eye trained on Arp’s reliefs and Matisse’s cutouts; the rhythm of clean colors recalls Ellsworth Kelly’s work of the early 1950s. The sensibility isn’t quite as spare and ascetic as Kelly’s, but it has some of his quality of an intelligent meditation on great modern ideas. It’s interesting that Philip Taaffe, who’s known for works that present originality as a shadowy illusion, has now actually done something that feels a wee bit original. It’s interesting that this artist who’s been known for his way of turning out wistfully ironic replicas of modern-art styles has begun to move beyond irony. How far beyond irony Taaffe can go, and whether he can stay there—this remains to be seen. He has a lot to answer for; then again, there’s nothing wrong with learning on the job.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 6, on page 49
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