Telling the American Story
Hollis Taggart’s 25th Anniversary Exhibition
Hollis Taggart Gallery has told the American story in art for 25 years, preserving and promoting the American artistic heritage with scholarly panache. This 25th anniversary exhibition celebrates the gallery’s new Madison Avenue quarters as well as its own history as an authoritative dealership. On view is a stunning selection of paintings placed by the gallery over a quarter century and borrowed back from private collections, beginning with the Hudson River School, to American Impressionism and culminating with astonishing samples of American modernism.
|Arthur B. Carles, Composition #1, 1937-39
Contrary to blockbuster protocols, the character of an artist’s talent and sensibility is apparent in one or two carefully chosen works. Hollis Taggart’s selections are wonderfully revealing of the particular genius of the artists on show. You leave the gallery with a deeper intimacy with American painting, its early debt to European models and the glory of its variations from them.
Jasper Cropsey, Martin Johnson Heade and George Inness are the oldest entries. Cropsey’s luminist “Sailboats on the Hudson” (1873) represents the vivid autumnal oeuvre which won him acclaim among the nature-loving English and drew praise from Henry James. (To combat London’s initial incredulity over the brilliance of his fall colors, Cropsey displayed preserved autumn leaves on cardboard next to his paintings.)
Heade, too, acquired enthusiastic patronage in London. His “Blue-Crested Hummingbirds” (c. 1864), inspired by Audubon and studied in the wild, shimmers with reflective glazes over stippled impasto to convey iridescent plumage and the tropical tenor. “Haystacks and Cattle at Sunset” (c. 1866-76) is a nascent impressionist landscape leading the eye diagonally toward the painting’s true subject: the volatile [fugitive] color and mood of dying light. Art history has begun to rediscover Heade, acknowledging his unprecedented interpretive power and originality within observed conventions.
The gallery’s interest in underexplored American Modernists yields remarkable pleasures. When was the last time you saw Marguerite Zorach, Rockwell Kent or Albert Bloch? Atop the entry stairs is Zorach’s “Figures Walking on a Road,” (c.1910), a bold Fauve-like sample of her cloisonnisme, all saturated color within rhythmic, delineated forms. Bloch, who studied in Munich, exhibited with Der Blaue Reiter at the invitation of Kandinsky and Franz Marc; his visibility at home was diminished by his reluctance to exhibit in commercial galleries. It is a rare thing to have “The Duel” (1912), an expressionist narrative, available to see.
“Moonlight in the Adirondacks” (1960) is Rockwell Kent’s luminous view of bleak terrain modulated only by light slanting moonside down a distant peak and reflected on a frozen lake. It is quintessential Kent: deliberate, austere, nothing vague or accidental in the handling. An intrepid chronicler of harsh climes, master of an astonishing variety of crafts, Kent was one of the most successful American printmakers in the 1930s. His early paintings were compared to Winslow Homer’s and his book illustrations became world famous. Politics intervened mid-century to dampen his reputation (winning the Lenin Prize in 1967 for support of left-wing causes did not help) although work itself is non-polemical—unlike that of his Social Realist contemporaries. In his art, Kent was a radical disciple of rugged nature, particularly the sea; his era’s antagonisms have receded enough that we can again value his work for its singular beauty and limpidity.
Among the surprises in this show are paintings of Eduard Steichen and Man Ray, both known as avant garde photographers. Two ethereal Steichens are here: “Balcony, Nocturne, Lake George” (1907) and a pendant piece from gallery inventory hanging in a rear office, “Landscape in Moonlight” (c. 1905). Don’t hesitate to walk into the back. (I spent so much time alone with the second that gallery personnel checked in to offer me something to drink.).
Co- founder of Photo-Secession with Steiglitz, Steichen was an early manipulator of photographs, lessening detail in finished prints for aesthetic ends. That same suppression of line and diffusion of light marks the paintings; images grow by subtle accretion from multiple layers of transparent oil wash. Since Steichen burned many of his paintings after World War I, these are particularly precious. And more exhilarating than Christo’s gates.
Man Ray’s “Flowers with Red Background” (1913) registers the force of Matisse’s impact on his contemporaries. By now, Matisse has become a staple, his influence absorbed and domesticated, a manner for imitation. But in 1913 it touched nerves. Man Ray, Surrealist photographer and Duchamp’s co-conspirator, was viscerally moved by Matisse; and it shows.
Dominating the exhibition is Max Weber’s “New York” (1913), a dynamic improvisation evoking a city adapting skyward, flanked by two paintings by Arthur B. Carles. It is an ingenious pairing: Weber’s thrusting, Futurist lines and fractured angles next to Carles’ lilting geometric movements, dashing in color and texture. Carles’ “Composition #1 (1937-39) leaves no doubt that, at his peak, this Philadelphian was a more complex and inventive colorist than Hans Hofmann whose “Sunburst” (1942) hangs opposite. An off-the-rack gestural abstraction, Hofmann’s painting looks over-applauded by comparison.
Frederick Carl Frieseke studied in Paris with Whistler. His “Portrait of Madame Gely #1” (c.1904) is a delicious vignette of social history: Madame, in sumptuous dishabille, drapes across a couch. Her chemise uncovers—almost—one breast; a hanky in her listless hand suggests consumptive delicacy. She is seductive but too exhausted to be available, a familiar posture. Do not miss a later Frieseke in the back room: “Woman Before a Mirror” (c. 1912). A conventional composition, paint handling is breathtaking. An exquisite weft and weave of individual paint strokes builds to a lyrical, sensuous surface that is beyond the means of contemporary painting.
There is not column space to do justice to every painting: fine works by Alfred Maurer, Maurice Prendergast, Childe Hassam, Morgan Russell, Manierre Dawson, others (plus a strikingly uncharacteristic Bonnard tucked in to reward the persistent ). Just know that there are unexpected riches here you will not easily see again, work that provides a standpoint for assessing the tone of our own era.
“Celebrating 25 Years” at Hollis Taggart Galleries (958 Madison Avenue, between 75th & 76th Streets, 212-628-4000).
This review first appeared in The New York Sun, March 24, 2005.
Copyright 2005 Maureen Mullarkey