Nell Blaine at Tibor de Nagy Gallery

Nell Blaine Red and Black 1945 oil on canvas, 23 x 20 inchesNell Blaine, Red and Black (1945), oil on canvas, 23″ x 20″; courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery

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In 1998, the Tibor de Nagy Gallery presented Will Barnet: The Abstract Work, an exhibition highlighting a little-seen group of pictures by a painter known primarily for figurative work. What made it an important show wasn’t only the exceptional character of Mr. Barnet’s accomplishment, but how that accomplishment made plain the narrow manner in which the history of postwar American painting and sculpture is typically recounted. What student of art couldn’t recite the domino-like succession of movements, counter-movements, semi-movements and pseudo-movements typifying that  narrative?

This boulder-like orthodoxy has met with erosion in recent years, not a little of which can be traced to extra-aesthetic prerogatives. Yet one can also attribute it to an audience–a minority audience, to be sure, but a tenacious one–that trusts its collective eye more than it does myth, “progress” and a boatload of obfuscatory rationales. And this is where Mr. Barnet’s abstract paintings, with their edgy and august resolve, enter the proverbial picture. Modestly, sternly and distinctively, they chipped an illuminating fissure into the standard line on American art.

How big that fissure will eventually become is up in the air. I consider the damage permanent, salutary and not finished by a long shot. To get an idea of just how rewarding that shot can be, New Yorkers have only to visit the exhibition Nell Blaine: The Abstract Work, currently at Tibor de Nagy. Taking the aforementioned Barnet show as its inspiration, the Blaine show comes as, if not a complete surprise, then a happy confirmation of what we know about the oeuvre of this particular artist.

Blaine spent almost all of her working life as a representational painter and is best known for her landscapes, interiors and still-lifes. (She died in 1996 at the age of 74.) During the 1940’s, she pursued a “concrete” art. Encouraged–“egged on” is probably closer to the truth–by painter friends like Leland Bell and Al Kresch, Blaine began painting abstractly while in her early 20’s.

Knowing this, one might be tempted to dismiss the canvases as youthful enthusiasms. All developing artists do their share of dabbling-trying this, trying that, bolting down alleys that are only later discovered to be blind. The pictures we see at Tibor de Nagy, however, aren’t dead ends or false starts.  They’re the work of a painter whose intensity and focus were beyond the ken of most artists working at that age-or, for that matter, any age.

Blaine was 19 years old when she left Richmond, Va., came to New York and entered Hans Hofmann’s Eighth Street school. Looking at the looping, upended exuberance of Composition (“The Duck”) (1943), the canvas Blaine considered her first “real” painting, one sees that she received Hofmann’s lessons hungrily, quickly and thoroughly. Although there are other paintings in The Abstract Work that openly declare their ancestry, none of them have the Hofmannesque brio of The Duck.

Which isn’t to say that the abstractions don’t have their own quizzical pizzazz. Each of Blaine’s flat, crisp and sign-like canvases is brought to fruition according to its own idiosyncratic character. Their spare iconography, which can evoke both the biological and the industrial, has an intriguing, inside-out dynamic. Forms and spaces grow within one another but remain fragmented, independent. However exactingly shaped and forthrightly presented, Blaine’s shapes take contrarian pride in their hard-won anonymity. They can be seen floating free, unencumbered by anything so mundane as gravity; at other times, they engage in a droll game of peek-a-boo within ominous, labyrinthine hollows.

One observer, writing on the occasion of Blaine’s first one-woman show in 1945, likened the paintings to “pieces of crossword puzzles.” That’s not a bad analogy, implying, as it does, connections, overlappings and continuities dependent on a host of specific clues. Blaine’s clues, however, thwart resolution-or, rather, the resolution they intimate is engagingly (and forever) elusive.

Blaine took, freely and fondly, any number of precedents as inspiration. The paper cut-outs of Henri Matisse, the playful biomorphism of Hans Arp and the steely orchestrations of form typical of the abstract work of Jean Hélion are all wrapped up and ready to go, for instance, in the whimsical Blue Pieces (1944). The blunt black line that states its case in several of the canvases–most memorably in Open and Enclosed (1945), arguably the exhibition’s masterpiece–combines the robust muscularity of Fernand Léger with the proprietary determination of Mondrian.

The artist’s nobbly, pointed rhythms are not-so-distant cousins of those found in the herky-jerky abstractions of Stuart Davis, and her gnarled, intertwining forms recall the nature-based imagery of Arthur Dove. There’s an involving, headlong freedom to Blaine’s aesthetic heterodoxy. Employing a vocabulary of plastic purity, she sought not its ultimate distillation, but locations unknown. This amalgam of faith, practicality and dogged curiosity makes Blaine a very American artist.

Toward the end of his catalog essay, Stephen Westfall, who’s no mean abstract painter himself, writes of Blaine’s eventual turn to representation. “Ah, well,” he exclaims wistfully, “… only an ideologue could begrudge her the direction she took.” Mr. Westfall’s despondency is understandable. I, too, prefer the abstractions to the later work: There’s a snap to them that the representational pictures can’t match. Having said that, what the abstractions lack–not sorely, but noticeably–is the celebratory fullness Blaine brought to bear on, say, the depiction of breakfast dishes and lilies on a pink table cloth. These are, of course, distinctions only hindsight can afford, and to conjecture about where Blaine might have gone with the abstractions is to engage in a fun but fruitless game.

In the meantime, we have a terrific batch of pictures. “The canvas,” Blaine wrote in 1946, “with its own life and interests and its otherworldliness carries me with it, making strange and unequivocal demands.” The abstract work invigorates in that it carries us away no less unequivocally than it did the artist.

© 2001 Mario Naves

A version of this article was originally published in the February 18, 2001 edition of The New York Observer.

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