December Grab Bag
Post-war art at Knoedler; two centuries of American sculpture at Hirschl & Adler

By Maureen Mullarkey

A WELL-SELECTED GROUP SHOW HAS THE ADVANTAGE of placing art works in a context that permits viewers to make their own judgments on where an artist fits in the established hierarchies. Knoedler's medley of post-World II artists, plus several recent ones, lets us do just that. Varieties of Abstract Expressionism reign in the main gallery. Widely recognized names (Helen Frankenthaler, Richard Pousette Dart, Miton Avery, David Smith) mix with less glittering but, for the most part, equally compelling ones. There are unexpected pleasures here. Older works are the most arresting-testimony to the gradual decline of Ab Ex from an innovative challenge to just another style.

Bessie Vonnoh, Girl Dancing (1899)
Bessie Vonnoh, Girl Dancing (1899)

Herbert Ferber (1906-1991), better known as a sculptor, was a surprisingly satisfying painter. His subtle color sense and way of working surfaces makes his moody 1962 abstraction a fitting complement to Avery's lovely Sea and Rocks painted six years earlier. Michael Goldberg (1924-2007), the last of the original New York School, was pigeonholed as a second-generation Abstract Expressionist and accordingly overlooked. His dense, spare oil, The Wife (1962), demonstrates the inadequacy of received labels.

It is exciting to see Marca-Relli (1913-2000), a founding member of the New York School, and the Milanese décollagist Mimmo Rotella (1918-2006). The publicity-shy Marca-Relli carried collage to monumental proportions and unprecedented complexity by means of cut up and recombined canvases-part image, part event. Rotella's perfectly scaled Untitled (1958), a coloristic interplay of torn commercial papers dancing across a black ground no more than 16 inches high, makes clear the primacy of scale over size as a measure of creative seriousness. By comparison, John Walker's 8-foot high Prism and Pool (2007) looks overblown, even vacant.

Catherine Murphy's Plowed Driveway (1991), the only representational work in the show, is the odd piece out. It intends a synthesis between abstraction and landscape but the image, a magnified patch of snowy driveway, never escapes lackluster description. For abstract “landscape,” Frankenthaler's Snow Basin (1990) takes the brass ring.

Five undated works by James Castle (1899-1977)—deaf, mute and illiterate—are clustered with recent works on paper by Maria Elena González and Susan York. Taken one by one, Castle's tiny, tactile washes on found paper are slight. Only as an ensemble, and viewed through the pathos of his biography, does the work take on weight. His companions remain weightless. In their fifties, the two women are the youngest artists here. Both were nursed on minimal/conceptual postures in the wake of AbEx. González's contrived approximations of Outsider awkwardness convey the requisite shallowness aforethought. Similarly, the motive behind York's hovering graphite squares, two to a sheet, is as insubstantial as the images.

Richard Pousette-Dart had a beautiful hand. His nearly 8-foot square Presence, Light (1974-81) is a movement of luminous tints in and out of pure white, all applied with a pointillist brush. Whether you find the piece entrancing or somewhat sleep-inducing depends on your susceptibilty to his contention that art provides the route to “our total mystical awareness.”

Selected Works by Gallery Artists, Knoedler & Company, 19 East 70th St., 212-794-0550.

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HENRY JAMES INSISTED THAT SCULPTURE reveals the public who values it no less than its subject. The truth of that is on view in Hirschl & Adler's concise, museum-quality survey of national consciousness. A splendid roster of names-from Hiram Powers to Thomas Eakins, Frederick MacMonnies and Paul Manship-reflects the spirit of American audiences from the decade preceding the Civil War, through the Gilded Age to the early 20th century.

Conrad Marca-Relli, the Woman of Samura (1958)
Conrad Marca-Relli, the Woman of Samura (1958)

It is a compelling window into those values American connoisseurs, in the generations under review, wanted struck in stone. The visual culture they promoted drew heavily on literature and scripture. With a cultural memory extending back to the classics, they favored mythological, allegorical and biblical motifs-ones that celebrated the moral imagination needed to sustain a new republic. And they paid hard cash for marble.

Here are two once-beloved 19th century icons: Randolph Rogers' Ruth Gleaning and Nydia, Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii. One derived from the Old Testament, the other from a wiidly popular novel by Bulwer-Lytton. Emma Stebbins, mother of Bethesda Fountain, nods to Tennyson's popularization of a Homeric episode with her marmoreal bust The Lotus Eater (1870). Daniel Chester French's lavishly Grecian Wisdom (c. 1900) is a surviving maquette from his monumental series celebrating civic and personal virtues. Evelyn Longman, the only woman French ever hired as an assistant, made her own debut with the celebrated bronze Victory (1908). Its kinetic verve was adapted to Electricity, the gilded figure atop the famed AT&T building (now 195 Broadway).

Sculpted portraiture, wed to the history of patronage, gradually loses its hold. Public interest recedes as recognition of the subject fades. Yet the portraits here are seductive invitations to greet the past on its own terms. Saint-Gaudens' delicate bas-relief of a tubercular Robert Louis Stevenson is an emblem of mortality. Others breathe soul into our textbook kin: an imposing Puritan Father, a painfully young Nathan Hale, a wakeful Robert Fulton. William Rinehart's refined Boy with a Bird's Nest {1868) wears a Roman tunic, a cue to the neoclassical tastes of his time. The entire gallery ensemble embodies the ordered fluency that made 19th century cemeteries into popular outdoor sculpture parks.

Art Deco, premiered in Paris, was exalted in the hands of Manship, creator of Rockefeller Center's Prometheus, and William Diederich. Both are beautifully represented. Diederich's puma weathervane (c.1925) is a captivating sample of his characteristic wildlife. And do not miss Bessie Vonnoh's tremulous bronze Girl Dancing (1899). It has the flutter of life about it.

Modeling Grace: Two Centuries of American Sculpture, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, 21 East 70th St., 212-535-8810.

Both reviews above appeared first in CityArts, January 12, 2009.

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