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Friday, August 26, 2011

Three exhibitions at the Fenimore Art Museum

Maurice Prendergast - Landscape with Figures 1910-12 oil on linen
Hurricanes notwithstanding, it’s a nice time of year for a drive to Cooperstown - and with three special exhibitions all ending soon at the Fenimore Art Museum, there’s plenty of reason to make the trip now.

Fans of the Mexican proto-feminist painter Frida Kahlo will be entranced by a traveling show titled Frida Kahlo: through the lens of Nickolas Muray, which centers on pictures of the enigmatic artist taken throughout her 10-year love affair with the Hungarian-born, New York City-based photographer.

Nickolas Muray
Classic Frida (with Magenta Rebozo)
1939 carbon process print
Augmented by inkjet prints of titillating ephemera such as lipstick-kissed letters, the show is not much more than an illustrated soap opera, strangely cool yet passionate, though Muray’s estimable skills with both classic black-and-white and early color technique are brilliantly on display. It’s easy to see from this collection why people such as Salma Hayek and Madonna find Frida so irresistible, though I was equally repelled by the degree of self-indulgence in evidence. If you’re intrigued, you must hurry: The show ends on Sept. 5.

On view through Sept. 11 is a fine, small exhibition of Edward Hopper’s early work titled a window on Edward Hopper, in which the Fenimore has collaborated with the nearby Glimmerglass Festival to reveal the roots of the painter whose work inspired an opera that was mounted there this season.

Though the opera’s performances have ended, the art exhibition stands alone as a valuable investigation into the development of one of America’s foremost painters, and it features some of his really outstanding graphic work that might easily be overlooked if it were in a different context. But here, with just two full-scale oil paintings, and five watercolors to compete with, Hopper’s etchings are a revelation, and his earlier studies are worth the time to examine.

Edward Hopper - Night Shadows 1921 etching
Anyone familiar with the artist’s work will gain insight from the rare display of drawings, going back to his student years and including some commercially oriented illustration (Hopper the painter was 40 before museums began acquiring his art). It’s always a treat to see how an artist develops, and it’s also great fun to have a chance to look at sketches that ultimately led to more impressive finished work.

And, still, the two paintings (Freight Cars, Gloucester, an almost Cubist industrial composition from 1928 and The Camel’s Hump, a dazzling view of Cape Cod dunes from 1931) are as good as it gets; and the watercolors are simply wonderful. Go to see a window on Edward Hopper with the right expectations, and they will be fulfilled.

William Baziotes
Toy 1949 oil on linen
The Hopper show, which draws heavily from a collection formed by Edward W. Root that is now housed at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute in Utica, is a good setup for the highlight of this trio of exhibitions, Prendergast to Pollock: American Modernism from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, which is also drawn from Root’s amazing collection.

Spanning about six decades of painting, Prendergast to Pollock is a mouthwatering showcase of exquisite work by both famous names and also-rans, organized into loosely tied groups of landscapes, still lifes, figures, and abstracts. Not unlike the current New York, New York! Show at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls (reviewed here), this show surveys the transition of styles in American art during much of the 20th century from Impressionism to abstraction, and it demonstrates what an auspiciously astute collector Root was.

The highlights of this exhibition are almost endless. The show opens with a Fauvist-colored masterpiece by Maurice Prendergast, but I skipped by it until I was stopped dead in my tracks by three modestly sized Arthur Dove paintings that still shimmer with energy more than 70 years after they were made. A single piece by William Baziotes, small and playful, is mesmerizing, as is a surprisingly small and energetic Mark Rothko from 1947, before he homed in on his mature style of large blocks of color. Nearby is a similarly patchy and transcendent Arshile Gorky.

Charles Burchfield
House and Tree by Arc Light 1916
watercolor
Charles Burchfield is represented by three paintings as well, all watercolors, two of which date to 1916 but seem much fresher, as his work always does. Stuart Davis and Theodoros Stamos sit side by side in an asymmetrical, yet perfectly balanced pairing, while other great moments are provided by lesser-known painters, such as Morris Kantor, whose 1929 Ode to the Antique is deliciously surreal, and Charles Howard, whose stylized cityscape exploits great skill with form and color.

I do have one quibble with the show: No women are represented in this selection and, though Root collected very few women artists, that is an oversight in 2011. But the installation is a great success, due in part to the careful selection of medium grey, royal blue, and acid green for the background colors on various wall panels. It continues through Sept. 15.

The Fenimore also offers permanent exhibits from its world-class collections of folk art and American Indian art, and has beautiful, accessible grounds on the shore of Otsego Lake – altogether, a destination worth setting aside a good chunk of time to explore.

Rating: Highly Recommended

Edward Hopper - Freight Cars, Gloucester 1928 oil on canvas

Friday, August 19, 2011

Marks of Identity at the PhotoCenter

Four portraits from Marks of Identity:
The Body Art Photography of William DeMichele (photo provided)
A very impressive display of 32 color portraits by Albany photographer William DeMichele is on view just through Sunday (Aug. 21) at the Photography Center of the Capital District, but I'm offering this reminder to those who might still want to catch it. And that's possible, as the PhotoCenter is open from noon to 6 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday.

If you go, you will see a body of work about the body, and how people adorn it, and about those people as people. OK, a little convoluted, but the point is that these are not just sensational(istic) pictures of amazing tattoos on naked skin, they are also sensitive portraits of the people who live in that skin.

Originally made around 20 years ago, and shown quite a bit nationally and internationally, as well as having been published in numerous magazines and a couple of nice books (available for sale at the gallery), these pictures still pack a great punch. Indeed, some will be offended by them (those I've posted above are, hmmm, nothin' compared to certain others in the show); but if you focus on the art aspect and not the body aspect, it's mostly rather tame, lyrical, romantic stuff.

This is no accident - 29 of the subjects are female, with only six males weighing in (three of the portraits are of couples), so there's a fair amount of flowers and fairies ... but there are also extreme examples of whole-body designs in black or multicolored ink, clearly done by tattoo artists at the very top of the game, and there's some interesting cultural range to the design content, though all the subjects are American. And some of the bodies, also not by accident, are really very lovely to see, which isn't a bad thing, either, in my opinion.

Bottom line: Whether female or male, pretty or not, young or old, DeMichele respects his sitters, and by treating them with respect and admiration, he evokes revealing, intimate pictures that are both documents of the inky art and works of art in themselves. See 'em if you can.

Rating: Recommended

Thursday, August 18, 2011

New York, New York! at the Hyde Collection

Andreas Feininger - Brooklyn Bridge 1940s  gelatin silver print
The show New York, New York! The 20th Century, on loan to the Hyde Collection from the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., is designed to be a crowd pleaser - and, judging from the reactions I witnessed on a recent weekday visit there, it is - but it is also a worthwhile show for any serious art viewer who may or may not care about the theme but will be thrilled to have a chance to see these 60 or so excellent pieces from the Norton's collection.

When you enter the show, you are struck by a clever (actually, too clever) subway-style design scheme to the exhibition, which starts with an appropriately understated audio track of screeching train sounds and a large wall emblazoned with the tiles and signage typical of mid-century New York City subway stations. The one work of art at the entry is a large and graphic black-and-white photograph taken in 1941 by Andreas Feininger under the elevated train at Division Street; potent in its structure of steel, sun, and shadow, the photograph sets the course for this show: not so much that it will be about New York, but that it will feature a lot of art that describes the atmosphere of the place as much as its physical details.

Though the rest of the exhibition space is painted a conservative dark maroon, the subway theme carries through in the form of text panels with the black background, primary color dots, and Helvetica type you still see all over New York's rail system. While these provide useful information, they look odd and distracting here. The show is organized around several sub-themes: On the Waterfront, Avenues and Streets, Tall Buildings, Parks and Recreation, and On the Town, which help to give it form as it spans a good deal of history - both of the city and of art.

Childe Hassam - Melting Snow 1905  oil on canvas
In addition to a great proportion of photographs (27) and prints (add another 8), the exhibition features a range of paintings from the late 19th century to the late 20th, and five somewhat lonely sculptures, four of them in bronze (or plaster with a bronze patina). Fans of photography will recognize many of the names included here - Paul Strand, Edward Steichen, Weegee, Diane Arbus, and other giants are represented by fine, sometimes famous, examples of their work. Equally, there are first-rate photos by some lesser known practitioners, such as Bill Witt, Jerome Liebling, George Tice, and Feininger, whose five prints in the show are really terrific.

Thinking about Feininger, I wonder just how many of the other artists in this show came as immigrants - after all, New York is the world's destination, a place that perfectly exemplifies the ideal of the melting pot and the fresh start. One fine piece among the excellent graphics on view seems to purposely capture that experience - a sketchy lithograph by the Austrian master Oskar Kokoschka that depicts the Statue of Liberty from the water. Surrounded by an ocean of white space, the black-crayon drawing perfectly embodies possibility. It is worth noting that the artist was already past 80 when he made the piece and, though he was never an American, he changed citizenship more than once in his life, and lived out his last decades in Switzerland, perhaps enjoying his own restful neutrality.

More central to the theme of the show are a number of paintings in it by artists associated with the Ashcan School, including George Luks, Edward Hopper, Everett Shinn, and others in the same vein, such as Reginald Marsh and John Marin. These and others offer elements of social commentary - my companion's pick of the group is an acidic study of upperclass gallerygoers by William Gropper - but most focus on the weather, smoke, snow, fog and the sea of humanity that fills and refills New York every day, rather than depicting specific individuals.

Edward Hopper - August in the City 1945 oil on canvas
The works that best exemplify these different moods of the city are about equally distributed among the photos, paintings, and graphics - almost too numerous to mention, standouts include a marvelous color lithograph in the form of an accordion book by Eugene Feldman; exacting etchings by Armin Landeck from 1934 and John Taylor Arms from 1925 that render light and texture to perfection; Childe Hassam's classic of American Impressionism from 1905 titled Melting Snow; and a sweeping photographic overview of a chunk of the Bronx by Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao.

Other particularly special paintings in the show include a terrific vertical mural piece by Stuart Davis; the Hopper, titled August in the City, where, in the deep summer's absence of any humanity, a statue stands in for his typical figure at the window; several John Marins; and a frenetic bit of expressionism by Mark Tobey. Altogether, for me this experience was not so much about New York as it was a great excuse to see a wonderful show of a century of art.

The main problem with the exhibition is its title - because now I can't get that damn song out of my head! It's a great song (personally, I prefer Liza's rendition to Frank's) but, well, you know what I mean about ear worms.

New York, New York! The 20th Century continues through Sept. 18. It originated at the Norton Museum of Art in 2009, and continues on tour, stopping next at the Katonah Museum of Art. The Hyde has organized a full slate of activities around the exhibition, including a week of 9/11 tenth-anniversary events - please see the museum's website for details.

Rating: Highly Recommended
Eugene Feldman - New York West Side Skyline 1965  fold-out book

Friday, August 12, 2011

Thom O'Connor: Then & Now at ACG

As a member of the board of trustees of Albany Center Gallery, I can't pretend independence of thought on the shows there, and so won't be reviewing them anymore - but I also can't resist telling you that the current ACG exhibition of small prints by Thom O'Connor is an absolute gem.

O'Connor is an internationally acknowledged master printmaker, now retired after a long tenure teaching at UAlbany, and his work is impeccable - as is the selection and installation of this exhibition, which spans a bit more than 10 years' worth of output. Based on the turnout at the artist's reception on Friday (Aug. 12), it is being very well received by the public and will continue to draw well.

For a nicely presented interview with O'Connor and an explanation of the processes he uses, see this piece by Tim Kane from Thursday's Times Union ... and absolutely, positively see the show.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Blinky Palermo at CCS Bard and Dia:Beacon

Blinky Palermo Coney Island II  1975  Acrylic on aluminum   Photo: Jens Ziehe
Imagine you are trying to recount your day using just 12 rectangles of eight colors in a strict configuration on four metal panels, then doing it again with the same layout but using only three colors - and you might understand the last years of Blinky Palermo, the pseudonymous German painter who died mysteriously in 1977 at the age of 33, and whose short, intense life's work is the subject of a retrospective at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson and at Dia:Beacon.

Part minimalist, part color-field abstractionist, part performance artist, Palermo got his nom d'artiste while studying with Joseph Beuys, and he took plenty of Beuys's style with him, too - but the clear influences of a wide swath of artists form a snaking modern line: Malevich, Mondrian, Yves Klein, Mark Rothko, Sol LeWitt, Ellsworth Kelly, and Gerhard Richter all come easily to mind - and, still, Palermo shines through as unique, personal, even soulful in these two meticulously researched and installed exhibitions that really form one strong solo show.

The basic premise is that Palermo has been wrongly overlooked, and that the recognition provided by this event is overdue, specifically in the United States, where he worked for much of his brief time, and where he apparently felt insufficiently appreciated (while being quite successful in Europe as a whole and Germany in particular). While I would not presume to be able to judge the importance of a long-dead artist of the '60s and '70s in relation to others of his time, whether living or dead, I will say this: I loved the shows, and have no doubt that Palermo was the real thing.

The Blinkster (as I like to think of him) was seriously playful - er, playfully serious - and the shows, while clean and cool and uncluttered and immaculately lit, are still fun and joyful and even a little bit unresolved (how can they not be, when the guy's whole life was by cruel definition unresolved itself?).

Untitled (Totem) 1964
The Dia space, flooded with the perfection of north-facing skylights over acres of polished concrete, is still divided up enough to be intimate - you get bits and pieces of Palermo's late output (Bard has the earlier stuff) before you take it in as a whole ... and that allows the gradual effect of the unfamiliar becoming familiar (it was unfamiliar to me, anyway) before you either get too overwhelmed or jump to conclusions too quickly.

At Bard, it's more of a cumulative chronology, flowing from a rather sparse room to an ever-so-slightly less sparse room, to a very slightly busier room, to a rather crowded room, where you get the full impact of Palermo's rich creativity and uniqueness. The lighting here is artificial, but just as colorless and indirect as Dia's natural light, and it allows cool contemplation of objects (mostly painted objects, but not exactly paintings) that speak of a young man's search for a means of expression.

Palermo used paint for color, but he also used other materials - fabric most notably, as well as tape - and he combined the colors with form to make fetishistic things that are more wall reliefs than paintings. Many of these creations have a totemic presence, culminating in one that is titled as such: Untitled (Totem), and which is among the most successful pieces on view here. Other strong pieces in the Bard section are similarly elongated - I particularly liked a minimalist landscape (titled as such) from 1966, which is expressed as a slim blue shape hovering over a skinny green shape, a rivulet of blue invading the green like a bucolic stream.

Further on in the Bard display are several stretched cotton fabric pieces that, unfortunately, reminded me more of Pier I wall decor of the time than they did the Rothko paintings they were inspired by. On the other hand, the next room's rigorously organized documentation by Palermo of his many site-specific proposals and installations is refreshingly rich with ideas and marked by effective execution. The collages of ephemera representing conceptual wall drawings and actual on-site works capture the artist's seriousness, sincerity, and sense of culture quite nicely.

Whereas the Bard exhibition provides a sweeping history (from 1964 to 1973), the Dia exhibition, which straddles 1973 to 1976, is concentrated almost entirely into work from the last two years, as though Palermo were now receiving the solo museum show he might have had right at the time of his death in early 1977. This includes an elaborate and extensive (but still incomplete) piece, posthumously titled To the People of New York City, which plays theme and variation on the colors of the German flag.

To the People of New York City (Part XII) 1976
Photo: Bill Jacobson
I'll admit, even 35 years later, I still resist that black-yellow-red palette - as Palermo understood then, just one generation removed from WWII, Americans still have mixed feelings about the GDR, and an ambitious art project celebrating its flag remains loaded with political freight. What's interesting about the piece is that it develops directly out of the work immediately before it, takes off in a new direction, and then, because it was his last, just stops before completing the trip. We're left wondering what would have come next, whether it would have established something successful for Palermo or not, and if so, what that would have looked like. As it is, we'll never know - but my own impression is that it may have been more off track than on.

What was very much on track was the last resolved work of his career, those pieces from 1975 that followed a fixed four-panel structure of blocks and strips, using flat color of an amazing and very precisely chosen palette to represent their titular Times of the Day; and a few pieces from 1976 that demonstrate a more painterly direction that feels perfectly clear and right. To me, these works sing of a positive spirit, and support the contention that Palermo was one of the significant artists of his generation. It's sad that he is not still here painting away with those who lived on. After all, they are just approaching seventy - still pretty young for an artist.

Blinky Palermo: Retrospective 1964-1977 was curated by Lynne Cooke and continues at the Center for Curatorial Studies and Dia:Beacon through Oct. 31. This is its last stop on a national tour that included the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. A related installation by Imi Knoebel titled 24 Colors - For Blinky is also on view at Dia and provides a lushly tinted counterpoint to Palermo's work. Knoebel was closely associated with Palermo; this tribute made shortly after his friend's death is a superb and impressive work of art in itself, and occupies its big, long space at Dia perfectly. You won't want to miss it.

Rating: Highly Recommended
Blinky Palermo, installation view at CCS Bard with Landscape 1966 at left
and Blue Disk and Staff 1968 at right      Photo: Bill Jacobson
All photographs courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.