Summer gallery shows typically have a little bit of everything, but at D. Wigmore Fine Art in the Crown Building at 730 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street in Manhattan, the tension between competing artistic styles -- and philosophies -- has been ratcheted up a notch.
"Competing Ideologies: American Works on Paper from the 1930s-1940s" takes a look at the divide between naturalism -- both by artists devoted to the American Scene and to Social Realism, and abstraction -- both by spiritually oriented artists and Formalists.
The rivalry between naturalism and abstraction seems almost quaint in a time where anything goes, the grittier and sexier the better. But during the ‘30s and ‘40s, a time of economic depression and then war, ideology in art was another venue in which the country’s direction was intensely debated. A lot was on the line for everyone. The work was inherently polemical. Today’s political art often seems to attack the viewer. At Wigmore, the long lens of history allows the various approaches to politics to come across with a lot less angst.
A predominant artistic development in the 1930s was, of course, the spirit of social protest and national pride expressed through the Mexican mural movement, pioneered by Diego Rivera, José Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Their work was well known in this country, and they created many murals here.
The Mexican-born Rivera spent much of the ‘30s in the U.S., and had an immense effect on American art and artists. Rivera’s ink drawing of a Man with a Pickax from 1930 is hung near a similar ink and gouache of Vegetable Pickers by William Gropper, an American leftist cartoonist and labor sympathizer who produced many murals of his own.
A couple of Ben Shahn’s pro-labor drawings, works that probably were designs for posters, and several mural studies round out an impressive selection of social protest art. Even better are works by a couple of lesser-known artists of the American Scene, who both did murals for the WPA.
James B. Turnbull spent time as a correspondent for Life magazine during WWII. His 1944 gouache, Troop Ship Deck, tightly crops the image of a ship and its cargo to show how cramped the vessel was, yet its central figure of a sailor, lost in thought, shows how isolating the environment could be. Turnbull’s Coal Miner Locker Room (1941) offers a fresh compositional slant on what could have been a hackneyed subject.
Daniel Ralph Celentano was a pupil of the noted American Scene painter Thomas Hart Benton, whom he assisted on several mural projects. His watercolors in the show picture Grumman Aircraft plants in Bethpage, Long Island, where he executed a mural, now in the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island. I haven’t seen it, but would like to, based on his closely observed drawings of men at work in airplane hangers.
American Scene works aren’t confined to the East. The southwest appears in Peter Hurd’s stark The Watering Hole, New Mexico (n.d.). New Mexico was also the birthplace of Emil Bistram’s Taos School of Art, producing realist works chronicling Native Americans and depicting the unique landscape of Taos. Bistram studied with Diego Rivera before establishing his successful school.
Bistram’s drawings in "Competing Ideologies" are abstract, however. By the late ‘30s, he was experimenting with Kandinsky-like nonobjective painting and co-founded the abstract Transcendental Painting Group in Santa Fe in 1938. During WWII, he was creating at least one drawing a day, like his encaustic Rhythmic Rectangles on a Blue Ground (1944). It’s worth remembering that Rivera himself was a Cubist in Paris before his return to Mexico, so artistic allegiances did shift around in this period.
Perhaps the strongest geometric abstraction in "Competing Ideologies" is Rolph Scarlett’s Nuances in Gray and Beige. Enjoying the support of Hilda Rebay and the Guggenheim family, Scarlett usually has a work or two in the Gugg’s shows of abstract art. His thin, precise lines, subtle deployment of neutral shades, and his restrained use of airbrushing add up to a delicate and elegant work.
For exuberant color, Carl Holty’s de-Kooning-esque Untitled gouache from 1944 with its hint of a kneeling figure stands out in an exhibition that supplies plenty of pleasure for all its competition.
"Competing Ideologies: American Works on Paper from the 1930s-1940s," June 25-Sept. 12, 2008, at D. Wigmore Fine Art, 730 Fifth Avenue, Suite 602, New York, N.Y. 10019
This important survey of Guston’s drawings encompasses works from the late 1940s to the year of his death, a period when he moved from abstraction and to figuration. The exhibition’s curators also stress Guston’s enchantment with European art, especially Italian Renaissance frescoes and paintings, which Guston did cherish and study closely all his life.
Philip Guston made a lot of drawings. Unfortunately, the curators of this otherwise well-selected and must-see exhibition have deliberately chosen to exclude Guston’s earliest work, when he more overtly addressed social issues.
Guston drew from the time he was 12 and was an avid cartoonist (suggesting that his Nixon satires from 1975 aren’t sui generis). While still a teenager, Guston learned about European art and drew his first Klan-like hooded figure, a motif that appears in his early as well as his late work.
Guston also watched Orozco paint murals in Los Angeles in his late teens, met Siqueiros who was painting a mural in Los Angeles, and went to Mexico and painted a mural there with friends (Diego Rivera helped get them a wall in Maximilian’s summer palace in Morelia).
Guston created a portable mural in L.A. that showed the Klan’s involvement with the Scottsboro case. The Klan vandalized it in 1933, after which Klan-like figures appeared in his work again. He was also in the mural division of the WPA after his move to New York in the mid-‘30s to 1940. Murals? Frescoes? To ignore these forces by not including Guston’s early work does not give a complete picture of an artist who was profoundly interested in and troubled by social issues.
When Guston showed his representational work for the first time in 1970, a howl of protest went up from his erstwhile fellow abstractionists. This proves that it may have been easier to change one’s artistic slant in the 1930s than in the 1960s and shortly thereafter.
Still, stylistic battles are commonplace in avant-garde art, as Guston and several of his fellow artists showed in the 1960s, when they left their longtime gallery, Sidney Janis, when he dared to show Pop Art.
The Morgan is the only U.S. venue for "Philip Guston: Works on Paper," which was organized by the Kunstmuseum in Bonn and the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich. The show has been seen at both museums and at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark and the Albertina in Vienna. It’s on view at the Morgan until August 31, 2008.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.