There are many competing narratives about what happened in American art after Pop Art eclipsed Abstract Expressionism in the early 1960s. Hindsight tells us that the New York scene was messier and more diverse than most records of that turbulent time indicate. A few current and recent exhibitions reflect that diversity, such as the not-to-be-missed New York: 1962–1964 at the Jewish Museum (July 22, 2022–January 8, 2023), the last curatorial project of Germano Celant, who died in 2020. The varied roster of artists includes Melvin Edwards, Chryssa, Harold Stevenson, and Marjorie Strider, whose work is seldom, if at all, seen anymore.
Other examples are Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952 – 1965 at the Grey Art Gallery (January 10-April 1, 2017), curated by Melissa Rachleff, and, more recently, Creating Community: Cinque Gallery Artists at the Art Students League (May 3–July 3, 2021), curated by Susan Stedman, with assistance from Jewel Ham and program curation by Nanette Carter. Founded by Romare Bearden, Ernest Crichlow, and Norman Lewis, the Cinque Gallery showed more than 450 artists of color during its 35-year existence.
As much as these important exhibitions have contributed to a larger view of what happened between the death of Jackson Pollock in 1956 and the so-called “return of painting” in 1980, much more is still to be done to recognize how vibrant, diverse, and divided the New York art world was during this period, with most of the action taking place outside the media spotlight on auction prices and celebrity artists. (This began with the collector Robert C. Scull’s carefully curated auction of 50 works of art at Sotheby Parke Bernet on October 18, 1973, which, according to Doug Woodham, “heralded the beginning of a new era in the art world: a hyper-commercialized art market focused on promoting and selling contemporary art.”)
While there is no going back to the old days — which I am not interested in promoting — I also know that in that quarter of a century, from 1956 to 1981, much more was going on that has flown under the radar. This is why I saw the exhibition Masterworks of American Landscape Painting at the Center for Figurative Painting (March 1–December 31, 2022), which consists of works from a single collector, who has never auctioned anything from his collection. The exhibition is comprised of landscape paintings by 17 artists, most of whom were born between 1922 and ’34. The three exceptions are Edwin Dickinson (1891–1978), Aristodimos Kaldis (1899–1979), and Fairfield Porter (1907–75). (Kaldis, who is the least known of the three, was the first living American artist whose work was collected by the Albert C. Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.)
The exhibition includes distinguished artists, cult figures, and that special category, artists loved by other artists: Jane Freilicher, Philip Pearlstein, Neil Welliver, Paul Georges, Gabriel Laderman, Paul Resika, Wolf Kahn, Albert York, Lois Dodd, Louisa Matthíasdóttir, Seymour Remenick, Lennart Anderson, Albert Kresch, and Rosemarie Beck. Many were part of the Alliance of Figurative Artists, an artist-run discussion group that met every Friday on Manhattan’s Lower East Side from the late 1960s to the early ’80s. While I only attended a few meetings, in the mid-’70s, shortly after I moved to New York, I remember them as heated and lively. In 1976, many of the group’s younger artists started the Artists’ Choice Museum, which held several exhibitions until it disbanded in 1986.
I was reminded of this overlooked history when I saw Kaldis’s “Panhellenic Landscape” (1951), Georges’s “Roses with Five Clouds” (1982), Dodd’s “White Echinacea and Butterflies” (1977–78), Resika’s “Tower and Moon” (2009–10), and Porter’s “Monument Mountain from Ingleside Cottage” (1974), as they were among the original members of the Alliance.
Another important point this gathering makes clear is that the term “landscape” has been widely interpreted, from the close observations of Anderson, Freilicher, and Dodd to the painterly responses of Georges, Welliver, and Porter, to the precision of Laderman and Pearlstein, to the dreamlike view of Resika.
In the large-scale “White Echinacea and Butterflies,” Dodd depicts her subject close-up and enlarged. A nondescript moment becomes an entire world; the transience of the moment is memorialized without fanfare. The painting is definitely worth going to see, as are many other pieces. Another outstanding work is Dickinson’s “Herring Cove Beach” (1930), which, as the title suggests, portrays a wide swath of a sandy beach. Made more than 90 years ago, Dickinson’s understated painterliness renders beige paint interesting.
With just a few elements and a masterful sense of color, Matthíasdóttir’s “Figure in a Landscape” (1976) shows a blond figure in a bright yellow outfit amid a multi-hued landscape of green, blue, and brown. By placing the figure on the left, and dividing the composition down the middle with two trees, the artist juxtaposes two related but distinct views in which a slightly chilly, luminous chasteness predominates. Any exhibition with work by Albert York is well worth a visit, particularly since he was not prolific and none of his work is currently on display in any New York museum. “Farm Landscape” (1970), while not as dramatic as York’s better-known paintings, is quietly compelling.
An artist who has long incorporated recurring motifs, and has made radically different bodies of work during a career that stretches across eight decades, Resika’s “Tower and Moon” (2009-10) is as inviting and foreboding as a work by Giorgio de Chirico or Arnold Böcklin, even as it approaches geometric abstraction while flattening the forms.
It was a pleasure to become reacquainted with artists such as Welliver and Georges, who are seldom exhibited, as well as to look closely at works I had not in the past (by Beck, Kresch, Laderman, and Reminick, for instance). In an age dominated by celebrity, I was reminded of something the great English writer Jean Rhys told David Plante in Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three (1983):
All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.
Masterworks of American Landscape Painting continues at the Center for Figurative Painting (261 West 35th Street, Suite 1408, Manhattan) through December 31.
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