I walked into Mitchell-Innes & Nash on a hot afternoon and encountered gallery director Jay Gorney, in a crisp white shirt, packing up a huge piece on the gallery floor. "Don't mind me, Charlie," Jay smiled, "I am just getting ready for Art Basel."
No more conversation was needed, when I stared at the lush and dignified paintings around me, new work from the 85-year-old British painter Leon Kossoff. The paintings emerge from the tight circle of Kossoff's immediate surroundings: his yard, his cherry tree, his friends and an elegant cathedral nearby. The three cathedral paintings are among the greatest I have ever seen, tipping the hat to Monet with the paint application of Cézanne, but nevertheless Kossoff's own. Leon is a master of the subtle shades of green necessary to reduce nature's gorgeous elements of decay to canvas. His brushstrokes have the thickness of Kokoschka, without their chaotic randomness, thickening at the edges of the picture plane, as if turning into life itself.
Kossoff's controlled figure studies, especially a heartbreaking painting of a couple bound down by a wheelchair, are almost Native-American morphologically, stoic faces defying time. Mixing in pinks and reds, with an added emphasis of umber, the subtleties of Kossoff's palette massage the eyes with warmth, the warmth of summer rot and mortal inevitability.
To see such work from the practiced hand of a noble, older man is humbling, putting the lie to the sensationalism of so much other art, a peaceful valley leading into the cave of acceptance which living compels: this is complete, satisfying painting of the highest order and not to be missed.
Leon Kossoff, May 5-June 18, 2011, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 534 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).