Review by Thaddeus Radell
See It Loud is on view until January 26, 2014, for more information please see the National Academy Museum webpage for this show.
See It Loud: Seven Post-War American Painters is an exhilarating exhibition that recently opened at the National Academy Museum, featuring the work of Leland Bell, Paul Georges, Peter Heinemann, Albert Kresch, Stanley Lewis, Paul Resika and Neil Welliver. This soulful exploration of the spirited pursuit of representational painting in a time dominated by Abstract Expressionism is made more remarkable by the fact that it springs from a single collection, the Center for Figurative Painting, founded by Henry Justin.
For the serious aficionado of true painting, after slogging through the demoralizing, conceptually sodden eclectic streets of Chelsea, with only an occasional ‘find’ or rare glimmer of pictorial dignity, a resounding visual feast lies in wait at the Academy. This exhibition is a decisive, erudite celebration of the act of figurative painting. The conceivable and valid argument made for the inclusion of several other painters amongst the Center’s considerable stable of artists (Kaldis, Blaine, Freilcher) is quickly muted by the breadth and depth of what is now on view. Fueled by Abstract Expressionism but with a temperament and passion more keenly addressed to representing the world around them, these seven artists, all of whom knew, respected and interacted each other to varying degrees, together deliver an irrefutable vitality to their page in the history of art. And if individually they do not, at times, significantly or broadly enhance that sacred text in the true Elliot-driven sense, together theirs is a story in bold text.
The exhibition begins solidly enough in a hallway contrasting bold and savagely disparate monuments to Figurative Painting. Two paintings by Resika, one a scalding proclamation of light, color and the nude (oddly titled Dark Lady), the other a glowing, sensual ode to women, boats and life in general, calmly confront the searing mad gallop of Georges’ Battle Eternal with its tumult of cool chromatic greys turning white ice cold as they impact violently with the sun.
The exhibition that follows buoyantly occupies every floor of this hive-like museum and at every turn, every ascent to another floor, one of the Seven has his moment. Such is the extent of works exhibited that this reviewer shall confine himself to several conclusions made relative to each artists’ body of work as a whole, citing several pieces as specific springboards for those remarks.
A fine selection of Leland Bells on the first landing quickly sobers the viewer after that initial colossal duel between Resika and Georges below. Bell quickly establishes himself as a more restrained master. The effect of the work is not to visually slam into, but rather to, with assuredness and insistence, overpower the viewer with the acuity of the pictorial construction. These paintings read as finely constructed poems, each with a lyrical structure that throbs beneath the surface and that the viewer is convinced is comprehensible and decipherable, yet which remains always just beyond reach. Artists delight in finding hidden rhythms and compositional lines that knit the forms together, positive and negative forms that intrigue and delight, color harmonies that are skillfully, willfully nuanced. And Bell is the height of such maneuvers. Yet enriching as it is to find and understand these intricacies of construction, what Bell offers is beyond such analysis and his work seethes with a higher poetics, much as a great fugue by Bach. Glenn Gould once illustrated how simple it was, in the end, to construct a fugue. However, as he gravely pointed out, a great composer of fugues, such as Bach, raised the common elements of construction by distilling those means through a finely tuned and deeply resonant temperament, thus elevating the piece from an exercise to an art form. The Bells are such profoundly conceived fugues in paint. A relatively early work, Croquet Party (1965), with its playful yet astute dismantling and juxtaposition of the color planes, already hints at the austerity of the works to come. Morning II (1978-81) reveals itself as a solid edifice of subtle pictorial devices. The lower quadrant itself reveals a wonder of invention in terms of rhythmic form: the ‘three’ legs of the slate colored cat; the Balthusian space between the woman’s foot; the dead bird that wields that scimitar of a sienna wing and the angled pillar of the combined front paws of the disinterested cat! Has a woman’s flank ever been so deliciously contrasted yet betrothed with the swelling tide of a man’s upper arm? The guillotine of ice blue slices but does not threaten, so carefully is it assuaged and distant on its respectful distant plane.
If upon entering the long room of Bells one feels most keenly a cerebral poetics, a refinement born of an almost detached delight and mastery of pictorial construction, looking past the Bells and spying the remarkable Heinemann self-portrait overwhelms, with the projection of an abrasively invasive, resilient and devout conviction. And seeing that portrait, one does, in the end, look past the Bells. The Heinemann head is recklessly compelling. There is a take-no-prisoners stance assumed by those determined blue eyes, and one is half-dragged, half-rushed into a small paneled room and precipitately surrounded by ten such visually menacing self-portraits. The effect is simply stunning. Not all of the heads are equally powerful, and the artist’s conception of framing the portraits within the format may be questionable at times, yet this viewer cannot recall in recent experience having been in a room of contemporary painting where the overall impact is so consistently and poignantly accomplished and riveting. These heads bring to mind John Russell’s proclamation that the portraits of Francis Bacon were remarkable for their originality in conception: “Perhaps this is the first time in more than fifty years that someone invented an entirely new way of portraying the human head.” (Francis Bacon, John Russell). The difference lies perhaps in the integrity of the image. With Bacon one cannot help but feel a certain complacency that overtakes him as the years spool by and the portraits seemingly become almost formulaic. Bacon himself unwittingly condemned his own oeuvre: “Once you know how to do it, it becomes illustration.” (Ibid.) Heinemann’s self portraits never wane from a certain desperate truth. Each portrait is visually blistering, finely executed and deeply provocative. Of particular note is Head, (1991; there are two portraits bearing this title in the exhibition, one being that which we see from across the room of Bells. I refer to the other.) Fielded on a wide bed of musky red, a smaller square of saturated blue contains a dark, clearly planed head. The features are boldly drawn into an abstract construction of a large, very large, blue eye, cradled between a skillfully tipped red ear and the two opposing, and imposing, triangles of nose and hair. A wispy blue scarf begins to sail off into the lower right, adding a dreamy touch to the overall severity of this magnificent portrait.
On the same floor, on the opposite side of the landing, one finds a room full of monumental Georges. The vibrant amplitude of this artist’s vision is only matched by the majestic, staggering scale of his delivery. “In my opinion, to paint, you have to be free of pre-conditions. I am interested in how to paint and what to paint but mostly I want to be free to do whatever I want.” (Quote taken from the well-crafted catalog essay by Bruce Weber.) Well, with decided aplomb, Georges heartily achieves these three objectives. Regarding how to paint, standing in the center of the large central space that the Academy devotes to Georges and turning slowly around full circle to view each of the eight ponderous works displayed, the questions could never possibly arise as to whether or not Georges found a personal painting method. A lustful brilliance of technique saturates each piece. From the somber Rembrandt-inspired Self Portrait in the Studio (1959—what is going on with that foot!) to the more luminously spatial Self Portrait with Model in Studio (1967-9), from the more claustrophobically constructed Cedar Tavern (1973-4), to the late, broad stroked and color-slammed In the Studio (1989-90), Georges leaves no doubt that he know how to paint. Finding his subject matter never seems to have troubled him either. Georges straddles a wide breath of content willfully and convincingly, intoning even such a narrative as The Mugging of the Muse (1972-4) with true pictorial seriousness. Certainly, at times, the results of his prodigious efforts seem heavy-handed or contrived, the powerful tide of the brushwork not quite speaking with the color, so that a given shape may read as paint before it reads as form, but these are mere stumbles and Georges adeptly rights himself without ever quite falling down… indeed, in the end, achieving that freedom to do whatever he wants.
If the adjacent room of Resikas is but across a narrow threshold, a more divergent universe of painterly sensibility would be hard to imagine. To arrive in this modestly proportioned room is to enter a chapel. Each work seems keyed to overwhelm the viewer with celestial luminosity. Even the haunting and solemn Moon in the Bay (1984-86) is swathed in a delightful and cool Cape light that the slow metronome of a dark mast slowly begins to stir. Black and White Vessels (2008) bounces its drifting deconstructed boats in a more complacent, scumbled light, the powerful crescents, triangles and trapezoids deployed gracefully on a bed of candidly rendered reflections. The great power of Resika’s images, their monumental offering to the very idea of fielding unyielding color planes onto a flat surface, is most apparent when the works are seen hung together in brilliant orchestration as they are here at the Academy. The wall facing the Moon in the Bay (easily the best picture in the room, from arguably Resika’s strongest period), engulfs the viewer with an unearthly distillation of light that isolates and heightens the very meaning of a very small sampling of simple geometric shapes. These three pictures, the central Moon and Boat (Pendulum) (2003-07), flanked on the right by Egypt (1998-9) and on the left by Moons, #5 (2010), paralyze with their combined force of saturated tones. Such is their unity they could have been composed as a triptych. However, if one would take any given one of them individually, would they hold with as much force? Et c’est la que git le lièvre, as they say. The viewer would certainly be awed, but would he be intrigued would he be held? The stature of Moon in the Bay, across the room, is made all the more grand, its limited palette more poignant, its shapes more demanding, its content more eloquently revealed.
Stepping up to the next principle gallery, nature abounds. Large-scale intricate landscape paintings by Neil Welliver are juxtaposed to luscious flower garden scenes by Georges. The contrast between the two approaches to interpreting the natural world is almost as great as that between Georges and Resika. This exchange, however, involves the works being hung adjacent and across from each other and neither truly profits by the arrangement. Welliver crafts his visions with a rigorous, premeditated discipline. Once the motif was decided upon and resolved through many preliminary sketches, the artist proceeded “methodically, inch by inch, wet on wet, diagonally down and across from the top left corner to the bottom right corner of the canvas.” (Weber catalog essay) Such a highly pragmatic system was sometimes used by the great Henri Rousseau himself. However, whereas Rousseau never, or rarely, failed to achieve a magical, deeply evocative, formal engagement with his content, Welliver’s conclusions are less persuasive. An overbearing sense of fabrication has a tendency to dominate these pictures and the color often lacks what artist and critic John Goodrich would call pictorial presence. The most convincing work is perhaps Blueberries in Fissures (1983). A looming hill of pale grey rock surges effectively up from the threshold of the picture and appears to have been pierced by several javelins of evergreens. From these wounds flow thin trails of orange-red flowering berries. The trail flattens across the picture plane, creating an erratic tension against the more literal space of the hill, a noticeable nod to the Abstract Expressionists whose legacy Welliver was highly conscious of. Though lacking the metaphorical clout wielded by Blueberries, High Water Mark (1984) also impresses with its complex fabrication, delightfully built of a panoply of tethered warm and cool greys.
Georges landscapes, next to the Wellivers, appear warm-blooded and lush, the colors in full blossom. These pictures are, however, less successful than his figurative triumphs and almost appear structurally weak next to the rigorous scaffolding of Welliver.
A small rotunda of flower motifs welcome the visitor onto the next level. Several pugnacious Georges, a blistering, astral Resika and two surprisingly restrained yet robust Heinemanns give a welcome respite before the last small climb to find two final galleries.
The first contains the modestly scaled, color-charged work of Al Kresch. At first sight, after the theatrics of the monumental pictures filling the rooms below, the apparently calm assurance of Kresch may border on pictorial understatement. However, these painting, upon solid reflection, soon reveal a heartfelt wrestling with the elements of color and format that is as rigorous as the most grandiose Georges or ethereal Resika. One witnesses the compelling calling to arms of the hallowed Rhythmic Color Plane, if not quite as forcefully as in Bell, certainly in a more humane, a more approachable way. In Still Life (1998), Kresch scalpels the form into a densely radiant play of color and abstracted shapes. The spirited, joyful Football Games (1991), the sun-bathed homage to Rouault, Conversation (1994), and the adventurous, playful Pear Tree, (1999), all exude intelligence at the service of the inspired moment. In what seems an unprecedented blast into a more unrestrained dynamic with that inspiration, Sun and Tree (2009), is at once rapturous and recklessly inventive and alive.
At the far end of the gallery devoted to Kresch, one may exit through a small hallway into the last stage of this Grand Tour of Painting, into a small room dedicated to the work of Stanley Lewis. And it is well worth the climb, well worth sustaining one’s physical and mental balance through the preceding galleries. One alights, at this last landing, and whatever energy had been sapped from one’s standing capacity to view art comes rushing back. These are pictures of high impact, whose soulful seriousness first barks, then snaps at, then savagely seizes the viewer’s attention and does not let go. From a distance they shimmer with a high-octane light. Forms grapple with each other and soon settle, achieving a maze of superbly constructed compositional lines. These grounded large forms resolve into an intricacy of shape that compels a closer inspection of surface, an entry into a frighteningly obsessive world of texture and detail. In lesser hands, such concern for minutiae, after the heroics of Dutch 17th century still-life painting (‘We all know they were greatest painters of all time”, Resika once said at a lecture, to the great consternation of his audience), could signal a poverty of artistic vision. Lewis, however, despite his own sincere and persistent disavowals, is a master of invention and turns the leafless tree, the deck porch, the telephone wires and the slate roof into irrepressibly personal, tactile, sublime transcriptions of, in fact, ordinary trees, decks, wires and roofs. Lewis’ much discussed method of ‘cutting and pasting’, hacking and stapling his formats into existence, is not in the least gratuitous or predictable, but convincingly adds to the narrative of obsessiveness that surrounds this artist as he wrestles with his motif. Three superb drawings by Lewis add to the staggering weight of this small but dense collection of his work. In terms of scale, detail, process, cohesiveness, passion and sheer draftsmanship, these are images that sustain on every level. The stunning Interior of House on South Dakota Ave (1994), is a drawing, in a museum full of superb painting on view, that does not cede a visual inch.
And there you have it: a spectacular testimony to the power and living history of representational, contemporary painting. In the event that the viewer is a dedicated painter him/herself, once having made your tour from the epic hallway battle between Resika and Georges to the rarefied heights of Lewis, simply try to make your way downstairs and outside. When you do find yourself back outside, grab a coffee next door and sit a moment in Central Park and gather your wits. SEE IT LOUD is a resounding, daunting exhibition of seven seasoned, extraordinary veterans of the painted image. Gather, assimilate and reflect on what they each have so poignantly to offer, finish your coffee and get your ass back to the studio.
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