A Treasure Hunt
American drawings and watercolors at DC Moore Gallery; plus, a brief homily by Israel Hershberg

NEW YORK NEEDS MORE EXHIBITIONS LIKE THIS, low-key and full of delicious things. “Independent Visions: American Drawings and Watercolors” spans the 20th century with 42 works by 10 interrelated American artists, reflecting the shifting tensions between figuration and abstraction in the wake of early European innovations. The show was speedily assembled to substitute for a scheduled one that never materialized. Think of this as a chance to treasure-hunt through DC Moore’s closets.

Charles Burchfield, The Lighted Window, 1917

The impact of modernism registers most keenly in the work of the oldest artists: John Marin (1870-1953), Arthur Dove (1880-1946) and Milton Avery (1885-1965). Marin’s notational impression “On Marin Island, Small Point, Maine” (1915) is quietly dazzling. Fractured forms testify to his six years in Paris in the first decade of the century. Robert Delaunay’s dislocated Parisian structures translate into Marin’s disassemblage of local landscape forms; the Woolworth Building became Marin’s Eiffel Tower.

Three small watercolors by Dove—a pioneering abstractionist and, like Marin, a member of the Stieglitz group—are enough to demonstrate how lyrically he anticipated the the New York School. And how well his art fulfilled his ambition “to enjoy life out loud.”

Avery’s four landscapes, color scumbled lightly over bare white ground, appear to fine advantage on a small scale. Color relations were his sole concern, not the rhetoric of abstraction. The work here is so radiantly fresh and feels so contemporary that you have to remind yourself that Avery kept company in the 1920s with Kenneth Hayes Miller, Isabel Bishop, Walt Kuhn and Guy Pene DuBois at the Art Students League.

Thank heaven for Charles Burchfield (1893-1967). The originality and breadth of modern American painting, evolving alongside European models, would not be complete without him. An uneasy regionalist, he defies categorization with the enchanted melancholy of his natural forms . As a boy, he loved copying the work of Charles Dana Gibson. You can see the curvesome swing of a Gibson girl in the cursive trees and undulant foliage of “The Open Road in September” (1917).

A student of Kenneth Hayes Miller, Isabel Bishop (1902-1988) sailed with him and Reginald Marsh to Europe to study the Old Masters. While modernity ripened in her paint handling—in the blonde depths of invented space and barely defined settings—her work rested on traditional draftsmanship and careful observation. Her love of Renaissance antecedents echo in the unflattering facial expression of an exquisitely drawn sleeping female head, reminiscent of a ribald Dutch portrait. Every day for fifty years Bishop commuted from Riverdale to her studio in Union Square to record just such urban vignettes as “The Fountain” (1947), a woman drinking from a water fountain in the park.

Reginald Marsh’s (1898-1954) buxom, high-heeled women have a honkytonk quality that burlesques the vitality of the drawing on which they are built. “Mr. Broe on the Brooklyn Bridge” (1936), with Broe striding breezily past the down-and-out, typifies the class consciousness of the Ashcan School and urban genre art at a time of intense ferment over the role of art and artists in society. More surprising is the golden-toned watercolor “Steam Freighter and Barge” (1938), an uncharacteristic subject beautifully depicted.

At an angle to social realism and rejecting its sentimentality, Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) depicted the violence of the Civil Rights era with eloquent restraint. Between “Struggle III - Assassination” (1965) and the same-size study for it, you can see Lawrence adjusting his outlined figures for heightened narrative effect. An unfinished gouache carries his favored theme: a man at work among his tools. For Lawrence, builders and the instruments of their craft were symbols of progress, the work of hands an act of hope.

Jared French is included for the obvious reason: French had been a lover of Paul Cadmus, whose drawings of a subsequent lover are on view simultaneously in the gallery’s smaller exhibition area. A series of male nudes—one studio model drawn in the same position but from different angles— stands below a canopy of leapfrogging males. Holding the center like a keystone is a pair of spread buttocks, more impudent than homoerotic. The study is a dry, schematic suggestion of French’s magic realist compositions. His fully realized pencil portrait of Cadmus, c. 1944, comes closer to the emotional tenor of his painting.

Alongside French are drawings and a recent tempera panel by George Tooker (b. 1920), a student of Reginald Marsh who became part of the Cadmus/French circle. Cadmus encouraged him to abandon Marsh’s additions of watercolor wash in favor of strict egg tempera technique. It was inspired advice. Tooker’s haunting images of urban alienation drew on simplified quattrocentro prototypes. The lean, patient strokes of tempera suit his stylizations and enhance the sense of entrapment that pervades his work. Two silvery pencil drawings from the 1980s display the delicacy of his hand in younger years.

The only let down is the thin gruel representing Walt Kuhn (1877-1949), one of the principal organizers of the 1913 Armory Show. “Dolores on Sofa” (1929), a cursorily outlined nude, gives no clue to Kuhn’s accomplishment or the sculptural authority of his forms. Loving vaudeville and the circus, Kuhn painted clowns, show girls, entertainers and backstage hands as solemn metaphors of the human condition. (He once earned his living designing and directing stage reviews.) His figures descend from Watteau’s Gilles and the commedia dell’arte, through the dancers and cabaret singers of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. A very particular strain of French painting crossed the Atlantic to reside in Walt Kuhn’s costumed cast. If only a hint of that were here.

“Independent Visions: American Drawings & Watercolors” at DC Moore Gallery (724 Fifth Avenue, 212-247-2111).


ISRAEL HERSHBERG, painter and founder of the Jerusalem Studio School, wrote a feisty catalogue essay for Stuart Shils’ recent show at Gallery 33 in Tel Aviv. Upending mandatory protocol for such scriptures, he used the essay to debunk reigning faith in the ordained necessity of critical commentary.You can read the entire piece on the gallery’s website but here is the money quote:

Morandi's painting imposes the immediacy of experience, and not the mediated deliberation of that experience. The inescapable quality and essence of the plastic arts that inhabits his distilled oeuvre silences the secondary, parasitic ramblings of the theorists, the critics, the academics, and their cadre of complicit artists.

And thus it is with the painter Stuart Shils, a possessor of that same refined pictorial intellect. His work does not provide the impetus for word production, nothing for the epistemic, midrashic or exegetical mindset to latch onto. In order to enter these paintings a cultural inversion must be undertaken, spurning the safety and familiarity of substituting a verbal encounter for an aesthetic one. One must desire to find meaning and depth in surfaces and appearances, and not in significance, that which is imagined to be behind those surfaces. In painting, the sensual, the beautiful, the felt, the wonder of the perceived world, reside in the superficial, the tactile, and not in the distortions of intellection.

This is heresy to audiences that view art through a filter of words, unable to be left alone to look at work and make personal judgments based on what art offers to the eye. It is a shot across the bow to a self-regarding critical establishment that favors the kind of art that most requires verbal servicing. Instead of learning to talk their work, Hershberg’s students at the JSS are taught to look and to love what they see. Imagine that!

Copyright 2005 Maureen Mullarkey

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