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 took—employment in a monastic workshop, membership in the guild system, contractual arrangement with a particular master—changed 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 Bibro’s 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 artist’s 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 London’s Royal Academy and the great art academies of Europe, the National Academy’s 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 Academy’s 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 intellectual challenges.

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 1800’s 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 Who’s 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 Barnet’s 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 Barnet’s 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 Beck’s 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 and overdue.

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, Manso’s art resisted the pull of the Minimalist sensibility that had its impact on Motherwell’s work. Yet he shared with his contemporary a sense of the past—for 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 Simon’s 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 man’s 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 Andreani’s sixteenth century woodcut and Giambolgna’s marble of the same subject provide compositional antecedents for Cox’s 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. She’ll 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 scrutiny.

Talk of paint brings us to Esteban Vicente. Born in Spain 1903, Esteban emigrated to Greenwich Village, by way of Paris, in the mid-30’s. 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 Bibro’s 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 missed.

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 Middleman’s 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 you’re not sure what "pop realism" refers to, look up Don Nice’s 1998 oil EA62798 and then you’ll 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.


April 1999

HOME        CONTENTS                 RSS logo RSS FEED