My friend Debora Warner recently emailed me in anguish my recent negative take on her Leo Koenig show and I responded affectionately by further characterizing her new work as "ugly and esthetically derivative" in an email response. This awful vibe had the curious effect of subconsciously thrusting me into a walkabout through the land of bad painting.
For example, I innocently wandered into Alexander and Bonin for the gallery’s Paul Thek show, only to discover, that, late in his career and presumably quite ill, Thek had painted dozens of garish, purple cityscapes from his Third Street studio. Now, what makes bad painting bad is not just one painting but a roomful of them beating against your senses, and the late Theks, with their insistence on clichéd drawing and descending nauseates of purple glare, qualified.
Reeling, I proceed next door to Lori Bookstein Fine Art for the John Dubrow show. Dubrow is a darling of the New Criterion crowd, whose gang of observers have, collectively, never looked at a good painting, because they could not recognize one. Dubrow's technique is to slug together some clumsy Hans Hofmann gestures, with a touch of Larry Rivers on an off day, to render some poor subject into an earthen clod. However, the stated prices run up to $115,000, so there must be hope of landing a sucker somewhere.
For the baddest of the bad, however, it was necessary to return to Westchester (my home) and the Newington-Cropsey Foundation in Hasting-on-Hudson. This is the preservation of the Hudson River School painter Jasper Cropsey and the fellow finishing up the Cropsey catalogue raisonné gave me a tour. Did you know that the late Baron Thyssen (he of the museum in Spain) bought Cropseys by the truckload? (There are about 2,500 Cropsey oils outstanding, of which the Newington joint has about 200).
Cropsey is an inspiration to bad painters everywhere and my guide gleefully pointed out his flaws: a Barbizon style pastiche from which an English buyer desired to have the cows removed; an allegorical mess, in which a white cross tumbles off a rotting gargoyle; and tiny overcolored couples snoodlin’ on a bridge near the Hudson. My guide (thank you, Ken) explained that the Newington-Cropsey purchased only eccentric examples of Cropsey's work, pointing to a small canvas of three dead game birds, which Ken said past critics had derided as "the three dead chickens," because the foundation wishes to have an example from each of Cropsey's kaleidoscope of efforts.
Ever the magpie, there was no quickly applied slapdash of color, hackneyed beam of light nor dull pastorale that Cropsey refused to bring to marker. He made big money, in the tens of thousands of mid-19th century dollars, and the extant property, under a green railroad bridge with an idyllic duck pond, is perfect picnic spot. The inner chambers are also opulent, but because one can only arrive by appointment, hanging out is discouraged, probably a good thing for your scribe, on a bad streak of bad painting.
Paul Thek, "cityscapes and other ideas," Oct. 16-Nov. 27, 2010, at Alexander and Bonin, 132 Tenth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10011.
John Dubrow, "New Paintings," Sept. 15-Oct. 30, 2010, at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, 138 Tenth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10011.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).