The Black and the Baudy
Black paintings at Betty Cuningham Gallery; priapism at Mary Ryan Gallery

Black is the primary color of the creative classes; every artling sports it. Now Betty Cuningham Gallery is trying it on the walls in a “search for resonant symbols”. Despite curator Phong Bui’s unsmiling jargon (“centralizing black as a mediating agent”), the search turns up merrier widows than expected.

Christopher Martin, Here (For Wallace Berman and Hilma AF Klimt)

Dead black barely exists in nature and is often ignored by painters as a palette color. Lustrous blacks can be created from colors that lose their identity mixed at full intensity and, touched with white, create inimitable grays. Everything here looks straight from the tube, surprising for work intended to “broaden the meaning of black.” But not to niggle. Good painting is on view, even some color.

The pictorial language of Forrest Bess and Thomas Nozkowski, a dialogue between abstraction and description, suits this scant palette. An isolated, self-described visionary Modernist, Bess (1911-1977) exhibited with Betty Parsons from 1949 to 1967; his work is rarely seen anymore. This small untitled painting (c. 1952) evokes moonlight over water by adjusting textures heightened by a few well-aimed strokes of white. Simplicity of form, refined edges and command of paint quality combine in Mr. Nozkowski’s untitled oil (1995). Luminous egg shapes play against a series of tenebrous, filamented placentas, each one bounded by subtle threads of near-purple.

One arresting (untitled, undated) painting by Nick Carone, haunted with elusive color, hints at human form emerging—inchoate and with difficulty—from unlit chaos. It makes Terry Winters and Phiilip Guston, nearby, look facile and dull. Joan Waltemath lends optical interest to tube black by manipulating refractive capacity with iron filings, interference pigment and metallic powders. Her “Universe is a Square” (1996-99), rectangles of pure color floating over a beautiful surface, is the single geometric abstraction with emotive power. In Norman Bluhm’s “Silent Vamp” (1980), undulant ebony forms press against each other with volumptuous abandon, squeezing high color through the interstices.

Displayed in its own niche, Bill Jensen’s “Black Madonna” (1978) is a ghostly tar baby surrounded by dripping slashes. It has the necrophiliac charm of an album cover for a death metal band: Our Lady Queen of Demonstealers. What was Jensen listening to in ‘78? Alice Cooper? Black Sabbath? Judging from “Death’s Door” (2003-4), he’s still listening.

Christopher Martin’s prominently positioned “Here (For Wallace Berman and Hilma AF Klimt)”, 2005, is an over-amplified cipher crudely inscribed in white and bisected by a cable-like line with a box in the center—a dumbwaiter to nowhere. The thing reminds us how far art has traveled from obligation to the visual. Art is now the mark of an artist’s presence: something left behind, like paw prints. It also reminds us that the word curator is misleading. Less the disinterested expert of popular piety, a curator is frequently an agent for artists, dealers or collectors.


Feminists, you can stop worrying and love the male gaze. He’s not looking at you, hon; he’s got his eye on him. On view at Mary Ryan is a homoerotic peep show with dim eroticism but lots of genitals displayed like parts in a plumbing supply catalog.

Harold Stevenson’s “Portrait of Yves Klein” (1960) is a composite of 7 small panels, each with an intimate close-up of some anatomical item. All are oddly ambiguous, as befits Klein, a French conceptual artist who died in 1962. David Schorr’s “una Raccolta di Cazzi (for Richard Howard),” 2005 — translation: a collection of dicks—covers a sheet of paper with multiple drawings of a quiescent penis nestled sweetly against a disembodied scrotum, like baby rabbits curled in an incubator. (Imagine “una raccolta di clitoridi” testifying to heterosexual desire. Who would hang it?) Wilhelm von Gloeden’s fin-de-siecle albumen prints of nude shepherd boys inspire several compositions, Arcadian settings updated to a Budapest bathhouse or modern doorway. You expect a voice reciting Swinburne.

Two artists here of rare distinction are Rockwell Kent (1882 - 1971) and Hugo Gellert (1892 - 1985), both political activitists and renowned in the 1930s. Kent’s stunning “The Lookout” (1930), likely one of his wood engravings for “Moby Dick,” depicts a native standing high on a foremast. Typically monumental, the figure is one with the mast: the man and his posture an expression of Kent’s heroic view of humanity. By offering the image as a double entrendre — another penile projection — the show distorts Kent’s animating passion for man’s grandeur in the face of terror and wonder, particularly at sea. (Kent himself sailed to Greenland and Tierra del Fuego.)

Gellert, labor organizer and champion of workmen, was one of the first Modernist muralists in the United States, preceding Rivera and Orozco. Limned with the squared edge of a crayon in deliberate, rhythmic strokes, his lithographs for the 1933 series “The Working Day,” put to shame the spidery school boy hand of David Hockney, close by. Gellert would spin in his grave to see the stylized muscularity of his figures — aesthetic embodiment of his Worker’s Party sympathies — co-opted to ratify eroticism of any stripe.

Nihilism is at work in these appropriations. If there are no inherent meanings, no responsibility exists to honor the essence of anything. When did Kent’s and Gellert’s figures become homoerotic, asks the coy press release? When the spielmen of sex in the Age of Aquarius decided that a cigar is never just a cigar but forever a phallus. And Ganymede is everywhere.

By what logic is priapism celebrated in gay men but discouraged in straight ones? Gertrude Himmmelfarb’s term “an ethics gap” comes to mind. Arthur Tress’s photo, “Dockside Interview” (1997) captures a leather clad man negotiating an anonymous genital exchange with a naked male on the piers. Displayed as an unremarkable instance of eros, it is chilling. We suffer a steep price for the decivilizing double standard on show here.


Paint it with Black” at Betty Cuningham Gallery (541 West 25th Street, 212-242-2772).

“Male Desire Two” at Mary Ryan Gallery (24 West 57th Street, 212-397-0669). Prices: $1,100 - $45,000.

These reviews first appeared in The New York Sun, July 21, 2005.

Copyright 2005 Maureen Mullarkey

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