Israel Hershberg in group show at Marlborough; Philip Pearlstein’s paintings from the 1960’s at Adam Baumbold; William Bailey at Betty Cuningham
MARLBOROUGH’S “LANDSCAPE/CITYSCAPE” FEATURES variations on the theme by members of its international stable, adding such popular practitioners as Jane Freilicher, Jane Wilson and April Gornick. It is a dapper, eclectic show with many pleasures and a few surprises.
The exhibition tilts heavily toward photography. Photo paper lacks tactility and looks meagre next to the surface of a painting, making it difficult to see landscape photos and paintings together without loss to the photography. But prints are well chosen; those by Gabriel Orozco and Thomas Struth are particularly gratifying interpretations of natural motifs. Other satisfactions include an etching after Constable by Lucian Freud, watercolors by John Marin, drawings by Avigdor Arikha and a wry Lichtenstein.Chinese modernist Yun Gee’s “Wheels: Industrial New York” (1932), exhibited at MoMA the year it was painted, is now rescued from the pantry in honor of recent Chinese buying power.
|Tree-oh, 2001, Israel Hershberg
Special attention is due two oils by Israel Hershberg, founder of the Jerusalem Studio School. The range of approaches in this show highlights the special character of Mr. Hershberg’s sensibility, steeped in the primacy of tradition over shifting styles. “Fratta Todina from Afar” (2005) is a gem of concision. Two sun bleached buildings appear as a single lambent solid, all texture and light, behind muted greenery. Detail is suppressed with tender cunning; only roof lines and cast shadows indicate the direction of planes.
His “Aria Umbria” (2003-04) is an extended panorama in the format favored by Antonio López-Garcia: the surface divided into horizontal bands with the upper—and largest—emptied by a cloudless sky. Color holds the foreground, defining tree tops, roofs, and a campanile against the Umbrian countryside. But elements evaporate quickly into an enveloping haze of indeterminate, warm neutral tints that swallow even the outline of distant hills. Depth is the principle of organization; the view recedes through exquisitely controlled values into a timeless, unbroken atmosphere that descended on the Etruscans with equal weight.
There are countless ways of making pictures. Bearing witness to the visual world is different. It is an ethical commitment that begins and ends in concentration on the truth of one’s subject and on the problems of painting. Mr. Hershberg’s work provides patient testimony to painting’s capacity to elevate the temporal and the concrete to affirmations of man and his world.
Philip Pearlstein came to prominence in the 1960s as his own Vasari, advancing his claim to have reconciled modernist intentions with the demands of the human figure. With the rhetoric behind us, it is easier to see in these early, uncluttered paintings at Adam Baumgold that the center of interest in his work has little to do with theory. We suffer the formula and look again at his disconsolate nudes for the simple human reminder, evident on each canvas, of why we keep our clothes on in company.
What Mr. Pearlstein offers, without admitting it, are laments for the pathos of the flesh and of our hopes for it. Scanning the pouches, dents and discolorations of his models’ bodies, he invents an anatomy of mortality and, with the distaste of a medieval anchorite, exposes the poignancy of corporeal facts. In “Male and Female Models Reclining” (1966), the creased sole of a model’s dirty foot and her partner’s sunken chest induce the shudder of a memento mori as graphically as a fifteenth century woodcut. Brother Body is a forlorn companion.
Forty years out it is hard to imagine the original impact of Mr. Peartstein’s emphatic cropping of heads. By now, it is apparent that cropping is the kindest thing to do if a painter has no appetite for the subtleties of facial construction or the summoning of a personality. Genitals are anonymous, more congenial to the temper of an impersonal painter. “Nude Reclining on Brown Drape” (1970) is an exception; depiction is unusually gentle, the paint liquid and lovely. It calls to mind the comment of a noted critic, made at the Educational Alliance in the early 1980s: Mr. Pearlstein had come to terms with the figure pictorially but not morally or intellectually. You could add “emotionally” but the point stands: What Mr. Pearlstein asserts and what he creates are not the same.
William Bailey, too, rejected reigning orthodoxies in the 1960s to pursue modernity in his own way. His patrician still lifes, with their tonal austerity and measured, hieratic perfection, earn every accolade accorded them. The extended format of “Turning” (2003) and “The Polish Officer” (2004) is splendid; the repertory of familiar objects take up their positions on a free-standing table top that serves as a theater-in-the-round for silent, monumental tableaux. Hint of a high window or the corner angle of a wall stretches canvases upward without distracting from stage center. Every still life on view testifies to intelligence and craft. But the invented studio nudes intrude on his achievement. I have so much admiration for his still lifes that commenting on the nudes is an unhappy task; nevertheless, they are here to be addressed.
|Montone Still Life, 1977, William Bailey
Obvious reference to other paintings—mainly by Balthus—is not the problem. What matters is the absence of any felt reflection on his sources. Empathy is critical for convincing figuration; but Mr. Bailey is unsympathetic to organic forms that have their own internal scaffolding. The only natural object he attempts is the egg, a form as predictable and mechanically perfect as manufactured crockery. These fixed, uninhabited girl-shapes are fitted with superficial anatomical details—even a glimpse of underarm hair in “Room in Umbria” (2004-05)—but lack weight and life.
Mr. Bailey’s knowledge of painting is phrased in the terms and concepts of nature morte; the same formula uttered like a malediction over the human figure renders it inert.
“Philip Pearlstein: Paintings from the 60s” at Adam Baumgold (74 East 79th Street, 212-861-7338).
“William Bailey” at Betty Cuningham Galley (541 West 25th Street, 212-242-2772).
“Landscape/Cityscape” at Marlborough Gallery (40 West 57th Street, 212-541-4900).
First published in The New York Sun April 14, 2005.
Copyright 2005 Maureen Mullarkey