Letter from New York: Hidden Gems

January 23rd, 2012  |  Published in *, Features, January 2012

Harvey Quaytman, Spanish Picture 1987, acrylic and rust on canvas, 37 x 37 inches (photo by Brett Baker, courtesy of McKee Gallery)

This is the second in a series of a quarterly letters, which will cover painting shows in greater New York.

“From the top of the arched opening – as it gradually widens – pours forth a sparkling flow of jewels, a pattering rain of diamonds, and, directly following, a tumble of gems of every color, steeped in light…”

Illuminating work has been spilling out of the intimate brownstones and cavernous light-filled New York galleries recently. Lodged within the general wealth of shows lay several gems that highlighted both under-appreciated artists and rarely seen works that lend fresh insight to more familiar work.  Additionally, the works on view share a celebratory, ritual approach to painting that animates the viewing experience.

On the Upper East Side, Barnett Newman, Francis Picabia, and Matisse were each the subject of small but fascinating exhibitions of lesser known works. Six small paintings by Barnett Newman at Craig F. Starr Gallery demonstrated a painterly freedom rarely seen in Newman’s larger paintings.  This subset of Newman’s mature work consisted primarily of paintings on extremely narrow supports.

The inescapable verticality of these canvases perhaps best embodies Newman’s admiration for Northwest Native American art in which he felt the “shape was a living thing, a vehicle for an abstract thought-complex, a carrier of the awesome feelings.” 2 Looking at the paintings, it seems the unique nature of the shaped canvases put Newman at ease. His paint application is unusually impulsive, loose, and full of frantic energy. The most successful of the paintings, Outcry (1958), measures 82 inches tall but a mere 6 inches wide.  It boasts the most extreme verticality and the most energetic “gestures of the palette knife [whose] effect is nevertheless of unity, oneness, a concerted cry against limits.” 3 Viewing this group of works, one notes the extreme vertical support, the physical embodiment of the his visual ‘zips,’ is perhaps Newman’s most inventive device, and it’s curious that he did not pursue a larger body of narrow works.

This show is also notable for its impeccable installation.  The low, intimate space lit by faint light achieved the effect of a small chapel or crypt.  This type of meditative space reflects Newman’s notion that  “the basic issue of a work of art… is first and foremost to create a sense of place, so that the artist and beholder will know where they are.” 4

Joan Mitchell, Beauvais, 1986, Oil on canvas diptych , 110 1/4 x 157 1/2 inches (photo by Brett Baker, courtesy of Cheim & Read)

Only a few blocks away, an equally selective show of late works by Francis Picabia demonstrated his range as an artist. The exhibition included several of Picabia’s pin-up inspired portraits, precursors to the ‘bad painting’ of the 1980s.  It also revealed a surprising surge of later paintings that recall works by American Modernist painters such as Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley.  Foi en moi-même (1947), with its conch-like central form, could easily hang with Hartley’s late still lives. Above all, the exhibition shows Picabia to be an artist who painted whatever was on his mind.  Pin-ups on the brain – paint them. Miniature masks – paint those, too. Paint a modernist still life or a Romanesque-inspired genre painting if the mood strikes. Picabia doesn’t look like an unfocused amateur, though – instead he demonstrates himself to be an incredibly cultured painter who brought a range of technical and pictorial savvy to diverse visual interests.

Close by, the full, rich experience of life afforded the quotidien painter was the main takeaway from the exhibition Matisse and the Model at Eykyn Maclean.  Ostensibly, the show examined the centrality of the model and studio environment to Matisse’s process.  Most apparent, however, was the day-to-day nature of Matisse’s enterprise and the pleasure he took from his work.  Matisse moved through the world by painting it, as evidenced by the wide variety of his drawings, which include quick studies, collage, drawings with pencil, pen, and brush on every conceivable kind of paper.  Several small paintings were of the sketch variety, the impressions of a morning’s work. The show in its entirety was an inspiring argument for the daily practice of painting, a regimen that is both the mark of dedication and a necessity for pushing artistic boundaries.

Just a short walk from the Matisse show, a moving exhibition of paintings by the late Harvey Quaytman, entitled A Sensuous Geometry, was on view at McKee Gallery. Although Quaytman was a painter of beautifully curved, shaped canvases early in his career, here Quaytman’s signature cruciform paintings from the 80s and 90s quietly assert themselves.  Quaytman, who remains regrettably under-known, expanded geometric abstraction with as much wit and verve as any artist ever has. The paintings in this show are marked by an obvious joy in making them, and their color and construction are sure and exquisitely felt. Quaytman was unusually gifted at coaxing expressiveness from mixtures of acrylic paint and substances such as metal filings and sand, and his paintings are built from rich layers of pigment and collaged canvas. In person, Quaytman’s seemingly simple cross forms are animated with the spatial complexity of early Italian panel paintings.

In Chelsea, Joan Mitchell’s last paintings were at Cheim and Read.  As in the Newman show, the gallery installation created a kind of chapel, this one of pure light and color.  The hidden gem found here was the unexpected but fortuitous harmony of scale between the paintings and the main gallery. Beautifully installed, Beauvais (1986) literally filled the gallery with light.  The painting opens inward, but more than any painting I’ve seen it also spilled out light, flooding the space.  The predominance of white and its radiance against Mitchell’s signature blue immediately brought to mind Matisse’s Chapel at Vence, but the effect was more like stepping up into La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, where grit and urban physicality vanish into pure color and light.

Lately, gallery-going in New York has felt a lot like that.

1. Philippe Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Axël, translated by June Guicharnaud, 1970, Prentice-Hall, Inc. p. 160.

2. Barnett Newman, Selected Writings and Interviews, University of California Press, 1990, p. 278.

3. Richard Schiff, “The Not-Object,” catalogue essay for Barnett Newman Paintings, Craig F. Starr Gallery, New York, 2011.

4. Newman. p. 108

–Brett Baker

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