Heavy Machinery and Gnomic Vignettes
Old and new collages by John Walker at Knoedler & Co; Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker covers at PaceWildenstein
British-born John Walker is an abstract painter of singular power, fully in possession of his craft. As an artist and much admired teacher, his career has been illustrious and influential. Yet no exhibition should be seen through the distorting lens of credentials. Viewed straight up, this sampling of mammoth abstract collages from 1974-78 at Knoedler, together with current work in the same medium, is disconcerting. The exhibition is beautiful and brutal in equal measure.
|Ostraca I, 1977 and Untitled, 2003
First impressions are breathtaking. In the main gallery, your eye is pulled immediately to the two 10 by 8 foot paintings—painted canvas collages—structured on a majestic ordering of blues and yellows: “Ostraca I” (1977) and its untitled pendant piece from the same year. The architecture of the work overwhelms with the coloristic rhythm of its recessions and advances, hard-edged pieces of painted and cut canvas shifting and jostling for position like tectonic plates. Ignoring Clement Greenberg’s gospel of flatness, Mr. Walker has been a gifted exponent of spatial depth. So difficult to achieve, this is what makes these arrangements particularly memorable.
The skewed facets of “Juggernaut with Plume for P.Neruda” (1975), with its moody rusts and earthen tones over an ashen ground, is punctuated by a small flash of brilliant color that appears like a sudden sharp recollection. While the title evokes a preferred political stance of the post-Vietnam era, the image itself reminded me of Joan Baez’ “Diamonds and Rust,” an inescapable hit in 1975. We both know what memories can bring; rarely is it politics.
In the 1970s, the decade of muscle cars, painting was another macho performance vehicle. Of these early collages, the artist himself said he wanted the impact “of a truck, not a mini.” Minis they are not but Chevie El Caminos or Pontiac GTOs are another matter. Hugh Davies, writing in 1979, referred to them as “a wall of machinery in flat-out operation.” It was an apt analogy for aggressive works built from component parts moving together like pistons. Besides, the artist’s hot-rodding paint application is of a piece with the era of Sting Rays and Firebirds.
Heavy moving machines impel you out of the way. These collages have a similar effect. You have to keep backing up to enjoy them. Seen from a distance, Walker’s transparencies are magical; but the closer you get, the more the means—gel in great swaths—asserts itself. Compare the transparencies of Matisse or Diebenkorn which rely on the properties of pigment, not plastic transparentizers.
Followers of art world Kremlinology will notice Dore Ashton’s swipe in her catalogue essay at “conservative critics” who “breathed a sigh of relief when Walker produced identifiable landscape elements.” She adds, “ But I think they missed the point.” It is a gratuitous reference to Hilton Kramer’s stated admiration, in 2001, for Mr. Walker’s landscapes of the Maine sea coast. Perhaps Ms. Ashton has missed the point. Mr. Kramer aligned Walker’s Maine motifs with those by Marsden Hartley and John Marin precisely because they avoided scenic cliches. But abstraction generates its own cliches, which overtake Walker’s collages from 2003-04 installed in the smaller gallery.
Recent works are art department pot boilers of throw-away gestures in raw red, white and blue. It is as if the artist has begun to mimic his own imitators. Gone are Walker’s previous tonal subtleties and near-musical subordination of detail to patterned relationships. One untitled collage refers to the Maine landscape with a smear of real local mud, a hokey literalism that mocks the mastery of analogy on which great art rests. His earlier loamy neutrals were wonderously suggestive; mud is just mud. (Try to imagine Haydn composing “The Creation” using real farmyard animals.)
Then there are those illegible scrawls of handwriting, gravely termed “signage” by Ms. Ashton. What Magritte wittily—and fastidiously—introduced in the 1920s and 30s has dissolved into inchoate decoration. No longer a germinal idea, it has become a platitude that a generation of artists have fallen for like nine-pins.
My favorites are two very small collages from the ‘70s and a series of four spare, schematic drawings, white chalk on a black ground. No bombast, much tremolo. Here are testaments to what refinement of conception and execution John Walker is capable.
“John Walker: Collage” at Knoedler & Company (19 East 70 Street, 212-794-0550).
J. Alfred Prufrock can keep his coffee spoons. I have measured out my life in Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker covers. His first drawing appeared in 1941, before I was born. A survey of his work for the magazine is a timeline of my own existence, marked along the way with rites of passage that correspond to his dates of publication. Over 50 original drawings for the magazine and its cover will be on view at PaceWildenstein, opening tomorrow. It promises to be a delicious exhibiiton, a rare opportunity to see the covers in their original state and in various renditions.
Born in Romania, Saul Steinberg (1914 -1999) studied philosophy and literature in Bucharest, enrolling to study architecture in Milan in 1933. He drew the whole time, paying bills by submitting cartoons to the satirical bi-weekly, Bertoldo. Italy’s anti-Semitic race laws of 1938 rendered nil his architectural diploma (issued to “Saul Steinberg, of the Hebrew race”). His residency papers ran afoul of oficialdom in 1940 and he was interned briefly in a prison camp in the Abruzzi, forcing him to flee. He was waiting for a visa to come to the United States when he made his first submission to The New Yorker. Contributions continued for nearly 60 years producing 90 covers and and over 1,200 drawings that made his name and the magazine’s almost synonomous.
|New Yorker, Feb. 5 1972
Categories fall by the wayside in discussing Steinberg. He has been described variously as an illustrator-draftsman, a cartoonist or a modernist without a portfolio. All three fit; none is quite exact. Sui generis, he invented gnomic vignettes that navigate the prosperity of post-war America and its pitfalls with terse, punning economy. Steinberg’s gift for pointed compression is the hallmark of good cartooning; it is equally a quality of fine art which seeks the core of any chosen set of intelligible relations.
The immediacy of actual drawings is necessarily diminished in reproduction. The grace of his line and its inflections— blithe and distinctive—is even more strongly felt in the originals. That line stretched and contorted to express the unspeakabe, sometimes bending to convey sadness or curling back on itself to suggest confusion, deep thought or the creative process itself. No one could take a line out for a walk quite like Saul Steinberg.
“The Line,” on view for the first time, is a trademark Steinbergian transmogrification from the 1950s: one unbroken changeling line that reinvents itself—from a pen mark to a clothesline, to railroad tracks and more—as it travels across and around the page. After 30 feet of wandering, it returns to its origin in the artist’s madcap pen. A 1961 cover depicts an opera house, its orchestra pit filled with his characteristic false handwriting that evokes a full symphony, the physical gestures of the musicians and, at the same time, the cleffs and bars of a composer’s musical notation.
Steinberg brought an enchanted eye to the vagaries of the High Art scale and his place on it: “People who see a drawing in the New Yorker will think automatically that it is funny because it is a cartoon. If they see it in a museum, they think it’s artistic; and if they find it in a fortune cookie it’s a prediction.” It is that same sly candor that marks his drawings, making his hand an instrument for wry cultural examination. Steinberg considered drawing “a way of reasoning on paper” and his adopted country gave him much to reason about: the masks of modernity, the bafflements of communication, American can-do vitality and vulgarity together with misgivings about where these would take us in the 21st century.
Steinberg was a dual citizen: not only of the United States but of The New Yorker as well. His loyalty to the magazine was rooted in the help it gave him getting into the country in war time. Even after his reputation was established by museum shows, gallery exhibitions and an international following, he continued to publish in The New Yorker, insisting it would be his “patria” forever.
The flavor of his drawings, the tongue-in-cheek generosity of them, is always apparent even when their meaning is not. “What do you make of this?” was a sure-fire conversation starter—as well as a signal of one’s own taste— for half a century among those who shared The New Yorker’s aspirations and aesthetic. Steinberg himself did not mind being thought undecipherable at times. He did not like being grasped too easily. Better to be misunderstood than to be obvious.
The exhibition coincides with publication of “Steinberg at the New Yorker “ (Abrams), a collaboration between The New Yorker and the Saul Steinberg Foundation. Amply illustrated, the book opens with an intimate anecdotal introduction by friend and colleague Ian Frazier. Joel Smith’s text, drawing on unpublished material in Steinberg’s papers, is informative and insightful. It is a tribute to an American original, the post war visual culture he helped create and the magazine that conspired with him.
“Steinberg at the New Yorker” at PaceWildenstein (52 East 57 Street, 212-421-3292).
Both reviews were first published in The New York Sun, February 10, 2005.
Copyright 2005 Maureen Mullarkey