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Saturday, December 21, 2019

Heroines of Abstract Expressionism at Fenimore Art Museum

A view of the installation of Heroines of Abstract Expressionism at the Fenimore
all photos provided by Fenimore Art Museum
Heroines of Abstract Expressionism, the current feature show on view through Dec. 31 at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, is representative of a recent art-world trend, whereby collectors (rather than curators) initiate major museum shows. It makes sense - with art prices soaring, it's often the collectors who are better able than the museums to bear the cost of assembling a body of work significant enough to draw attention. So, the two camps increasingly work hand in hand to reach the art-savvy public. A harbinger of this trend was the aptly named Sensation, which presented the private collection of Charles Saatchi at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1997, to great acclaim and controversy.

While much more sober than sensational, HerAbEx is still a revelatory gem. Created by Southampton collectors Rick Friedman and Cindy Lou Wakefield, who drew from a broader swath of modern American artists in their collection, it puts the focus on 19 women members of the mid-century movement that rewrote the history of modern art. It's a striking and intimate gathering, totaling 34 drawings, paintings, and sculptures, and is accompanied by a fine, slim catalog with several essays and good color reproductions of all the work in the show.

Lee Krasner - September Twenty-Third
ink, crayon and collage on lithographic paper 
Among the 19, there are names that range from the widely celebrated to the largely overlooked. Most of us already know about Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois, Grace Hartigan, and Dorothy Dehner - all of whom had significant recognition in their lifetimes. But what about Mary Abbott, Perle Fine, and Charlotte Park? These, and others, were new to me here.

A few motifs emerged as I wandered and relaxed in the comfortable upstairs gallery that holds all but one of the pieces (the other, shown here at left, being placed just outside the entrance). Most of the two-dimensional work is on paper (only six pieces are oil on canvas), and all of the work is relatively small in scale (that is, relative to the monumental scale of much of the AbEx masters' output). These limits can be explained by the seriously prohibitive purchase prices of larger works by such noted artists, but also suggests that the women in this group may have worked smaller overall than the men, possibly due to scarcer resources and, almost certainly, more human-scaled egos.

Elaine de Kooning - Cave #24 Red Oxide Wall
acrylic and collage on paper mounted on canvas
It's also worth noting that a large portion of these artists are Jewish - not surprising, considering the time (immediately post-WWII), the place (primarily New York City and Long Island), and a similar demographic among the men of the movement. Additionally, many studied under or were directly influenced by the same people, in particular Hans Hofmann.

A poignant sub-theme of the show is the marital status of these women artists - many were married to major art-world figures (including painters, sculptors, and critics), whose shadows would have been difficult to escape (the solution frequently being divorce). That includes de Kooning (married to Willem, divorced in 1957), Frankenthaler (associated for five years with Clement Greenberg, then married to Robert Motherwell and divorced in 1971), Park (married to James Brooks), Dehner (married to David Smith, divorced in 1951), and Krasner (married to Jackson Pollock until his death in 1956). Some of the label copy in the show (all of it succinct and nicely readable) makes references to those conditions and how gender affected these artists' careers, a sad commentary on their time in contrast to today.

Perle Fine - Untitiled, oil on paper mounted on board
It struck me that quite a few works in the show are not truly abstract, instead plainly representing figures and landscapes - and even including two recognizable portraits. One prominently featured painting (which collector Friedman cites as the start of it all for him and Wakefield) appears abstract at first, with slashing strokes of bold color and calligraphic black marks - only to reveal itself as a direct interpretation of an early cave painting depicting a bull. Cave #24 Red Oxide Wall (shown above, at right) is one of six pieces by Elaine de Kooning included in the show. There are also four by Krasner and three each by Dehner and Nevelson, while the rest of the included artists are represented by just one or two pieces.

Though de Kooning is clearly intended to be the star of the show (and her best works here support that), Krasner was the revelation for me, and her Earth No. 7, a gouache on paper, emerged as my top pick. Other favorites include a luscious pink acrylic on paper by Frankenthaler (seen in the image below), a marvelous untitled bronze by Dehner that felt like a three-dimensional Motherwell painting (also seen in the image below), and a brooding maelstrom of black ink by Joan Mitchell. Those four works alone are well worth the trip to Cooperstown.

I also particularly liked a trio of paintings that evoke the brash, calligraphic style of Franz Kline: A captivating double-sided oil on paper by Michael West (she changed her name from Corinne Michelle West at the suggestion of Arshile Gorky) and an oil by Perle Fine (shown above, at left).

Overall, Heroines of Abstract Expressionism provides a great opportunity to see work by many worthy artists in a worthy setting, and for curious folks who haven't yet come to appreciate abstraction, it offers a window into that world. The show is meant to travel, but an agenda hasn't yet been set.

From left, works by Helen Frankenthaler, Dorothy Dehner, Louise Nevelson, and Mercedes Matter are seen in Heroines of Abstract Expressionism at the Fenimore.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Group shows galore

Installation view of Upstate Artists at The Laffer Gallery (photo provided)
It's the time of the year when galleries, both commercial and public, put on those crowd-pleasing shows with lots of artists and, often, smaller/more affordable work for gifting opportunities.

I'm aware of four such exhibitions currently on view at quality venues, as follows:

  • Thompson Giroux Gallery, Chatham - The appropriately named En Masse 2019 includes small works by more than 80 artists, and will be up through Jan. 12. This intimate gallery shows a lot of top-notch work, and the list of artists included here reflects that. 
  • Albany Center Gallery, Albany - Featuring one piece each by more than 140 artists, this annual members show was judged for prizes by Union College curator Julie Lohnes, and will be on view through Jan. 10. Full disclosure: I am one of the included members.
  • Saratoga Arts, Saratoga Springs - The arts council's annual members show is up through Jan. 4, with an online descriptions that cites "close to 230 pieces of artwork ranging from painting, drawing, printmaking, functional art and sculpture displayed chromatically in salon style," which sounds to me like an overwhelming feast for the eyes.
  • The Laffer Gallery, Schuylerville - Upstate Artists is an annual juried group show, this year selected by Jon Gernon, and on view through Jan. 12. With only 30 artists, it will be the least cluttered of this set, but still abundant enough.

Combined, these shows include more than 500 works by nearly as many artists (no doubt with some overlap), much of it at the highest level you'll find anywhere.

So, if you need a little break from the holiday rush and, especially, if you can use a gift of a work of art, check them out. Remember, supporting local artists and local art venues is a gift that truly keeps on giving.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Embody at Mandeville Gallery

Firelei Baez - given the ground (the fact
that it amazes me does not mean I relinquish it)

acrylic and oil on canvas
There's always a mystery to strong group shows - does the curator start with a theme and then find artists that fit it, or does she start with some art she likes, and then discover the theme as it emerges? At shows like this I find myself asking, what do these artists have in common, and what brought them together? Is it taste? Meaning? Technique?

In the case of Embody, an outstanding exhibition on view at Union College's Mandeville Gallery through Jan. 19, curator Julie Lohnes has provided a number of intriguing threads to follow - and though I can't claim to have unraveled them all, it's great fun to try. She has also answered the origin question in a short essay at the front of a handsome catalog produced for the show (which the gallery provides free to visitors) - but where's the fun in that?

Chitra Ganesh - Sultana's Dream: Justice is Virtue, linocut
Going on with my search, I note that many of the ten included artists are from far-flung places - Haiti, Japan, Nigeria, Dominican Republic, and Iran among them - while those from the U.S. seem to have significant non-European ethnic ties: A strong indicator that the unifying principle of the show relates to expression of ethnic identity.

As the title implies, the works in Embody are all figurative, but the treatment of the human figure varies widely here, as does the range of techniques applied, from painting and fabric sculpture to drawing and several forms of printmaking. Still, it all pulls together, maintaining equilibrium.

One key to this delicate balance is that the overall quality of the work in the show is very high (though not perfectly consistent - a couple of pieces didn't quite hold up for me). That such a diversity of forms doesn't devolve into a mishmash is a credit to Lohnes's sharp curatorial vision. This consistency even stretches across shows - I recall, for example, one of the first shows she produced at the Mandeville was a 2014 solo by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, who would have fit quite cleanly into this group.

Amir H. Fallah - The Light Within, acrylic on panel
Upon careful viewing, it becomes apparent that collage is the unifying element among this disparate swath of artists, even if most are not actually creating collages at all. The layering of images and conjunction of parts is more direct in some works, more subtle in others, but it's there, always. At the same time, there are, in equal parts, extremely vivid colors (especially in paintings by Amir H. Fallah, Firelei Baez and Didier William, in digital collages by Stacey Robinson, and in mixed-media prints by Saya Woolfalk) and superbly managed monochromes (in linocuts by Chitra Ganesh, mixed-media drawing by Simonette Quamina, and lithographs by Toyin Ojih Odutola). Being partial to neither, I enjoyed it all.

Perhaps the most difficult work in the show to grasp is a set of fabric sculptures by aricoco (Ari Tabei). These wearable pieces seem to want to be part of a performance, rather than exhibited in static poses. It was also terribly difficult to resist touching their multifarious textures and fasteners. Woolfalk's mixed-media digital prints struck me as the most accessible, with their seductively contemporary palette and smooth inkjet surfaces. The most compelling pieces in the show for me were two monumental drawings by Quamina that include torn assemblage and raw, textural graphite rubbings (a technique we all know from childhood that's not often seen in fine art). I also got a kick out of Robinson's slick Afrofuturist collages, which most literally exemplify the curator's stated source of inspiration for assembling this collection of artists.

In all, it's a hugely pleasurable and engrossing exhibition that's sure to compel a couple of good trips around the Mandeville's unique circular gallery space, housed inside an extraordinary building at the center of campus, the Nott Memorial.

William Didier - Kochon Sa a Lou / This Pig is Heavy

collage, acrylic and wood stain on panel