Recently Roberta Smith penned a "Critic's Notebook" for the New York Times about discovering an odd Fauvist-style painting from 1954 in the back room of George Adams Gallery in Chelsea, called Beach Scene, of a naked woman sleeping on the shore near the prow of a boat. Dealer Adams then put Roberta through "20 Questions," challenging her to identify the artist, with the esteemed critic throwing out names from Milton Avery to Roger Brown (ID'ing art on the walls is to art critics what calling pitches is to an umpire). Turns out that the subdued yet erotic painting is an early work by freaky-deaky sculptor H.C. Westermann, with Roberta meticulously walking us through the clues to its creator in her piece.
Always willing to celebrate the virtues of a single look in these days of Fairennials, I found myself at M. Sutherland Fine Arts on East 80th Street in Manhattan, munching on a dumpling during an Asia Week bash, in the back room, when a gorgeous Beijing scene opened up before me. It depicts a winning prospect towards the open road of eventual liberty in the Middle Kingdom. Dealer Sutherland admonished me not to radicalize this 2000 painting, Zhang Jian's Chang'an Street, priced at $50,000, although she did comment that the boulevard is now "loaded with cars," where the picture once was a pastoral tribute to an era when everyone in Beijing travelled by bicycle.
An ex-CIA hand, Ms. Sutherland speaks fluent Mandarin and has cultivated Mr. Zhang particularly through a series of swimming and bicycling scenes whose style she compares to Childe Hassam. "Zhang survived Tiananmen, Charlie, and he just wants to be left alone to paint." Well, stuffed by materialism in the art worlds East and West, I guess I am still at liberty to look at one painting, just as Roberta Smith can gaze at a mystery woman in a mystery Westermann.
The day that a painting ceases to be a dream in a window in a mirror, and becomes merely an object, will be a dark day indeed.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).