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    Uptown Rounds
by Robert Mahoney
Tom Wesselmann
Blue Nude #14
Tom Wesselmann
Blue Nude #6
Frank Stella
To Professor Friedrich Schutz, Berlin, April 26, 1811
Frank Stella
Theater Criticism: Iffland
Ray Parker
Ray Parker
Kate, For Your Birthday
Bill Viola
Quintet of Remembrance
Bill Viola
R.B. Kitaj
Dreyfus (after Méliès)
1996 - 2000
The Alpha males are lording it over 57th street this month: Frank Stella, Tom Wesselmann, R.B. Kitaj and Bill Viola (not to mention Donald Judd) are all in good form, all of them established but still asking questions. The biggest surprise is Tom Wesselmann, who is having his first solo show … at Joseph Helman Gallery. Helman and Wesselmann have known each other for 40 years, but through most of that time Wesselmann was ensconced at Sidney Janis Gallery further over on 57th Street.

While Helman showed Wesselmann in California in the late 1980s, and also included him in any number of group shows in New York, it was only after the Janis gallery closed that the artist approached the dealer for a show and the two long-time friends could work together. "He approached me with this great body of work," Helman remarked over the phone, "and, of course, I said 'let's do it'."

Wesselmann's "Blue Nudes," inspired by Matisse's late cutouts, are nicely-sized flat aluminum cutouts of nude women, mounted on the wall. All of them are painted over in an eye-popping shade of Viagra blue, perhaps subtly reminding us that art historical "nudes" can be sexy, too. Wesselmann's straight-out love of groovy girls has always been more mojo than po-mo, anyways.

The best thing about these works is the negative space -- a cut-out leg here, an excised bottom there, leaving wall space that makes the works float on the eye with a playful elegance. Tom Wesselmann is on view at Joseph Helman Gallery, 20 West 57th Streetn, through Dec. 9, 2000.

Stella in love?
When I first heard about Frank Stella's "Love Letters and Correspondence," dreams of confessional works on paper danced in my head. But this exhibition, on view at Barbara Mathes, features not letters but small wall sculptures inspired by letters written by the German romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist.

Von Kleist wrote torchy love letters to a certain Wilhelmine, but never consummated his passion for her. Worse, his writing career was a washout, so he committed suicide in 1811. A viewer might well wonder how the thin-skinned moodiness of a romantic poet inspired the thick-skinned and definitely consummated vigor of sculptor Frank Stella -- Stella citing Von Kleist's "direct and forceful" writing seems to miss the point -- but, no matter, you, the non-Von Kleistians of the world, can just stop by to see some great little Stellas.

With found metal objects, bits of mesh, latticework, coils, "cast smoke rings" and wire cages all squished together, the operative idea seems to be "the smaller the piece the better" -- perhaps because one imagines them as phantom letters passionately writing of love in the air. Theatre Criticism, Iffland, with its orange flank and towering forms, To Wilhemine Von Zenge, with its intricate coils and green spirals, and To Professor Friedrich Shutz, Berlin, April 26, 1811, with its sprayed blue, all show real moments of delicacy and feeling.

Next spring, Stella will exhibit these same works in Jena and Düsseldorf alongside archival Von Kleist letters -- a good idea. "Frank Stella: Love Letters and Correspondence" is up at Mathes, 41 East 57th Street, through Dec. 22.

Struggle on
Are you are struggling artist glaring (right now) at what you think is a great body of work that will not get out of your studio for the world to see? If so, you might take heart from Ray Parker's "Simple Paintings" at Joan T. Washburn Gallery. Parker, who was primarily known for smaller works, did the large-scale "Simple Paintings" between 1958 and 1965, but could not move them out of his studio.

When this long-time art instructor at Hunter College died in 1990, his estate passed to Washburn, which has staged a few shows of his smaller work since. But this is the first time ever that Parker's "Simple Paintings" have been shown -- part of something, then, that catalogue essayist William C. Agee calls "lost treasures" from the "hidden history of painting in the later 1950s."

The "Simple" paintings are -- really simple. Big, flat but painterly blobs of paint -- two or three at most -- inhabit blank canvas. Expressionistic in touch, but with a Color Field formality, the works could easily fall between the cracks of art history. Still, they look and feel strong.

The nice, greeting-card-type titles reinforce the unpretentious and intimate pleasures of these works -- Thanksgiving (1960), a Stonehenge of purple and blue rollerings of paint; Kate, for Your Birthday, with a red oval touching a maroon one; and Love, Denise, Glad you like it (1960). The best work here is Untitled (triptych) (1963), three separate panels, each framing a simple roll-on of red, darker red and blue paint, with a poster-boy bluntness. Ray Parker, "The Simple Paintings," is up at Joan T. Washburn, 20 West 57th Street, through Nov. 25.

Medieval video
While visiting the Getty Trust in Los Angeles on a fellowship recently, noted video master Bill Viola found himself spooked by the realism of paintings in the Medieval and Early Renaissance gallery. He got to thinking: how would that finely etched super-real portrait thing play in his medium, video?

You get the answer to that question in this curious exhibition at James Cohan. Enter a dark gallery and there are what appear to be a number of realist portraits in light boxes, all closely framed in the Photo-Realist mode. But you quickly see that the "pictures" are in fact videos displayed on flat panel screens (the artist toy of the moment, apparently, since Jason Rhoades makes good use of them at David Zwirner in SoHo this month too).

The portraits -- like something in a haunted house (I imagine these will go over great, tipsily spied at during lulls in dinner party chatter) -- move, and move very, very slowly. Anima (2000) consists of three separately screened portraits, each a one-minute video stretched out to 82 minutes long. Union (2000) is a bit more lively, showing a male and a female, naked from the waist up, emotionally gesturing, also in slow-mo (one minute stretched to eight minutes).

Quintet of Remembrance is a more conventional video projection, but shows a whole family group in a Caravaggio-type pose, likewise done in super slow-mo. I don't know if these odd pieces confirm a suspicion I've had that video and painting are merging for a period of new realism, or they simply take Viola's mastery of video time into the Guiness Book of World Records. At any rate, they are something to see.

Ascension, in the back room, also a video projection, is more typical of Viola's esthetic. A simple event happens, then you watch the return to stasis. Here, a clothed man jumps, with a thunderous noise, into water, and then you get to watch the splash slowly resolve itself. Most of the works come in edition of five, or three, and you buy the video, the DVD player and the setup. Prices upon request. The show is on view through Nov 25.

100 pictures and more
R.B. Kitaj lived in London for so long, from after he left the army in 1958 to when he returned to Los Angeles in 1997, that I half consider him, in my mental database of thousands of artists names, a Brit. In fact he was born in Cleveland, Oh., and besides, it is obvious from his work that his identity is still up in the air, even in his own mind, though being Jewish is a big part of it.

In his current show at Marlborough, "How to Reach 67 in Jewish Art: 100 Pictures," the how is answered with one big piece of advice -- work, work all the time, paint, draw, collage, whatever every day, every hour of every day. At first I was overwhelmed with the unedited onslaught of this exhibition, but once I began to pick and choose, as in a flea market, I found my pace. Oddly enough, as Kitaj's paintings, with their strange combination of planes and colors, have always been rather jarring to me, the drawings took over.

Over 40 charcoal and pastel drawings on large paper are included: and they constitute a book of Job, a chronicle of self-doubt and self-discovery that is quite thrilling. In his drawings, Kitaj's imagination runs free, without being concerned with painterly issues. Haircut (Sandra and Me) (1997) captures emotion through faces alone, as his wife gives the artist a haircut.

Other works, like Self Portrait (Last of England), with eyebrows fashioned from the binding of Ernest Hemingway's Men without Women, are incredible poems of self-examination. And some nice erotica is included from an earlier, randier time, like the humorous but smokily sexy Communist and Socialist (Foreplay) (1975). The show is on view through Dec. 2.

Also: Don't miss Jaume Plensa's Twin Shadows but especially the installation Full Contact, of a wooden floor, accompanied by an audio of porn movie sex sighs, at Lelong Gallery through Dec. 22, and Susan Hartnett's intense small charcoal drawings of marsh and dune grasses (along with larger, tamer, color pastels), (catalogue by Dore Ashton) at Danese, through Nov. 25.

ROBERT MAHONEY is a New York art critic.