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by Michael Brennan
Sometimes today's 57th Street looks a lot like yesterday's 57th Street. In December, three galleries re-presented paintings by underappreciated abstract artists from the 1950s -- Color Field giant Morris Louis at Ameringer-Howard, the nearly forgotten Abstract Expressionist James Brooks at Joan Washburn, and the American Neo-Plasticist Burgoyne Diller at Michael Rosenfeld. Three of New York's finest -- painters and estates -- ready for reconsideration.
Dalet Kuf (1958) and Air Desired (1959) are two "Veil" tuck-and-fold beauties. Both loomed overhead like mushroom clouds, each glowing in soft umber undertones with primary colors nudging out at the edges. Twined Columns II (1960) is classic Louis -- two columns of entwined color lyrically framing a white central space. Number 1-81 (1961) and Fascicule (1961-62) are fine examples of the artist's later, most formal style. Both of these were cropped rather tightly around the central fruit-stripe image, almost suspiciously so. One can't help but wonder whether they were stretched posthumously by the artist's estate, which was once advised by the critic Clement Greenberg, who had a reputation for enhancing late artists' work.
The real beauty of "Major Themes" was Louis' Saf Gimel (1959), which hung from floor to ceiling in complete stained fury. This painting has the same sort of powerful visual overload and color meltdown as Jackson Pollock's famous Blue Poles. Louis has been so out of fashion for so long now that he's seems overdue for some serious reevaluation. Although he was bumped out of the line-up when Kirk Varnedoe rehung the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection several years ago, his work has reappeared in several group shows lately and it seems to be drawing attention once again.
According to Greenberg's formal history of New York painting, two "Washington School" painters -- Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland -- were profoundly influenced by Helen Frankenthaler's landmark painting Mountains and Sea (1952). Supposedly this particular painting, which Louis and Noland saw in Frankenthaler's studio -- she was a recent graduate of Bennington -- gave both older painters some badly needed technical insight, and they began soak-staining acrylic paint into the weave of their own unprimed canvases. I've never understood why Frankenthaler is credited with this breakthrough when the older Abstract-Expressionist painter James Brooks was publicly doing the same thing throughout the late '40s and early '50s.
Brooks originally exhibited works like these at the Peridot Gallery. He was a very well known painter in his day and was included in the famous photograph of "The Irascibles" as well as several important group shows at the Whitney, Guggenheim and MoMA. Surely Louis, who admired Pollock even more than Brooks did, must've seen Brooks' stained paintings in Manhattan sometime before 1952.
If Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie represents the jazz and electric dazzle of Times Square in its heyday like the neon-dancing films of photographer William Klein, then Diller's work recalls the stinging isolation of America typified by composer Aaron Copland in his famous Fanfare for the Common Man. First Theme, which was included in a show of Diller's collages at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, is the visual equivalent of this piece of music. In Theme a lone beam of yellow pierces an all-black field, hovering above a rock-steady block of red, white and blue, not unlike the trumpet soaring above the kettle drums in Copland's "Fanfare."
Diller made collages in advance of his meticulous paintings in order to sort out the harmonic balance of his rectangles in space beforehand. Many of the collages included in the Michael Rosenfeld show have tiny pinhole marks left over from Diller's having moved the paper around, trying to find the right spot each time. Most of the collages included here are basically maquettes for Diller's painting and his later, ultraclean, formica sculptures.
Christian Garnett, David Hunter
Garnett has reached a peak of modern maturity with this series. His show opened Jan. 14 and it is the inaugural exhibition of Dee Glasoe, the latest venture of the smart young gallerist Elizabeth Dee. Dee Glasoe is located at the former site of Debs & Co. at 529 West 20th St. -- the Chelsea cellblock known for its galleries without windows, air-conditioning and one painfully slow elevator. Unlike the Chelsea cellblock, Christian Garnett's abstract paintings contain plenty of light and air.
Another must see is David Hunter's new show, "Self Portraits," which opened at Danese on Jan 13. Hunter, whose last solo was at CRG nearly four years ago, presents several refined, reductive paintings and drawings. Hunter's sprayed finish and sharper-than-Ingres pencil lines freeze time exquisitely and emotionally, not unlike the films of the late French film-maker Robert Bresson. The surfaces of these serial paintings comes in a variety of off-white tones that range in value from very pale yellow to a very pale green. One of them has the same greenish, florescent hue that glows from a nearby Prada storefront.
Ross Neher's paintings of colored sfumato, installed with an eye to their architectural spacing at M-13/Howard Scott Gallery in SoHo, ingeniously use perspective to define a real space. Based on the actual plaza of an Italian palazzo, Neher's pictures conjure up a fog of color that is as rich as any Jupiter-disguised-as-raping-cloud by Correggio. These works are somewhat similar to the last paintings of the late sculptor David Von Schlegell.
David Mann's new paintings up in the third-floor contemporary gallery at James Graham & Sons on Madison Avenue are definitely made á la school of David Reed cum William Wood. Transparent white paint hazily smeared over a Payne's Gray ground is such a popular combination among abstract painters lately! Mann uses his squeegees with zest, however. His images are coarse, but not retouched like Reed's, and they come in more than one combination, unlike Wood's. The scalloped swirls of Mann's Prism look like an ant-lion's funnel sand trap, while the central figure is tear-dropped like a vulvular treble clef.
MICHAEL BRENNAN is a New York painter who writes on art.