Artists / Mentors
Denise Bibro Fine Arts
through April 24
We have become so accustomed to the study of art as just
one more item on college menus that we forget what a very
novel creature is the "art major." For centuries,
young artists learned their skills, together with the requisite
discipline, patience and devotion to craft, through an apprenticeship
of some kind. The particular form apprenticeship tookemployment
in a monastic workshop, membership in the guild system, contractual
arrangement with a particular masterchanged over the
centuries. But the essence, whereby pupils apply to the studio
of an individual artist for instruction, has endured. It persists
for the single reason that, like the hog bristle brush, it
wears well and has never been improved upon.
The G.I. Bill of Rights, instituted in the wake of World
War II, siphoned attention away from the time-honored system
of artists training represented by the National Academy
of Design and the Art Students League. By granting money for
higher study directly to individuals themselves, the G.I.Bill
motivated colleges and universities to create Art Departments
to attract these new bearers of federal funds. Thus was born
"the art major" and, with it, the means for substituting
academic credentials for actual studio achievement.
This wonderfully diverse and generous exhibition is Denise
Bibros tribute to the constancy of the hands-on tradition
and the three institutions that mediate its survival outside
the bureaucracies of contemporary academia: the National Academy,
organized in 1825 by artists such as Thomas Cole and Asher
B. Durand; the League, founded 50 years later to provide a
"modern" alternative to the Academy; The New York
Studio School, begun in 1964 in defiance of a cultural moment
that aimed at dismantling distinctions between great art and
lesser. While the Studio School is the youngest of the three,
it is equally vital and independent of the extra-artistic
agendas that infect college art departments.
All three have been artist-run since their inception. They
remain non-accredited institutions, shunning the paraphernalia
and misleading prestige of degree programs in order to concentrate
on matters of craft and on the creative process from the artists
singular perspective. Faculty have solid professional reputations,
attracting serious students whose first loyalty is to the
thing made, the work of their hands, and to the studio traditions
that support it.
Modeled after Londons Royal Academy and the great
art academies of Europe, the National Academys School
of Fine Arts is the oldest art school in New York. The League
began as a collection of autonomous studios belonging to artists
who were students themselves of the National Academys
school. It adopted the structure of the nineteenth century
French atelier system, in which the "curriculum"
resided in the creative authority of the individual artist-instructor
whose mastery provided students with technical guidance and
In gauging the usefulness of these schools today, it helps
to remember the unfashionable fact that virtually every artist
who initiated and extended the phenomenon of Modernism, from
the late 1800s to mid-twentieth century, could not have
done so without the specific skills each, from Degas to de
Kooning, acquired within the atelier system.
Academy members plus faculty and alumni of the League are
a breathtaking Whos Who in American Art. The Studio
School, under the fertile leadership of painter Graham Nickson
since 1988, is sustained by a small group of accomplished
artists dedicated to perfecting their work according to models
provided by the treasury of Western artistic tradition.
On view at Bibro are the works of eighteen of these artist-mentors
whose achievements have drawn students to them over decades.
There is much here to surprise and delight. Everyone will
find their own particular pleasures. The show is too large
to cover all bases but certain things require special notice.
Most people are familiar with Will Barnets elegant,
stylized variations on the theme of Oona and her cat. It came
almost as a shock to see his name beside a tall, spare abstraction,
Impulse, 1964. Constructed from slim rectangular strips
of refined color against a black field, it crystallizes Barnets
experience of a waterfall in Spokane during the summer of
1963. More fixed in its geometry than most of his abstract
work, it provides insight into the character of his gift for
pure abstraction which informs his later figurative work with
such pellucid clarity. When the tally is in on this century,
there is every possibility that his continuing reputation
as a Modernist will rest on his bold, often totemic abstractions,
painted between 1948 and 1965. Each one is its own irrepeatable
universe. Anyone who missed the exhibition of these paintings
at Tibor de Nagy in 1998, should be sure to see this one sample
of a stunning period in a long, fruitful career.
Hanging next to it is Rosemarie Becks quite recent
Concert in Tuscany, painted just last year. Admirers
of Rosemarie Beck, whose work has not been readily visible
since the Schoelkopf Gallery closed, are well -rewarded. Here,
and in a smaller study, is the Prendergast-like brushwork,
gestural and full of movement, and joyous orchestrations of
saturated color that are so seductive. Perhaps her inclusion
here heralds a full-scale show sometime soon. It is well-earned
Works by Leo Manso, Sidney Simon and Richard Pousette-Dart
are included as memorial tributes. The work of Pousette-Dart
has finally begun to gain the recognition it warrants. His
clotted hieroglyphs, accreted conveyors of a hidden mythology,
cannot be seen often enough.
Of the two collages by Manso, the oldest of them, Tanka
III, 1968, is all the evidence anyone needs to understand
why Manso was the equal of Robert Motherwell as a collagist.
Small in scale, intimate in subject matter, Mansos art
resisted the pull of the Minimalist sensibility that had its
impact on Motherwells work. Yet he shared with his contemporary
a sense of the pastfor Motherwell, the Parisian past;
for Manso, the Italian quattrocento that produced abstract
art at its loveliest and least rhetorical. His sense of placement
was exquisite, his colors taken from the earth, quiescent
and evocative. Tanka III is glorious to see.
Simon and Barney Hodes are the only sculptors in the exhibition.
It is a successful pairing. Mirror #4, 1969, is one
from Simons best known series of visual conundrums.
His spare, intellectualized conjuring of the female form in
Woman with Looking Glass, 1954, provides counter point
to the lush, ground-hugging terrain of Hodes female
torsos. For all their wanton bulk, there is poignancy to these
torsos. They illustrate Erasmus warning that "mortal
life is nothing but a kind of warfare." Hodes torsos,
unconfined and over-fleshed, war, as do we all, with gravity
and time. Looking down at these bodies, there is no doubt
about the victor in this contest.
The landscape of Hodes female bodies finds its echo
in a fine drawing by Peter Cox of a mans back. Charcoal,
pencil and wash dance from one form to another, caressing
the swelling musculature just below the surface. The energy
to define ebbs at elbow and thigh, leaving linear evidence
of the initial process of drawing. Cox draftsmanship
makes plausible the prolongated, baroque composition of the
untitled oil on view here. It is a gritty riff on the Rape
of a Sabine Woman. Andrea Andreanis sixteenth century
woodcut and Giambolgnas marble of the same subject provide
compositional antecedents for Coxs urban tale. Stripped
of any classicizing elements, it conveys the graphic reality
of the subject. Yet tensioned is eased by a sly buoyancy.
This contemporary sabine is a tough broad, as fierce as her
attacker. Shell do fine, thank you. The whole performance
is held together and enlivened by rich, complex weavings of
beautiful paint. Flesh tones, in particular, deserve appreciative
Talk of paint brings us to Esteban Vicente. Born in Spain
1903, Esteban emigrated to Greenwich Village, by way of Paris,
in the mid-30s. He has been a life-long friend of artists
and critics crucial in the development of the New York School.
Millions of people know the names of Jackson Pollock, Willem
de Kooning and Mark Rothko. Fewer are acquainted with Esteban
Vicente, a painter of real merit who is still working, still
adding to a canon of constant achievement. Despite international
recognition and inclusion in an heroic catalogue of public
collections, Vicente is less familiar to younger American
audiences. Anyone who does not know his work should spend
time here with the single untitled oil painted in 1996 and
the delicate pastel/collage from 1980.
There are omissions to Bibros list of artist/mentors.
Where is Lennart Anderson, for one? Anderson, an elected member
of the National Academy, is an extraordinary painter and one
of the most influential teachers on the scene. His absence
here is sorely felt. So is that of Graham Nickson. Nickson,
who chose the artists representing the Studio School, graciously
absented himself from the roster. Nevertheless, his work is
But better to concentrate on what is here. Bruce Dorfman,
once a student of Yasuo Kuniyoshi at the League, continues
to attract artists to his classes on the strength of just
the kind of atmospheric mixed-media abstractions exhibited
here. Raoul Middlemans figure study in oil is as unreserved
and spontaneous as his teaching is reputed to be. Knox Martin
and Charles Cajori are intelligently represented. So, too,
are Lois Dodd, Louis Finkelstein and Sigmund Abeles.
If youre not sure what "pop realism" refers
to, look up Don Nices 1998 oil EA62798 and then
youll know. This, and a small mixed media piece, EA6ZZ95-S,
seem out of sync with the temper of the show as a whole.
Space considerations preclude justice to every artist, most
needing no introduction: Wolf Kahn, Mercedes Matter, Ruth
Miller, Andrew Forge, George Nama, Clare Romano, William Scharf,
Harvey Dinnerstein and Reeve Schley. Know that they are here
and come see for yourself.
Hearty thanks to Denise Bibro for assembling a knowledgeable
and contributory exhibition.