We know how a handful of painters — Pollock, de Kooning, and company — wrested modernism from the Old World to create a new kind of art, one unmediated, enveloping, and completely frank in its making. Less well-known is the story of how another group of painters, a half-generation later, pursued with equal ardor but far less acclaim a different goal: figuration inflected by abstraction. The National Academy Museum’s See It Loud: Seven Post-War American Painters presents nearly eighty works selected from the collection of the Center for Figurative Painting by senior curator Bruce Weber.
The seven artists — Leland Bell, Paul Georges, Peter Heinemann, Albert Kresch, Stanley Lewis, Paul Resika, and Neil Welliver — shared a number of experiences. All except Bell and Lewis studied with Hans Hofmann or Josef Albers. All inspired later generations with both their art and their teaching. Perhaps most crucially, they all faced the challenge of every modern figurative painter: how to create original work in a discipline already thoroughly explored by artists ranging from Duccio to de Kooning.
See It Loud reveals remarkably divergent approaches, highlighted by a handsome installation that sometimes juxtaposes the artists’ work but more often assigns each a separate gallery, to be uncovered one at a time as the visitor wanders through the labyrinthine building. In some cases, stylized forms and heightened color reflect the lingering influence of School of Paris painting. Small landscapes and still lifes by Albert Kresch (b. 1922) simplify forms to accord nature its luminous purposes. His “Temple, Maine (Morning)” (1986) catches the singular aspect of a sequence of buildings, plinked along a field’s streaming horizontals; a distant wall of trees accelerates and pauses in sympathy.
Sensuous colors and brushstrokes animate abstracted scenes of harbors and nudes in landscapes by Paul Resika (b. 1928); dramatic intervals — a shack’s retiring blue-gray, its brilliantly sunlit side, the deep note of an angling pole, all set against elusive blues of sky and water — lend a charged stillness to “Moon in the Bay” (1984–86). Self-portraits by Peter Heinemann (1931–2010) strike a more unsettling, offbeat tone. Framed by backgrounds of intense, flat color and geometrical patterns, all are modeled — perhaps “chiseled” better describes it — into volumetric life. Facial expressions varying from meditative to pixieish allay, somewhat, the urgency of light: the electric ruddiness of skin and eerie blueness of eye-whites.
Like Kresch and Resika, Paul Georges (1923–2002) studied with Hofmann, whose energizing, “push-pull” color resonates throughout all three artists’ work. Georges’s paintings, however, rely not on modernist idioms but a sometimes inelegant updating of traditional renderings and storytelling. “Self Portrait with Model in Studio” (1967–68) imparts remarkable gravity to the radiant, twin sweeps of a reclining model and her supporting fabric. Superimposing his own narrative upon this classical motif, Georges has added his own likeness, staring quizzically at the viewer. In one gallery, the inspired juxtaposition of two of Georges’s works with landscapes by Neil Welliver (1929–2005) highlights their extraordinarily different temperaments. Welliver’s “Midday Barren” (1983), with its precision and multiplicity of detail, seems almost Pop-like — an iconic snapshot — next to Georges’s earnest weighting and locating of forms.
The most consistently abstracted works are those of Leland Bell (1922–1991), whose canvases combine a passion for composing with a close-fisted technique. His thin paint and sharp delineations forego painting’s usual material delights to probe his subjects’ deeper rhythmic character. Raked by light, a woman’s form diagonally divides the center of the striking canvas “Dusk” (1977–78), while her outslung arms bisect it along another axis. Although not naturalistic, colors give weight to every element. A story unfolds in the coursing horizontals of one arm’s shadowy brown-purple, a second arm’s brilliant orange-pink, and a tablecloth’s quiet, glowing blue. Gestures resolve across leaps of scale: an arm’s journey unwinds, finally, in a single, pointing finger.
For me, the exhibition’s greatest reward may be the sight of Bell and Georges tackling the masters from entirely different viewpoints. While Bell, with utterly non-nostalgic fervor, extracts their vitality of form, Georges updates their narrational spirit, with potent, if clumsy, admixtures of the classical and the contemporary. Both, arguably, are wrestling with our paradoxical regard of the traditional masters: we relive the rhythmic conviction of their forms sensually, with our eyes, while revisiting their narratives intellectually, through historical contexts.
Also memorable are landscape drawings and paintings by Stanley Lewis (b. 1941), the youngest artist here by a decade. His raw, frenzied attack would seem reminiscent of de Kooning except for its delight in the minutiae of visual experience. A tree’s regally overspreading branches arise out of the fiercely sliced and layered surfaces of the large graphite drawing “View from Smith College” (1998). The painting “View from Porch” (2000) adds the dimensionality of color; from its savaged surfaces emerges a massive sunlit tree, forged of earthy-green strokes and held in place by a porch’s delicately enumerated planks.
Sadly missing from the exhibition are works by these painters’ equally accomplished female peers: Nell Blaine, Lois Dodd, Louisa Matthiasdottir, to name just a few. Apart from this major shortcoming, See It Loud poignantly illuminates what happened in the crucial gap, chronological and philosophical, between Ab-Ex and postmodernism. It sheds welcome light, too, on the continuing relevance of figurative painting in the postmodern age.
See It Loud: Seven Post-War American Painters continues at the National Academy Museum (1083 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 26, 2014.