ArtWeekend

A Not Completely Lost History

The artists in Post prove that paintings and drawings can be captivating years after they were done, and that a timely style has a way of becoming uninteresting, even mummifying.

Bob Thompson, “Bacchanal” (1960), oil on panel (all images courtesy of Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects)

In 1952, Tibor de Nagy gave Fairfield Porter his first solo exhibition, at the urging of Willem De Kooning, along with Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers. Porter was in his mid-40s at the time. Shortly after Earl Kerkam died in 1965, six artists wrote a joint letter to the Museum of Modern Art stating, “Kerkam in our eyes is one of the finest Painters to come out of America […].” The letter went on to say that he deserved to be shown at MoMA. De Kooning was one of the artists to sign the letter. I thought about this history, largely ignored by New York museums as well the establishment art world, when I went to see the group show Post at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects.

The artists in the exhibition are Bob Thompson, Earl Kerkam, Elaine De Kooning, Gandy Brodie, June Leaf, Jan Müller, Lester Johnson, and Milton Resnick. While not officially included, Anne Harvey’s “Portrait of George Duthuit” (1940) was in the back office space, along with works by Resnick, Thompson, and Kerkam, all of which complimented the show.

Elaine De Kooning, “Portrait of Anne Porter” (1945), graphite on paper

The De Kooning-Porter connection came to mind when I was looking at the beautiful graphite drawing “Portrait of Anne Porter” (1945) by Elaine De Kooning. Depicting Porter sitting in a chair, lost in her own thoughts, with no indication of the background, I wondered if the portrait was inspired by the sinuous, delicate lines in the drawings of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Elaine’s husband, Willem, created imaginary portraits based on Ingres, but tough-as-nails Elaine went for actual subjects and cleared a big space for herself. The determination to push into one’s own territory is what the artists in this exhibition share. This does not mean that the works on view are the strongest by each artist, but enough of them are first rate to prove that paintings and drawings can be captivating years after they were done, and that a timely style has a way of becoming uninteresting, even mummifying.

Remember Neo-Geo and Neo Expressionism and who was hot in the 1980s? How many of the artists connected with those period styles remain interesting (which is different than continuing to invest in them)?

Earl Kerkam, “Portrait” (1950), oil on board, 28 x 22 in.

There are more than 15 works, all drawings and paintings, in Post. With the exception of the Harvey portrait, all were made between 1945 and ’63 — the year Roy Lichtenstein had his first solo show at Leo Castelli Gallery, featuring his signature Ben-Day dots and speech balloons, and one year after the Sidney Janis Gallery mounted the International Exhibition of the New Realists, which included American Pop artists and European artists connected with Nouveau Réalism. This was the first show of Pop artists in a prestigious uptown gallery. Philip Guston and Mark Rothko, who also signed the letter in support of Kerkam, quit Janis because they felt the gallery was following the latest fashion.

By bringing together this disparate group of artists, almost all of them working figuratively (Resnick is the exception), the exhibition should remind us of the important role fashion, or what might called timeliness, plays in determining what gets elevated at any time, and, starting in the 1960s, what the art world invests in.

There are three standout paintings in this exhibition: “Mulberry Street” (1963) by Lester Johnson, “Untitled (Seated Figures)” (1953) by Jan Müller, and “Bacchanal” (1960) by Bob Thompson. They were done during the height of Abstract Expressionism and the first years of Pop Art and Color Field painting, when painting with a brush began to be superseded by other means. And yet, looking at them now, they don’t seem old fashioned.

Lester Johnson (1919-2010) had the longest career, far outliving Jan Müller (1922-1958) and Bob Thompson (1937-1966). Thompson, whose work was characterized by the art historian Meyer Schapiro as radiating “rhapsodical hotness,” is the best known, and was the subject of a retrospective, Bob Thompson, at the Whitney Museum of American Art (September 25, 1998–January 3, 1999). Johnson and Müller are cult figures.

Lester Johnson, “Mulberry Street” (1963), oil on canvas, 66 x 44 in.

Johnson’s “Mulberry Street” is a deep blue, moody painting of a crowd of featureless men in hats. Painted wet into wet, the figures both emerge from and disappear into the paint. They are palpable ghosts, what T.S. Eliot might have called “the hollow men,” but there is nothing hollow about them. The art critic Harold Rosenberg characterized Johnson’s men as “golem-like” (Art News, 1966). The dark blue street rises up along most of the painting’s surface, with a band of pale blue at the top, indicating light and/or the street. Rivulets of dark blue run down the surface.

It is not clear if the men are walking away from or toward the picture plane. Through paint and color, Johnson gets at the malaise permeating the lives of men who seem to be going nowhere except their next destination.

Müller, who studied with Hans Hoffman from 1945 to ’50, began to break away from his teacher in the late 1940s, when he started covering his surfaces with mosaic-like squares and rectangles, rejecting Hoffman’s “push-pull” notion of composition. Müller was in his late 20s and had less than a decade to live. Hovering between abstraction and figuration, “Untitled (Seated Figures)” (1953) is the first “mosaic” painting to be figurative, marking a decisive shift in Müller’s work.

In “Untitled (Seated Figures),” Müller slowed the long, vigorous brushstrokes of gestural abstraction into controlled bands of paint abutting each other across the painting’s surface; the length and curve of the brushstroke alludes to the two figures or their environment. The difference between Müller’s brushstroke and that of artists working more energetically is significant, as it demonstrates that painting with a brush had not been exhausted — the brush still could be used to put down paint in fresh ways. Chronologically speaking, “Untitled” (Seated Figures)” marks Müller moving further away from abstraction toward nudes in the landscape — the pastoral idyll.

Jan Müller, “Untitled (Seated Figures)” (1953), oil on canvas, 59 x 49 1/2 in.

Müller’s pastoral idylls are what drew Thompson, who was from Louisville, Kentucky, to Provincetown in the summer of 1958, but he arrived too late. Muller had died. Painted when Thompson was in his early 20s, “Bacchanal” (1960) shows an artist who, inspired by Müller’s idylls and Johnson’s featureless silhouettes of men, has made these possibilities into something all his own. The thickly painted “Bacchanal” is a scene of excess, with a nude woman splayed in the middle of the horizontal composition. Violence, sex, and gluttony are entwined. This is Eden for hedonists, a pastoral scene gone amok.

A thoughtful look at the period from 1945 to 1963 in American painting is still necessary, with special attention to the figurative artists working during these years. Kerkam, Brodie, and Leaf still need to be studied. According to Thomas B. Hess, writing in New York Magazine around 1963, “the historical puzzle” that was the art world “was scattered so brusquely [that] the whole art Establishment crossed the street to avoid saying hello.” Hess seems to be implying that there was suddenly a right way to go.

If you ask me, much of the “art Establishment” is still on the other side of the street, convinced they are right. They pay lip service to De Kooning, Schapiro, Rosenberg, and Hess, but they don’t really give a fig about what they stand for.

Post continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 2. 

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