A Memorial & An Accidental Elegy
Albert York at Davis & Langdale; Alan Feltus at Forum

ALBERT YORK DIED THIS PAST OCTOBER. Born in 1928, he came of age with Abstract Expressionism and lived through the parade of movements that followed. Yet his painting went untouched by the seductions of his era and its defining imperatives. York cared as much for fashions in artistic dogma as for celebrity. Which is to say, he gave barely a fig for any of it. Out of such magnificent detachment came a body of painting—haunting in its humility and loveliness of touch—that refused to make an idol of the present.

Davis & Langdale’s memorial loan exhibition includes some 35 paintings, many from private collections. The show is obligatory for anyone who recognizes splendor in modest intentions and values the grace of a gifted hand. York’s body of work is counter cultural in its trust that nothing is simpler, more innately intelligible or deserving of attention than beauty. Here is art that counts.

Albert York (1928-2009), The Meadow, East Hampton (ca. 1964)
Oil on canvas mounted on masonite, 10 x 10 inches
Signed (on verso, at lower right, in black marker): A. YORK

Cultural pressure to make noise—pump up dimensions, abandon representation—was quietly resisted. Working on panels under a foot square, York held to small-scale landscapes and the commonplaces of the visual world: a pot of flowers, the occasional cow, a wheelbarrow, a dog or two. His subject matter is so unassuming as to be almost inadmissible. But it is ordinary in extraordinary ways.

“The Meadow, East Hampton” (c.1964) withstands both the grandeur of its antecedents in 19th century French landscape and the pull of its own time. While modernity asserts itself in the austerity of a deceptively simple composition, the tonal refinement of an older palette marks the scene’s emotional tenor. Delectable greens and the drama of definitive forms against a light backdrop occur like an incremental refrain throughout York’s work. Variations on the approach serve beautifully in the botanically fanciful “Landscape with Two Tropical Trees,” (1986) and the glorious “Geranium,” (1975). In each, tonal contrasts, sensuously laid in, lead your eye through the complete unfolding of deeply felt natural forms.

“Two Reclining Women in a Landscape” (1967) and “Spring,” (1964), a glimpse of a female figure in a blossoming copse, are casual memoranda of passing moments. They require no more for completion than what is there. Any further development would bring with it a loss of substance.

Enough has been said about York’s reclusiveness. What matters is the quality of his execution. Art lives less on inspiration than on the calculated control of it. Art resides in know-how. Even York’s most playful arrangements—a gentle memento mori, riffs on Manet or an ethnographic photo—carry the conviction of a commanding hand. Everything he touched rewards the solitary act of looking.

Entries for Albert York are still sparse in the annals of modern art, though that is changing. Every serious painter in New York knows his work. So do serious collectors. And for good reason. Fairfield Porter, writing in 1974, claimed that it was York’s empathy that attracts. That, and reticence. Legions of artists pound us with the gravity of their ideas. Albert York preferred two trees against the sky.

• • •

I HAVE KNOW ALAN FELTUS’ PAINTING FOR SO MANY YEARS that I feel almost wed to it. An autumnal quality enters these works through the male figure who appears from one composition to another. Feltus claims not to use live models, relying instead on imagined constructions. Yet his own profile is very much apparent in No Words Could Explain (2008-9) and the male figure who threads his way from one dreamscape to another is looking older these days.

Feltus is a compelling painter, though probably not for reasons he would assent to. Despite the somnolent strangeness of his figurative compositions—or perhaps because of it—Feltus remains a consummate picturemaker. There is no denying his trademark refinement, a quality for which gratitude is owed. Yet the quality that has grown over time and continues to fascinate lies elsewhere. Beneath the serene surfaces, compositional calm and exquisite tonalities, lurks something insalubrious, self-enclosed and unwholesome. This elusive j'ne sais quoi creates an uneasy tension between what is seen what is suggested. It is here that his work's modernity resides.

Alan Feltus, Puppeteer (2008)

Sensual color—that delicious range of ochres, pinks, pistachios and siennas so evocative of Florentine painting—veils a furtive narrative at odds with the vitality of its early Renaissance models. Feltus' pallid couple inhabit airless rooms in a walled idyll that, in significant ways, is the mirror image of Georgio Bassani's masterwork The Garden of the Finzi-Contini (adapted to film by Vittorio De Sica in 1971.)

Bassani's doom-laden locale was the northern Italian town of Ferrara during the rise of Mussolini. Feltus, born in Washington D.C., has lived and worked in Assisi for some twenty years. Bassani's isolated characters lived in the shadow of creeping fascism, oblivious to it and incapable of outrunning events. Feltus' enervated dramatis personae dwell in a similarly sequestered remove from the outside world. Captives in time, his actors are as remote from events as Bassani's. (That newspaper in Il Giornale is a surprising detail.) Like the two women in Puppeteer (2008), Feltus' figures mime their way through impersonations of lived experience.

Felus' single abiding reference to an outside world is the device—a design element both practical and symbolic—of letters strewn on the floor, on table tops, tacked to a wall or in a character's hand. There is the occasional glimpse through a window onto an unpeopled outdoors. But in the main, Feltus' cast performs against unbroken, unadorned walls impenetrable by the times.

Feltus' pictorial means rely on earlier Florentine models but his achievement resides in conveying the spirit of contemporary Italy, an emblem of modern Europe itself. Today's Assisi is a museum piece, an artifact of a civilization that has said a definitive goodbye to the animating spirit of the age that built it. Slithering into the vacuum are forces as dark as those spawned in the 1930s. I doubt Feltus intends any such reading of his work. Nevertheless, art that transcends the limits of an artist's intentions is the most worthwhile.


Albert York: A Memorial Exhibition at Davis & Langdale Company, 231 East 60 Street, 212-838-0333.

Alan Feltus: New Work at Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Ave., 212-355-4545.

These essays first appeared in City Arts, Winter, 2010.

Copyright 2010 Maureen Mullarkey

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