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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Nicholas Krushenick at the Tang

Installation view featuring the painting titled Electric Soup at left
photo by Arthur Evans
It was 1979: Punk rock was at its peak, rents in SoHo were still cheap, and Nick Krushenick was nearly a forgotten man. My college painting class was on a field trip to New York City, where a visit to Krushenick's studio had been arranged. The artist showed little enthusiasm, reluctantly pulling a few paintings from a leaning stack, far less interested in talking about his work than he was in bragging about his son's band, which had just cut their first record.

Nicholas Krushenick - Battery Park, acrylic on canvas
Flash forward to 2015, and the late Krushenick is now the subject of a solo show at Skidmore College's Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, such a rarity that the 20 major pieces it has brought together represent the biggest collection of his work ever seen publicly. Nicholas Krushenick: Electric Soup, on view through Aug. 16, is a brash, bold exhibition that spans over 30 years of output with pristine, large-scale acrylics that appear so fresh they just about jump right off the wall.

Krushenick is considered a pioneer of Pop abstraction, but is not easy to label: Wall text at the show explains that he "developed a distinct style that straddled the lines between Op, Pop, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Color Field." Krushenick himself is then quoted as saying, "They don't really know where to place me, like I'm out in left field all by myself. And that's just where I want to stay." Rightly so, as that's exactly where a truly original painter belongs. Krushenick's work, being mostly hard-edged and flatly painted, would be easy to copy yet still appears innovative and unique.

Quick Red Fox, acrylic on canvas
But Krushenick didn't work in a vacuum - he took direct influence from Matisse's cutouts, making paper collages himself as he experimented with style, then picked up the habit of outlining every color in black (check out some Matisse paintings and you'll see a similar technique employed there - it makes the colors look purer, richer, and brighter). Krushenick also severely restricted his palette (as represented here), using only black, white, the three primaries, and the three secondaries (and, of those, mainly orange).

Though square and angular geometry is prevalent, Krushenick also used softer forms, curves, flowing lines, and shaped canvases. Four of the earlier pieces in the show, from about 1962-3, are painted freehand, so the black outlines are irregular, and they have a lot of painterly texture below the surface, a touch that disappeared in all the later works. The four also share an element of woven forms that do not reappear in the later work, except as flat grids. Among these is Quick Red Fox, the Tang's signature image for the show, and one that also uniquely features the color silver (shown above at left).

CBGB  acrylic on canvas
The latest piece included, which is among the few horizontals here and much smaller than the rest of the work, is 1994's CBGB. The title presumably refers to the legendary music venue in New York (where I'm guessing the younger Krushenick may have performed) and the painting presents a distinct proscenium. Indeed, a number of these works suggest curtained openings, and at least one, Battery Park, is notably vaginal or sphincter-like in its forms. Others suggest flower petals, clouds - or word balloons - and the type of splots you'd see in a Batman comic. These call to mind another painter of the same era, Peter Max, whose style was famously used in the animated Beatles movie Yellow Submarine. So I'd say the Pop label really does fit Krushenick best.

In the end, I found the work speaks with a clear voice across more than 50 years of densely packed history, and was a real pleasure just to hang out with. But you can still take this art seriously - I'd argue that one painting in the show, 1993's Space Map, is influenced by both Willem DeKooning's and Wassily Kandinsky's later works - and if you do take art seriously, or just want to enjoy a fun show, then don't miss this one - it passes both tests with flying colors.

Jeffrey Elgin -Thus Passed Some Days, mixed media on paper
Another show of paintings at Skidmore that should not be missed is a 20-year retrospective by Professor Emeritus Jeffrey Elgin, presented in the art department's Schick Art Gallery.

Elgin's earlier work evokes Cubism in both its rigorous fragmentation of shapes and its dark palette - but as the years go by, he lightens up, resulting in more penetrable and joyous work. I was amazed by Elgin's ability to invent new forms constantly, and to avoid the pitfalls of representational associations - though, when he does appear to have a "subject," such as a window view or a row of common objects, it still works. I liked the show so much, I bought a painting.

Jeffrey Elgin - Thus Passed Some Days: Twenty Years upon an Overgrown Path is accompanied by a nicely produced 20-page catalog, which is available free in the gallery; also, there will be an artist's talk there at 4 p.m. on Thursday, April 9. Please take note, the show ends on April 26.


Bob Conner said...

Nice post, inspiring me to go to Tang, which despite living nearby I have avoided all these years out of curmudgeonliness.

Bob Conner said...

And go I did and enjoyed the show. Actually, we went early to a (jazz) concert on the roof there, and the gallery was still open until 7, when the concert started. There's a summer music series Fridays on the roof, so people can go early and check out the museum.