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William Merritt Chase
ca. 1885-86
The Clark Collection
at Vance Jordan Fine Art, New York

Abbott Handerson Thayer
Portrait of Bessie Price
The Clark Collection
at Vance Jordan Fine Art, New York

J. Alden Weir
The Grey Trellis
The Clark Collection
at Vance Jordan Fine Art, New York

Joseph Stella
Head of an Old Man
ca. 1905
The Liebes Collection
at Vance Jordan Fine Art, New York
America's Esthetic Moderns
by N. F. Karlins

To honor his gallery's 25th anniversary, Vance Jordan has organized a great show of turn-of-the-century American paintings and drawings. They come from two California private collections that he helped to form.

Charles Liebes and the late Gail Liebes of Los Angeles and Libby and Bill Clark of Hanford had both collected Japanese art before focusing on poetic, Japanese-print-inspired pieces by American artists. An emphasis on flat pattern and design, shallow space and a sense of refinement permeate almost all the works here. All these traits can be found along with an exquisite sensitivity to tonal variation in William Merritt Chase's pastel Meditation (ca. 1885-86), a portrait of his young bride from the Clark Collection.

Works by the same four artists that Charles L. Freer (whose collection is the basis of the Smithsonian Institution's East Asian holdings) amassed in depth -- James A. MacNeill Whistler, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Dwight William Tryon and Abbott H. Thayer -- can be found in the Clark Collection.

One of the Clark Collection's most impressive paintings is Thayer's Portrait of Bessie Price from 1897. Thayer loved and idealized women to the point of turning them into angels. Bessie Price has been spared the wings he often attached to his female sitters. A real physical presence even as she represents womanhood in general, Bessie boldly stares outside the picture frame invading the viewer's space. Limned in deliciously thick strokes of paint, this personification of femininity has been sensuously embraced, at least in oil.

Thayer uses a slashing brush for his View of Mount Monadnock. This canvas is filled with emotion. The bottom half looks ahead to early modernism and backward to Zen brush drawings.

Another landscape in the Clark Collection, J. Alden Weir's The Grey Trellis from the 1890s, echoes Japanese art in its composition, yet its brushwork makes it an outstanding example of American Impressionism. It is exhilarating to see how works radically different in feeling can still share so much.

The Liebes Collection is rich in excellent Whistlers, containing four lovely drawings, each different, and a late oil portrait of a little girl. A personal favorite is his ink and watercolor Green and Brown -- Ajaccio (ca. 1901). A doorway frames three men in an interior, yet a tree interrupts the frame's symmetry. The design and its execution are very subtle and feel essential.

The Liebes' John Singer Sargent oil of two fellow artists, Francois Flaming and Paul Helleu (ca. 1880), is a virtuoso production, especially considering the artist was only in his 20s at the time.

The odd man out in this show is the Liebes' Head of an Old Man by Joseph Stella in charcoal and chalk from around 1905. It immediately brings to mind the great German Realist Adolph Menzel. It's such a great image and a treat to see, Japanese-inspired or not.

"The Liebes Collection and the Clark Collection" is on view through Dec. 7, 2001, at Vance Jordan Fine Art, 958 Madison Avenue in Manhattan.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.