Gallery Round-Up: Judith Rothschild, Norman Lewis, Andrew Wyeth and Aleksandr Rodchenko

Judith Rothschild, UntitledJudith Rothschild, Untitled (1946-47), casein on board, 7-1/2″ x 8″; courtesy Knoedler & Company

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The retrospective of paintings by Pierre Bonnard at the Museum of Modern Art is an event of such magnitude that it is nearly pointless to discuss other exhibitions concurrently on view in New York. An exaggeration? Yes, but just a bit. Pierre Bonnard not only confirms Bonnard’s eminence, but it also amplifies it in a way that changes the shape of art in this century. (Did someone at the Times say that he was the equal of Picasso and Matisse? If so, they weren’t kidding.) There are, of course, other shows around the city, and if none of the four discussed below offers delights on a scale with those of the French master, they do have their pleasures—and, in one case, annoyances. Three of the exhibitions seek to expand our view of art history and end up affirming the legitimacy of the established view. The fourth—Aleksandr Rodchenko, also at MOMA—presents a no-nonsense genius in a manner that elucidates our understanding of the modernist epoch. Few artists approach the sublimity that we see in the final galleries of Pierre Bonnard. But to deny those who achieve something authentic, if on a more modest scale, is to miss out on a richness that is part of art’s lifeblood.

Judith Rothschild: An Artist’s Search— at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until September 6—consists of only thirty-one paintings, but it isn’t skimpy. It’s the kind of prudently gauged retrospective we should wish upon those artists who may not be masters, but are, in the end, worthy of our consideration. Judith Rothschild (1921– 1993) was certainly that, a painter with a good eye and a genuine gift. A student of Hans Hofmann and, informally, Karl Knaths, Rothschild maintained a restless curiosity in her work. The exhibition documents her struggle between, as a wall label has it, “the cool rationality of nonobjective painting and a warmer, more ‘humanistic’ kind of abstraction.” Mondrian, who epitomized the former for Rothschild, was an artist about whom she often expressed ambivalence—in 1949 she wrote that his was a “case of the Emperor’s new clothes.” Yet the Dutch master’s influence is unmistakable in the first painting we see upon entering the exhibit, the terrific Grey Tangent (1945). Rothschild mutates Mondrian’s grid into a disarming arrangement of loops and squiggles. Melding de Stijl purity with a cartoon Cubism, Grey Tangent is startlingly fresh, a minor masterpiece of mid-century abstraction.

The paintings that follow Grey Tangent are nowhere near as assured. As we follow her artistic evolution, we see Rothschild see-sawing between conflicting currents and puzzling through them. The depth of her pursuit is obvious, and, if the resulting paintings are often half-baked, they are never half-hearted. Rothschild’s mature work came in the early Seventies, when she began making relief collages. Cut and parceled shapes, at once figures and flora, are juxtaposed against broad areas of color. The chief material used in the collages is foamcore, a strange choice given the nature of Rothschild’s imagery; foamcore’s stiffness runs contrary to the sinuousness (and sensuality) of her forms. As relief sculpture, the collages are curiously unformed as well. Too often, Rothschild’s cut-outs rest on, rather than engage, their support. The works are commendable, but unrealized—they’re about, oh, 75 percent of the way there. We leave them thinking more of their antecedents—Matisse and Arp, in particular—than of the artist herself. Still, a few works from the Gothic Series of the early Nineties are smoldering and luxuriant; they make for a dandy, decorative finale. I can’t imagine any serious student of art not being interested, and even moved, by Rothschild’s search.

Norman Lewis, Untitled (1960), oil on paper, 20″ x 26″; courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

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The painter Norman Lewis (1909–1979) was a colleague of The New York School painters and, like many of his contemporaries, politically active in a variety of causes. The exhibition Norman Lewis: Black Paintings 1946–1977—on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem until September 20—focuses, as the title suggests, on one aspect of his work. For Lewis the challenge inherent in black was “using it in such a way as to arouse other colors.” While curators Ann Eden Gibson and Jorge Daniel Veneciano consider his paintings in formal terms, they are just as inclined to relate the color of the canvases to the color of the artist’s skin, a tack antithetical to Lewis’s art. Lewis was adamant that his paintings be “inherently aesthetic,” that their “excellence … be the most effective blow against stereotype.” The curators, however, have few qualms about reinstating such stereotypes. Indeed, Gibson writes that Lewis suffered from “conscious repression” in refuting political undercurrents in the paintings. Admittedly, a title like Klu Klux suggests just such an undercurrent, and it is not unreasonable to assume that Lewis’s commitment to civil rights should, to an extent anyway, inform his vision as an artist. But to cast him as a political—or, as the catalogue has it, a “post-colonial”—artist is to ignore the art and demean the artist. There’s a difference between a political artist and an artist who is politically engaged outside of the studio. This is a distinction many artists live with every day, and it’s one the curators can’t fathom without resorting to armchair psychology.

Lewis’s strongest work dates from the late Forties and early Fifties, not coincidentally the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. The heady climate of the era undoubtedly inspired Lewis as a painter, as did the comradeship and competition provided by friends like Ad Reinhardt. The work is typical of the time: equal parts automatism, primitivism, Kandinsky, Klee, and the requisite Cubist underpinnings. Certainly, it is the only time in Lewis’s work where the color black has any presence as such. In paintings like Orpheus (1953) and Every Atom Glows: Electrons in Luminous Vibration (1951), Lewis imbues scumbled areas of black with a hazy, otherworldly glow. Biomorphic forms, recalling calligraphy or vegetation, slip in and out of a liquid space that is ominous and distinctly Surrealist. The paintings are handsome, if not first-rate—they’re rarely as strong as they want to be. (The Studio Museum inadvertently accentuates the point by placing, in an introductory gallery, a Lewis canvas between a prime de Kooning and a stronger-than-usual Pollock.) Lewis’s paintings are an honorable addendum to the legacy of the New York School. They are unlikely, however, to overturn anyone’s idea of the Ab-Ex canon.

Andrew Wyeth, Winter Fields, 1942  77.91Andrew Wyeth, Winter Fields (1942), tempera on canvas, 17-1/4″ x 41″; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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Has there ever been an exhibition of art with as immense a chip on its shoulder as Unknown Terrain: The Landscapes of Andrew Wyeth at the Whitney Museum of American Art this past summer? The catalogue begins with a litany of critical complaints against Wyeth’s art, complaints which the curators naturally seek to refute. Wyeth doesn’t need the help, really. He’s an immensely popular artist, so much so, in fact, that the Times sardonically tagged his devotees a “cult.” Seen piecemeal, Wyeth’s evocations of the American landscape aren’t without interest. His oblique perspectives, spatial distortions, and abruptly cropped compositions are smart and effective. I found myself taken with the almost familial dynamism that occurs between a boulder and a tree in Far from Needham (1966). But Wyeth brings no joy to the act of painting. Instead, his meticulous (and vaunted) technique makes it seem a chore. Is it this laboriousness which his admirers prize as being quintessentially American? Let’s hope there is more to our national image than such bouts of dreary nostalgia. In Wyeth’s hands, the art of painting is indistinguishable from taxidermy.

The “unknown terrain” of the title refers primarily to Wyeth’s watercolors, which haven’t been widely exhibited and which comprise the majority of pieces at the Whitney. Unlike the each-and-every-blade-of-grass particularity of his tempera paintings, the watercolors are characterized by washy areas of brushwork, drips, splashes, spatters, and even the stray footprint. In the catalogue, the curators Adam D. Weinberg and Beth Venn aren’t averse to likening Wyeth’s watercolors to those of John Marin, Charles Burchfeld, and the New York School or to categorizing some as “expressionist realism.” What bunk! Wyeth’s watercolors are sheer professionalism. He transforms the intuitive gift of Winslow Homer into a glib approximation of mastery. That Wyeth is self-consciously arty can be gleaned from Untitled (Tenant Farmer Study) (1961). About three-quarters of the way up the paper, in what appears to be ball-point pen, is a line and the words “frame on this line.” Now, this piece is in the collection of the artist and his wife. So why wasn’t the damned thing framed on that line? It’s a bit of willed showmanship. This isn’t painting; it’s pandering. In his own dour way, Andrew Wyeth is as slick and off-putting as Jeff Koons.

Aleksandr Rodchenko. Non-Objective Painting no. 80 (Black on Black). 1918Aleksandr Rodchenko, Non-Objective Painting No. 80 (Black on Black), oil on canvas, 32-1/4″ x 31-1/4″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Gallery-goers who’ve become inured to the specialization of contemporary art are likely to find themselves bewildered by Aleksandr Rodchenko, on view at MOMA until October 6—the first U.S. retrospective of the pioneering Russian modernist (1891–1956). The exhibition documents Rodchenko’s impressive achievements in painting, printmaking, sculpture, collage, furniture design, graphic design, and photography. What is exhilarating about the exhibition is not just Rodchenko’s proficiency in leapfrogging from medium to medium, but his intensity and drive. In 1916, only a year after arriving in Moscow from the province of Kazan, the ambitious young artist staked his claim as a pivotal member of the Russian avant-garde. Six years later, with the monochromatic canvases Pure Red Color, Pure Blue Color, and Pure Yellow Color (all 1921), Rodchenko announced that he had “reduced painting to its logical conclusion. … it’s all over.” He subsequently put his talents in service of the Revolution, and Rodchenko’s edgy futurism is palpable. It’s also dated—one might add, cruelly so. Rodchenko is, ultimately, less an exhibition of art than a compendium of artifacts. This isn’t, however, a malediction. The show is a valuable contribution to our understanding of one of the most curious chapters in the history of twentieth-century art.

Rodchenko was a brilliant, if clinical, artist—a mechanic of aesthetics. Influenced by Malevich and Tatlin, Rodchenko created an art of impersonality and absolutes. Yet if the work is short on soul, it is always impeccably conceived. His taut abstractions, punchy graphics, and feeble Dadaist collages (what is Dada without vitriol?) make plain the engineered aspect of his art. Some of Rodchenko’s work in the applied arts— his jittery, rhythmic kiosk studies, for example, or the suprematist buffoonery of his bookmarks—divulge a terse sense of humor. The only time the work comes alive as art, however, is with the artist’s photographs. With their zooming diagonals and bird’s-eye-views, the photographs are impossibly energized; they demand our attention. The photos share the formal severity of the paintings, but without their rarefied asceticism. They have the scope we expect from great art. Perhaps Rodchenko’s contact with the world of observed events, as opposed to that of utopian ideals, grounded and inspired him. Or, perhaps, two negatives—mechanical medium and mechanical visionary—made for a positive. Whatever the case, Rodchenko’s photographs are exhilarating. They capture the rush of early modernism in a way that is still heart-stopping.

The paradox of Rodchenko’s photographs is that they were no less committed to the revolution than the rest of his work; often times it was outright propaganda. Even so, his work met with increasing disapproval as “bourgeois formalism,” and Rodchenko eventually found himself shunted to the sidelines of the Communist experiment. The exhibition ends in 1936, omitting the clown paintings which occupied the artist in his later years. Such an ending would have been historically correct—the quashing effects of the Communist regime on the avant-garde is a story that necessitates repeated tellings—but the curators probably figured that it was better to end with a bang than with a whimper. As it is, Rodchenko concludes with two unforgettable photographs of the circus that have a melancholy that recalls the trajectory of the artist’s career. If his considerable achievement is cast in the shadows by that of Pierre Bonnard, well, that’s where the rest of us reside as well.

© 1998 Mario Naves

Originally published in the September 1998 edition of The New Criterion.

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