Winter Curry II:
Diana Horowitz at Hirschl Adler Modern; Don Beal at Prince Street Gallery; Gainsborough anyone?

DIANA HOROWITZ' ART is one of restraint and modulation. The appeal of it lies in her retreat from self-display in service of her motifs. Behind the work is a dedication to technical and chromatic means that reveal the abiding qualities of the subject itself. There are no exhibitionist flourishes. Only quiet attention to the architecture of city streets, industrial sites along the New York's commercial waterways, and the kaleidoscope of Brooklyn rooftops. These are counterposed to pastoral scenes of the Umbrian countryside.

There is a particular poignancy to this exhibition, Diana Horowitz' first at Hirschl Adler Modern. It opened on a night when New Yorkers were hunkered down, avoiding the subway and looking over their shoulders to see if the heightened terror alert would end uneventfully or in atrocity. The subject matter could not have been more timely in its presentation of two related worlds: one under immediate threat; the other endangered in ways not yet visible to tourists who still seek holiday from the race against time in which we stand reminded that we live.

Grain Silo Morning Tibor
Grain Silo and Still Water, 2002 Morning Tibor from Todi, 2001

Horowitz' paintings are surprisingly small for the amount of information they convey and the terrain that individual paintings cover. She works within the perimeters of the traditional open-air oil sketch. Fully realized paintings maintain that intimate, non-imposing scale and sense of immediacy that made the oil sketch dear to artists themselves from the seventeen to the nineteenth century. It was a tradition brought to an extraordinary level of accomplishment by European landscape painters, Corot among them.

These are Horowitz' antecedents. She makes gracious use of them, balancing the improvisational appeal of plein air against the demands of unromantic modern construction. Take notice of Fifth Street, Gowanus Basin. In a width of no more than 20 inches, she confronts a wedge of pier that juts forward, splitting the canal in two. Series of individual pilings are rendered fluently as a solid block, emphasizing the ingenuity of the structure as a loading platform and its aggressive pragmatism. Yellow freight-lifters, too small to be depicted in drab detail, supply just the right color note to enliven the browns and grays of the locale.

Light and atmosphere are the heart of the oil sketch. Horowitz is very good at capturiing daylight, that muting haze from summer heat or New York smog. Looking at these paintings, I was reminded of Seurat's comment that he painted landscapes to "wash the studio light" from his eyes. Her light is faithful to the effects of sun filtered through atmospheric vapor. In each of her most satisfying works, a play of grayed tones provides a stage for the surprise of a deft touch of saturated color.

I love these Brooklyn paintings. I know the settings in real life. What a delicious shock to be brought up short by suggestions of undetected beauty in places we hurry to pass. Horowitz' industrial scenes are not dry reductions to essential forms: those notorious cylinders, spheres and blocks. Something more humane is at work here. It as if the unacknowledged splendor of the human labor performed on these piers were suddenly made visible. That beauty comes only in flashes, a momentary insight in passing. Hence the appropriateness of the oil sketch. Horowitz works with an unprejudiced gaze that greets quotidian neighborhood sights with as much regard as an Umbrian castle town.

The speed and abridgements of the sketch fail their subject only in two small paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge seen from above. Missing is any iindication of the real life majesty of the bridge. It is rendered, out of necessity, simply as a diagrammatic pattern across the East River. Or perhaps the impediment is as much in me as in the paintings. Since the vantage point from which they were done—a tower studio in the World Trade Center—is gone forever, I want more from them than a sketch can bear. I want some sense of the elegiac, the prophetic, a hint of unease. But of course, that is not fair. When they were painted it was just one more overcast day in a confident city.

Art is not made in a vacuum. Neither is it viewed in one. No innocent eyes exist. Just as our understanding of the art of the past is enhanced by knowledge of the context in which it was produced, so too, our approach to contemporary art is shaped by our understanding of the world addressed by it. In all, here is painting that affirms its own world and earns a welcome from it.

Hirschl Adler Modern, 21 East 70th Street, New York 10021 Tel. 212.535.8810


DONALD BEAL'S INSTINCT FOR COLOR is deeply appealing. And instinct it is. Color sense cannot be forced. It has to come of itself, rather as memories do, by natural association and unbidden, long after striving for it has ceased.

For the majority of contemporary painters, color precedes form. It is from color that forms are made. Painters committed to maintaining identifiable reference, however loose, to the world as it appears, must grant color a structural role. The finest of Beal's work here maintains a subtle, lyrical balance between the constructive and expressive uses of color.

La Grande Jatte
Woods, Dog and Rabbit, 2002

On show—Beal's first at Prince Street—are a series of large explorations of the Provincetown Beech Forest. Played fortissimo, they are generous orchestrations of natural scenes that use color for its lyrical properties without losing touch with reality. Maura Coughlin's comment in the exhibition brochure gets it just right in specifying the advantage of the subject to Beal's coloristic approach:

The Beech Forest landscape is so much less sublime, much less easy to generalize: it shifts with every footstep and changes with the seasons. It was without an an obvious horizon, focal point or delineation between fore, middle and background, and Beal found it endlessly challenging, demanding its own complex visual language.

The language is simply that of color, seeded—in the most convincing works—with hard facts. It is for good reason that Woods, Dog and Rabbit was chosen for the announcement. Together with Dogwalker (Red Tree), this is Beal's work at its most distinctive in terms of color and compositional discretion. Each of these uses the strong verticals provided by trees to stabilize the dappled disorder of sunlight and shade on woodland underbrush. In each, a spotted dog serves as a useful natural form for providing the needed neutralizing of high-keyed color rhymes.

Swamp and the over-sized [102' square, hung on the diagonal] Ladyslippers are lovely to look at. But color sensation is not the whole of painting. For me—and I make no special claims for personal taste—these are weakened by having surrendered too much to abstraction. In each of them, color spills across the surface, giving the effect of something vague waiting to be shaped. Pretty, painterly abstractions that abandon description have become commonplace. The differences between them, no matter the artist, are more rhetorical than visual. But Beal has an authentic gift for sustaining tension between a measured abstraction and visual truth. Why muffle the accomplishment?

The monumental Family Outing is quite different in feel and in influence. While the landscapes follow the chromatic lead of earlier colorists, this image of a standing woman seems more consciously contemporary. David Parks and Richard Diebenkorn are not far in the distance. It is an impressive painting if a bit unsettling. Color is more somber here, the rhyming gone. Its gritty modernity lends it a frisson that the subject itself might not suggest.

Prince Street Gallery, 530 West 25th Street, New York NY 10001; Tues - Sat 11 - 6 PM


GAINSBOROUGH, ANYONE? The first volume of Tate Britain's house magazine features an article by William Vaughan, "Gainsborough's Modernity." The title tells us much: we should look at Gainsborough because he is more up-to-date than we think. And, yes, that is true. But there is hazard in this approach. The downside of it is the implication that, were it not for his crypto-modernity, Gainsborough could be relegated to the dustbin of history, one dead white curio among a host of others. In its way, it is a parochial response. It places the burden of proof on the past. History must convince us moderns of a reason for engaging with it. We are absolved of any obligation to enter the past with the same courtesy we would bring with us to any other foreign country.

Exploration of Gainsborough's relevance to audiences now, rather than audiences then, is helpful to a point. The past is not always graspable as something alive that speaks across generations, let alone centuries. Scholarly efforts to grant it a voice are welcome. The danger comes in using that past to reinforce the false metaphor of modernist—and now post-modernist—progress.

Art, like life itself, is not a tale of progress. Some humility, please! But this is a discussion for another day. In the meantime, look up Vaughn's article. Better still, try to get hold of a copy of the splendid, historically informed catalogue that accompanied the exhibition. It represents art education at its finest.


Maureen Mullarkey � 2003

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