New York's many visitors come in two as well as three dimensions. On Washington Square, New York University's Grey Art Gallery is playing host to some of the more distinguished of the two-dimensional variety.
"Pastoral to Postindustrial: British Works on Paper from the Whitworth Art Gallery" is a generous selection of landscape and townscape drawings and prints, representational to semi-abstract, from Manchester, England. The show doesn't attempt to be encyclopedic but contains plenty of wonderful images by the great, the good and the little-known.
Listed under "the great" would have to be a cloud study by John Constable, which looks as fresh as it did in 1821. A clutch of Joseph Mallord William Turner watercolors, and prints made after them, range from the atmospheric mountains in Montanvert, Valley of Chamonix (1809) to the almost surreal and hauntingly textured Sunset at Sea with Gurnets from around 1838-40. There's also a magnificent swirling Storm in a Swiss Pass from 1845, commissioned by John Ruskin (also represented here).
Obviously, the artist's origin means more than the actual place represented. Most often, though, the subject is British. Many 19th-century subjects are topographical, like Thomas Girtin's The West Front of Lichfield Cathedral, or picturesque, like Sunrise from the Summit of Cader Idris, a glowing view of Wales in 1804 by John Varney. Yet sometimes technology or the working world creeps in, as in Fred Walker's The Well Sinkers of 1868.
Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891) was new to me. This Irish artist's fantasy, Ireland-1846, is full of very real abandoned cottages and a ruined abbey, a protest against the Irish Potato Famine.
Things get a bit thin in the 20th century. There are fewer works and more prints than drawings. Karl Hagedorn's Rhythmical Expression: Two Figures in a Landscape from 1913, bordering on total abstraction, is impressive in black and white, and the retired-sailor-turned-artist Alfred Wallis of St. Ives turns in an odd and enchanting view of ships and the sea. The show ends with a Damien Hirst untitled screenprint, a grid of mineral crystals from around London (1992).
Large and varied, spanning the late 18th through the 20th century, this very British exhibition is up through Jan. 26, 2002, at NYU's Grey Art Gallery, 100 Washington Square East in downtown Manhattan.
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"Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence," which is currently on view at the Whitney Museum, leaves no doubt that Lawrence is one of our greatest 20th-century painters. Born in Atlantic City in 1918, Lawrence died at his adopted hometown of Seattle in 2000. He assisted the organizers of the show, the Phillips collection in Washington, D.C., but did not live to see the exhibition, which premiered at the Phillips earlier this year.
Lawrence's dynamic abstractions chronicled black working-class life, mostly in the urban North. Harlem was his true home, the place where his divorced mother would eke out a life for him and his two siblings, the place where he would be inspired to be an artist by after-school classes as early as junior high, the place where he would grow up physically and artistically.
Yet Jacob Lawrence first gained fame for "The Migration of the Negro," 60 small panels that told of blacks moving from the south to escape discrimination, leaving the land for better factory jobs. In preparation, he had done library research and lived several months in New Orleans while working on the series. But his own family had come north, and he had heard the stories of friends' migrations, too. All this was skillfully woven into a series of vignettes with text underneath each painting. Painting in series became an important working method for much of Lawrence's career.
Some commentators mention that he was not a Civil Rights protestor. I find plenty of protest sentiment in his work, it just never shouts. It's more effective, because Lawrence merely points and says, "Look! This is what life is really like," with such authority that the poverty or injustice is undeniable, as in his segregated Dixie Café from 1948.
Most of the time Lawrence relied on gouache and tempera. He tried oil, but quickly rejected it. He remained attached to the cheap, easily manipulable paints that he had used early in his life at an after-school art program in Harlem. Just as he remained attached to the scenes of black life, the inspiring and deplorable. He didn't flinch from recording it all.
Lawrence was at his most successful painting the back-breaking labor of blacks. He gave people performing simple tasks the dignity they deserved, whether they were laundry women, pool sharks, performers of every kind, typists or builders, the optimistic subject of his longest-running series. He was still working on the series when he died.
"Over the Line" remains at the Whitney through Feb. 3, 2002. From there, the show goes to the Detroit Institute of Arts (Feb. 24-May 19, 2002); the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (June 16-Sept. 8, 2002); and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Oct. 5-Jan.5, 2003).
In addition to the works at the Whitney, the D. C. Moore Gallery at 724 Fifth Avenue is having a mini-Jacob Lawrence retrospective of its own. The 27 works in "Jacob Lawrence: Paintings, Drawings and Prints from 1937-1998" are up through Jan. 26.
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Soho's Nancy Hoffman Gallery is presenting a "Winter Orchidarium." Already seen at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Oh., the show features works by eight contemporary artists who offer interpretations of the world's largest family of plants. The show includes drawings as well as paintings, photos, and glass works.
Bill Richards' graphite Impromptu, Number 10, Orchid may be only 3 ¾ by 4 ¼ inches, but it packs a very sexy wallop. Richards manages to give us an orchid's-eye view of its world. Its sensuality is effectively conveyed without color but solely through form and tonal variation.
Richards's restraint is cast aside in Carolyn Brady's Breakfast Table with Orchid and Beyond/Roland Park. At four by almost three feet, it's a huge watercolor. Trees and flowers abound -- outside the window is a forest, a table has floral ceramics that hold geraniums, a pot of orchids sits on a table, and branches are reflected in the glass table. Curved forms slither and dance around the entire composition.
Joseph Raffael's Orchids for Juan G is another watercolor whopper at 30 ½ by 68 ¼ inches. Here orchids appear center stage before another window with flowers and grass outside, while shadows of birdcages frame the stars of the show. The rising sun acts like a spotlight.
Going in for a close up, Gregory Ray Halili's Promise of Love paints a lover's entranced examination of an orchid. This watercolor is only 1 ½ by 1 inch and outrageously sexy.
Deborah Moore uses blown glass to fashion realistic orchids in vivid colors, while Michael Gregory paints oil portraits of a single bloom against a black background. David Bierk creates large oils à la Martin Johnson Heade's paintings of orchids. He comments on each original by changing the palette and paint-handling and adding text, such as the word "Memory," which is written across one work.
Mark Depman loaded digital photos of orchids into his computer. He then reshot them on his computer screen surrounded by diverse images scattered around his desk in a cibachrome print. The carefully balanced composition lets us read the importance of the orchids to the artist within the context of his life.
Additional works by these eight artists round out this beautiful theme show, on view through Jan. 16, 2002. Nancy Hoffman Gallery is located at 429 West Broadway.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.