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    Painter's Journal
by Michael Brennan
 
     
 
Morris Louis
Saf Gimel
1959
at Ameringer-Howard
 
James Brooks
M51
1951
at Joan Washburn
 
Burgoyne Diller
First Theme
ca. 1963
at Michael Rosenfeld
 
Christian Garnett
installation view at Dee Gladsoe
 
David Hunter
Study for Self-portrait #53
1998
at Danese
 
Ross Neher
Oseola IV
1999
at M-13/Howard Scott
 
David Mann
Prism
1999
at James Graham & Sons
 
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.

Morris Louis
"Morris Louis: Major Themes" at Ameringer-Howard Fine Art was the Color Field painter's first major one person show in the last five years. This exhibition included eight paintings, covering Louis' entire career, with samplings from his "Veil," "Floral," "Unfurled" and "Stripe" series.

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.

James Brooks
"James Brooks, c. 1950" was the title of a recent show at Joan Washburn's skylit gallery space. Brooks, who once shared a studio with Jackson Pollock on St. Mark's Place and later lived nearby in East Hampton, really seemed to peak around 1950. This exhibition contains many fine examples from Brooks' best period, including No. 41 (1949), which was soak-stained with paint on both sides of the unprimed canvas. M-51 (1951) and No. 42 (1950), with their lumbering swatches of black, rank among some of the painter's strongest and most mysterious masterpieces. Other examples in public collections include R-1953 (coll. Chase Manhattan Bank) and Rodado (1961, coll. Brandeis University).

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.

Burgoyne Diller
Burgoyne Diller, although he was an American Neo-Plasticist who worked in a style derivative of Mondrian's, had a WPA soul, and his paintings are as downcast and alcohol-soaked as any Abstract Expressionist's. Diller's mature abstract paintings are predominantly composed of squares and rectangles done in primary colors -- but his work manages to be darker in content than even the lone-blue-square paintings Mondrian painted in London during the Blitz.

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
One notable new exhibition for the New Year is Christian Garnett's show of paintings of plasmic white light set against high chroma grounds of lapidary blue. These untitled paintings recall the white heavenly light as it was rendered in the technologically superb, animated film The Prince of Egypt. Although the honeycombed aluminum panels Garnett paints on have been milled down to the millimeter, they appear bent like cylinders by optical illusion. The image pushes forward out of the picture like the Cubism of Fernand Leger. The sheer radiance of Garnett's paintings is mind-bending -- they're spinning in space like analog pulsars.

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.

Also seen:
A prelude of things to come at Stark Gallery on West 25th Street is on view in Eric Stark's back room at his newish Chelsea space: a super sized diptych by Nancy Haynes inspired by the principles of heat transfer and memory. It was like Maxwell's Demon (the physicist's parable of invisible heat and entropy) strikingly rendered in silver and coral orange.

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.