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    Painter's Journal
by Michael Brennan
 
     
 
Philip Guston
Untitled (Red Eyes)
1969
at David McKee
 
Once again I found myself looking at paintings uptown, this time drawn by the roar of old mighty lions. I've often wondered if any of us would be familiar with the late work of the great Philip Guston if it weren't for the steadfast dedication of his dealer David McKee. Guston's late paintings, although they've influenced all kinds of artists over the years, were only slowly -- almost begrudgingly, recognized by an art establishment that is still at ease with more obvious pleasures.

McKee's recent exhibition, "Philip Guston: Small Paintings and Drawings, 1968-1980," included a few of the artist's final works that were executed after his massive heart attack in 1979, shortly before his death in 1980.

The uneasy appeal of Guston's work from the 1970s stems from the artist's complete no-nonsense approach to his painting. Having met the dominant demands of every decade he had worked through, in styles ranging from Social Realism to Abstract Expressionism, Guston liberated himself in these last works by courageously painting solely for himself.

As it turned out, his personal interests have probably proven more rewarding to a larger group of viewers than anyone could've ever been expected. The petulant beauty of Guston's painting resides in his paint as well as his imagery. Neither the power of his hand nor the bluntness of his vision should ever be underestimated.

Although they appear cartoonish at first glance there is much to admire in these forceful works in addition to their coarse poetry of everyday objects. Guston's compositions hint at remnants of the early Renaissance master Paolo Uccello. This spirit even occupies his hopelessly sober self-examinations that sometimes reveal hidden racial bigotry and its brutalizing power. Who else but Guston could have located the profound in smoking, whiskery, Band-Aid covered Cyclops faces that blearily stare at bare burning light bulbs?

Guston is the most dangerous kind of old master, because outside of his own artistic concerns, he's the kind of artist who just couldn't care less.

     
 
Bill Jensen
BZZ 44
1999
at Danese
 
Bill Jensen
BZZ 37
1999
at Danese
 
Dorothea Rockburne
Constancy
1993-95
at Lawrence Rubin Greenberg Van Doren Fine Art
 
Bill Jensen is another painter whose shows in the '70s influenced a diverse range of artists. Once known for crusty, labor-intensive paintings that supposedly required years of reflection and readjustment in their making, Jensen has loosened up in advancing age and his paintings have become lighter without losing any of their hard-won impact.

His current show of works on paper, which is on view at Danese in the Fuller Building on East 57th Street through Apr. 29, is a tour-de-force of loose and vigorous paint handling. All of these works were painted on rough-hewn handmade paper while the artist was residing in Italy. Most of them read as landscapes in their orientation, as they all seem to have a horizon in one form or another. The paint itself is an unusual combination of egg and oil tempera with dry pigments thrown into the mix. The effect is like that of home-cooked liquid light. This show is loaded with great work, all of which seems energized and uplifting.

Jensen has always worn his influences on his sleeve, and he's made no bones about his admiration for American proto-abstractionists such as Albert Pinkham Ryder, Ralph Albert Blakelock and Arthur Dove. "Ryder's light feels discovered and born within the paint itself." Jensen said. His work will be included along with other devotees of naturalistic abstraction such as Gregory Amenoff and the sexually cryptic Forrest Bess in "An Homage to Albert Pinkham Ryder" at the State of the Art Gallery, located at 113 Franklin St. in Brooklyn, through May 7.

Dorothea Rockburne recently had a stunning show of 10 years worth of works on paper at Lawrence Rubin Greenberg Van Doren Fine Art at 730 Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. Rockburne is probably best known for her minimal abstractions from the '70s that rigorously explore such eternally recurring themes as the golden section and isomorphic structures. This exhibition, in contrast, featured works with astronomical themes.

Rockburne has always had a flair for exploiting non-art materials such as motor oil, which she once used to discolor a planar assemblage made from sheets of cardboard. Often her work has involved the thorough exploration of seemingly simple techniques such as folding paper and canvas in order to reveal the hidden complexities of "sacred geometry."

Her astronomy influenced works prove to be no less inspired. Many of these drawings were done in preparation for her large cosmic frescoes that occupy the Sony building uptown and a science center on campus at the University of Michigan. The forms generated in her work recall the early celestial abstractions of Frantisek Kupka or Sonia Delaunay, both early pioneers of the style.

The real strength of the work in this show comes from Rockburne's direct use of material. When she applies some blue to her depiction of a fly-by icy comet, she's chosen a harsh burning blue not unlike the searing color found in a pastel done by the French symbolist Odilon Redon. All of the works included in this show display a forthright handling of material and execution of image that betrays Rockburne's Minimalist background. This sensibility lends a healthy severity to what might otherwise become merely pretty pictures.

Chelsea Blitz: I was disappointed with Cary Smith's show at Derek Eller gallery on West 20th Street. I have always admired this artist's work in past -- his early shows at Julian Pretto and Salvatore Ala -- but Smith's paintings have lost their succulent surfaces. He has abandoned the wax in this new group of stripe paintings. These works seem inert, save for the yellow bars, and can't help but remind one of the abstract paintings of Ol' King Stripe, Gene Davis.

     
 
James Siena
Two Nesting Spirals (Red and Black)
2000
at Gorney Bravin + Lee
 
Rebecca Purdum
Blue Edge
1999
at Jack Tilton
 
James Siena's backroom show at Gorney Bravin + Lee was a small but strong surprise. Siena's work really pulsates, especially the three paintings on aluminum block. Their simple forms are gently hypnotic in the manner of Myron Stout, but Siena's paintings are also charged with fun buzz that travels all around his obsessively concentric lines. You can hear his singing in the wires.

Frank Gerritz offered another lesson in the power and potential of graphite in his new show at Stark Gallery. Gerritz's paintings consist of alternating bands of ultra-sheeny graphite drawn on composite-compressed MDF panel. Sometimes the hatching flows horizontally, and sometimes the hatching flows vertically, but the interesting thing is that he applies the graphite so thoroughly that it begins to achieve its own special grain. They're tough looking paintings, but they're also too delicate to touch.

Seen in Soho: Rebecca Purdum has done a number of fine exhibitions at Jack Tilton Gallery over the years, and her latest show was also strong. She is truly one of New York's most underappreciated painters. Her work was completely ignored by the critics when it was included in the 1991 Whitney Biennial, even though her painting was clearly among the most accomplished on view. So what if she paints with her fingers? I once heard a rumor that she paints with an old bear claw.

Does it really matter, once you see the wondrously vaporous effects she achieves? The surfaces of her painting are weathered and worn just like an old sunbather's skin, and, although they're abraded, her paintings never appear overworked.

After years of painting largely amorphous and atmospheric paintings Purdum recently began to introduce some more clearly defined linear elements into her work. At first the synthesis was shaky. I'm not certain the image was ever enhanced by the addition, but her new painting Blue Edge proves she's now mastered that lesson, even though I still believe the incorporation of these interior edges and subsequent new spaces can be carried even further.

Seen elsewhere: More and more often my interest in painting lures me into the "elsewhere" category of exhibition spaces.

"Painting Abstraction" was the title of a large group show that was supported with a panel discussion at the New York Studio School. This show was literally packed canvas to canvas with several generations worth of familiar abstract painters. Standouts for me included an ungainly, almost artless Robert Ryman, a satisfyingly rich Milton Resnick (on a badly warped stretcher no less), a vital and vigorously scraped painting by Louise Fishman and a disarmingly tender pill-shaped painting by Ron Janowich.

     
 
Piero Ruggeri
Red
1988
at Esso
 
Another strong painting group show was on view at Esso Gallery at 191 Chrystie Street on the Lower East Side through Apr. 22. This show, simply titled "Painting," was curated by Nino Weinstock, and was largely comprised of "radical" monochrome paintings by a group of American and European artists including Rudolf de Crignis, Marcia Hafif, Joseph Marioni and Phil Sims, among others.

One of my favorite works here was an absolutely airless drab green painting by Frederic Thursz that was mounted like an old-time Boy Scout pup tent. I was also deeply impressed with a viciously slashed orange monochrome by the elder Italian and former Abstract Expressionist Piero Ruggeri that seemed screamingly unrestrained compared to its less adventurous counterparts. This how once again reinforced the fact that monochrome painting is an endlessly variable, and quite personal, practice.

     
 
Ion Birch
Mother
1999
at Margrett
 
Erick Johnson
Untitled
1999
at Salena
 
Ion Birch made his noticeable debut at a brand new gallery called Margrett, located at 137 Grand Street just two blocks east of Broadway. Two of his five gouaches on paper were quite striking. Birch's use of transcribed words and thoughts, which were strung along a painted spider web-like lattice in his pictures, is most inventive. In one case the phrases were emanating in the round from the circular speakers of a boom box, which itself was painted in a garishly Op-ish red and white checkerboard pattern. In another, more mysterious painting, the web of words was draped from the mouth of a My Pretty Pony-style pink and blue horsey. I found them oblique, intriguing and somewhat disturbing.

Also worth mentioning is the sweeping little survey of recent paintings and drawings by Erick Johnson on view this past February at the Salena Gallery, located at the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University. The paintings in particular, with their arterial weave of Ginseng root like lines, looked particularly stunning as they wrapped around a large curved wall in the center of this near public space. Johnson's gift for flat glowing color combinations peaked in the turn of this installation, enhancing his already refined graphic tendencies even further.

MICHAEL BRENNAN is a New York painter who writes on art.
 
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