Jack Levine at DC Moore Gallery; Vincent Smith at Alexandre Gallery; plus
Robert Bauer’s drawings at Forum Gallery
Jack Levine is a hanging judge, bless him. His merciless Court of Peculiars has been in session since the 1930s, pronouncing sentence with the zest of the Red Queen on politicians, night clubbers, the art crowd and other gangsters. At 90, he has been painting throughout my lifetime. I cannot imagine a world without his satirical eye or elegant hand. This mini-retrospective at DC Moore is a museum show in a gallery setting.
|For the Sake of Art
Born in 1915 to Lithuanian immigrants, he grew up in Boston’s tough South End. These were the years of the reign of James Michael Curley himself, rascal king of City Hall and the statehouse. Mr. Levine cut his teeth on rousing news of shenanigans in high places. He—and his art—was marked forever by skepticism toward political culture but also by something more humane: sympathy for the human condition.
A disappointed romantic, his humor is tinged with melancholy, the offspring of high expectation. “For the Sake of Art”( 1969-71) is a scathing glimpse of avant garde consumers leaving Lincoln Center. Painted in funereal tones relieved by flashes of red, his decadents have an irridescent vampirish cast. Blood suckers, the bunch of them. “Panethnikon” (1978) takes a ferocious look at the fauna of the U.N. Security Council, witnessing to Mr. Levine’s admiration for George Grosz.
“Bandwagon (Four More Years)” (1973) registers Mr. Levine’s dismay at the election of Richard Nixon to a second term. It hangs in pride of place at DC Moore in honor—for lack of another phrase—of the 2004 re-election of George Bush. Whatever your politics, it is a marvelous and caustic painting. All the tawdriness, backroom skullduggery and theatrical patriotic display that characterize every presidential election is here. It could be placed on public view every fourth year from now until the end of the republic. In between, it would reflect nicely on mayoral, senatorial and gubernatorial elections as well.
His subject matter should not obscure the beauty and sophistication of his paint handling. Tender, lyrical surfaces are the work of a man who understands paint as intuitively as he grasps the comedy of human malfeasance. His love of technique (right down to using Maroger medium, a black oil with an almost cult following among painters) and mastery of craft is everywhere apparent.
Start with the gouache that greets you as you come off the elevator—Cezanne’s card players resurrected as beefy, cigar-smoking ward heelers. It is a small summa of his art: that dancing line, control of form, the intricately variegated surface of flecked and woven color. He pushes even an opaque medium to transparency.
On view is a never-exhibited self-portrait of Levine in uniform in the 1940s. There are also several of the prints that built his reputation; plus two gems from his rarely seen series of Jewish sages, combining his love of Flemish, Mogul and Persian miniatures with biblical figures. Looking at these early works, you understand how much graphic control undergirds successful expressionist distortion. Twentieth century American painting is graced by Jack Levine.
When racial rhetoric is restructured in aesthetic terms, how does a viewer respond? The question arises at Alexandre Gallery’s show of Vincent Smith’s paintings and drawings from the 1950’s and 60s.
Mr. Smith (1929-2004) was a gifted expressionist with a brooding, punchy palette. Color was his metier; he used it skillfully for its emotive strength in pursuit of a black aesthetic, the hallmark of cultural nationalism. Works on view evoke the slanted sanctimony of an era that mythologized rioting as “rebellion,” (the title of Smith’s painting of the 1964 Harlem rampage) and rationalized black hostility toward whites.
Sticking it to whitey is the subject of a wall of drawings that indulges stock racialist tropes. “Open Season” (1966) suggests that the NYPD picks off passing blacks at whim. A 1969 drawing depicts the bullet ridden body of Fred Hampton, Black Panther of sacred memory. He appears a slain innocent, more like Yankel Rosenbaum than a gang leader. After three decades of investigative reporting—beginning with Robert Jay Epstein in the “New Yorker” in 1970—detailing the lethal criminality of the paramilitary Panthers, the gallery’s foray into radical chic is out-of-date.
A sympathetic drawing of Marcus Garvey had been featured in the website preview but was unaccountably withdrawn from exhibition. Garvey, precursor to Louis Farrakhan, preached racial separation and nationhood for blacks. With the Black Nationalist tricolors appearing in several works, we get the point anyway. (Both Hampton and Garvey were initially misnamed—as “Fred Washington” and “Horace Garvey”—in press releases and on the gallery website. The honky art establishment has trouble with black history.)
In the 1960s, Mr. Smith joined the Black Arts Movement spearheaded by LeRoi Jones, now Amiri Baraka. A rerun of W.E.B. Dubois’ Trotskyite insistence on the political utility of art, the movement emphasized skin color as the defining element of African-American consciousness. The paradox of power built on such an irreducible identity is that, inexorably, it repeats the racism it presumes to combat.
Jones/Baraka was then what he is today: the laureate of black anti-Semitism (“Smile, jew. Dance, jew. . . . I got the extermination blues, jewboys.”) His Black Arts Repertory Theater provided a stage for Jones’ conviction that blacks “must eliminate the white man before we can draw a free breathe on the planet.” Mr. Smith’s association with Jones’ movement gives reason for pause.
In the years illustrated here, Mr. Smith winked at racial provocateurs who fantasized war with America and espoused a violent Maoist and separatist trajectory countermanding Martin Luther King’s vision of inclusion and amity. I don’t want to be unfair to Mr. Smith, but painters are not exempt from criteria that held Ezra Pound responsible for more than his metrics.
Robert Bauer’s tonal landscape drawings are more painterly than his paintings. The photographic verisimilitude of his portraits gives way here to a freer manipulation of the surface that imparts greater liveliness to the images themselves. The result is undeniably beautiful. If you want examples of what Ingres meant by his famous comment, “Drawing is the probity of art” you will find it for one more week at Forum. It’s all here but the color.
Graphite worked delicately across gessoed paper takes on a quality similar to silverpoint, an ancient drawing medium particularly responsive to light. Mr. Bauer caresses scenes onto paper with few visible lines. He has the good sense not to attempt with line what line cannot convey: subtle shifts of light. Erasure is more critical to his technique than a pencil point. By avoiding the full scale of tone, his motifs maintain a shimmering, silvery range that breathes out its own atmosphere. A fine, rewarding performance.
“Jack Levine:at 90” at DC Moore until January 29 (724 Fifth Avenue, 212.247.2111).Prices: $40,000 - $200,000. [Most are on loan and NFS.]
“Vincent Smith: Early Work” at Alexandre Gallery through January 29 (41 East 57th Street, 212-755-2828). Prices: $4,000 - $90,000.
“Robert Bauer: Landscape Drawings” at Forum Gallery until January 22 (745 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, 212-355-4545). Prices: $1,800 -$4,000.
This essay was first published in The New York Sun, January 13, 2005
Copyright 2005 Maureen Mullarkey