Tag Archives: The Painting Center

“On The Street: Works by Carol Diamond” @ The Painting Center

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Carol Diamond, Tilt Turn (2018), digital photo, pastel, charcoal and archival paper, 22 x 30″; courtesy the artist and The Painting Center

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The following essay accompanies an exhibition of Carol Diamond’s work at The Painting Center (January 29-February 23).

Artists are sponges, absorbing the world around them and doing so in ways that are often mystifying and sometimes contradictory. The recent work of Carol Diamond is a case in point. Those familiar with the paintings and drawings of the veteran New York artist might be taken aback by the surfaces of the new pieces. They are, after all, abundant with stuff.

Not just paint and charcoal, but detritus gleaned from the streets of her hometown: shards of glass, flattened soda cans, concrete chunks and other castaway oddments of everyday life. The addition of these objects into Diamond’s distinctive iconography–a heady admixture of Piranesian recesses, Mannerist rhythms and Neoplasticist rigor–has rendered her surfaces peculiarly abrupt and not a little aggressive. Pictorial coherence, when not called into question, is now complicated in ways that are curious, off-center and compelling.

Evocative, too. Diamond’s art might have its basis in Modernism, but it’s worth noting that she once worked as a restorer of antiquities. History as a hands-on endeavor is part-and-parcel of her aesthetic. The work functions as a kind of archaeology even as one realizes that the civilization being unearthed is our own. A quizzical feat, that: digging through time in order to divulge the here-and-now. That Diamond endows this venture with a lyricism that in no way undercuts its grit or tenacity speaks to a vision welcoming of paradox. Powered by it as well: her’s is an art to puzzle over and take pleasure in.

© 2019 Mario Naves

Abstract Repartee

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A “curious cut” by Hans Holbein used to illustrate Erasmus’s treatise, In Praise of Folly (1515)

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In conjunction with Wit, an exhibition on view at The Painting Center, curator and artist Joanne Freeman will be hosting a panel discussion featuring Marina Adams, Barbara Gallucci, Doreen McCarthy, Stephen Westfall and myself–all of whom are included in the show. Subjects to be discussed are good taste, bad taste, “escape from taste”, ambiguity, anticipation, surprise and (ulp!) psychedelic drugs. The panel is scheduled to take place on Valentine’s Day between 6:00-8:00 p.m. Hope to see you there.

© 2013 Mario Naves

“Wit” at The Painting Center

witJoanne Freeman, All Is Not What It Seems (2012), oil on canvas, 48″ x 36″; courtesy The Painting Center

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The following is an essay from the catalogue accompanying Wit, an exhibition curated by Joanne Freeman that was on display at The Painting Center from January 29-February 23, 2013.

Wit, huh? It seems an unlikely peg on which to organize an exhibition of abstract paintings and sculptures. We’ve been taught, after all, that abstract art is serious business. Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich, the holy trinity of modernist abstraction, scuttled representation in the cause of philosophical and sociological ideals–as a means of changing the world. The New York School, having seen how resolutely the world crushed their aspirations, redefined abstraction as a conduit for interiority–as a forum for primordial longings, universal symbols, that sort of thing. They did so to impressive effect—until, that is, the world went pop!

witRuth Root, Untitled (2009), enamel on aluminum, 24″ x 39″; courtesy of the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery

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Here in the wobbly days of the early twenty-first century, abstraction is no longer viewed as a driving historical force or the necessary culmination of twenty thousand years of creative endeavor. Though you might hear otherwise from isolated outposts—variations on “my kid could paint that” being the most predominant—abstraction is pretty much a non-issue, and not a moment too soon. Shouldering the burden of tradition can occasion significant art, but it can also stifle artistic independence and skew perception, public and otherwise. Be grateful that abstraction with a capital “A” is over and done with. Painters and sculptors dedicated to the cause can now work with astonishing freedom. The King is dead. Now let’s see where we can go with this thing.

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Stephen Westfall, Forest (For Franz Marc) (2010), 59″ x 59″, oil and alkyd on canvas; courtesy Lennon, Weinberg Inc.

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Eschewing the purity that was once abstraction’s sine qua non, the artists featured in Wit opt for an almost promiscuous inclusivity. No inspiration is suspect. High-flown ambitions–sure, we got ‘em; historical cognizance, too. But these artists are also characterized by a willingness to embrace a veritable laundry list of references: nature, narrative, comics, design, technology, science, representation and, not least, humor. Not that humor has been entirely absent from the history of abstract art: Malevich pranked Mona Lisa five years before Duchamp and Mondrian paid winning homage, in oil and canvas, to his beloved boogie-woogie music. Still, abstraction nowadays is more and more a repository of quirks, tics and pictorial double entendres, having as much in common with Buster Keaton, say, as Neo-Plasticism.

witMario Naves, Tart and Toff (2012), oil on canvas mounted on board, 20″ x 24″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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Just don’t hold your breath expecting Marina Adams, Polly Apfelbaum, Joanne Freeman, Joe Fyfe, Barbara Gallucci, Phillis Ideal, Jonathan Lasker, Sarah Lutz, Doreen McCarthy, Thomas Nozkowski, Paul Pagk, Ruth Root, Fran Shalom, Stephen Westfall and myself to sign a manifesto of purpose. Making art is hard work and individual visions aren’t easily won; few of us like (or want) to be pegged. But the work here is unified and engaging in ways that are somewhat sneaky, maybe contrarian and decidedly offbeat. Watch as these artists juggle forms, tweak relationships, disassemble materials, cajole surfaces and elicit a staggering amount of allusions. It’s enough to make you think that abstraction, as a historical and artistic phenomenon, is barely off the ground. At the very least, we should be grateful that it’s being carried on with clarity, sophistication and, yes, wit.

© 2013 Mario Naves

“Wit” at The Painting Center

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The painter Joanne Freeman has curated an exhibition of contemporary abstract art that keys into how the disruption of “preconceived standards” can “alter assumptions, surprise, reinvent and communicate wit”:

“It is a mistake to polarize humor and intellect since they work best in unison. Wit suggests qualities of the human spirit in an overly synchronized world.” 

The artists who embody “the imperfection that identifies personality”? Marina Adams, Joe Fyfe, Barbara Gallucci, Philis Ideal, Jonathan Lasker, Sarah Lutz, Doreen McCarthy, Thomas Nozwkowski, Paul Pagk, Ruth Root, Fran Shalom, Stephen Westfall, the curator herself and your humble writer. Westfall has contributed an essay to the catalogue; so have I:

“Eschewing the purity that was once abstraction’s sine qua non, the artists featured in Wit opt for an almost promiscuous inclusivity. No inspiration is suspect. High-flown ambitions–sure, we got ‘em; historical cognizance, too. But these artists are also characterized by a willingness to embrace a veritable laundry list of references: nature, narrative, comics, design, technology, science, representation and, not least, humor.”

The opening reception takes place on Thursday, January 31, from 6:00-8:00 p.m. A panel discussion is set for the evening of February 14th–Valentine’s Day!

So much for love, but let’s hear it for Wit.

© 2013 Mario Naves

Warrington Colescott & The Whitney Biennial

Warrington Colescott, The Last JudgmentWarrington Colescott, The Last Judgement (1987-1988), intaglio and color relief, 27-1/2″ x 21.8″; courtesy The Painting Center

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There are more important things in life than art. That’s the lesson of the current Whitney Biennial. I think that’s the lesson, anyway. Certainly, featured artist Zoe Strauss must know it’s the truth. Her untitled video installation projects photographs of the people and environs of Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., documenting what she saw while aiding medical professionals responding to Hurricane Katrina.

Ms. Strauss’ credo is: “Social responsibility is inextricable from art making.” That’s a shopworn proposition favored by those who think good intentions can redeem lousy art. Ms. Strauss’ photos of vernacular signage and Mississippi’s poorest inhabitants amid heartbreaking destruction are pedestrian in their pictorial intelligence. She’s no Walker Evans.

All the same, Ms. Strauss was out there in Katrina’s awful wake, outside the privileged confines of the Whitney Museum, providing necessary support to Americans in desperate circumstances. In art, Ms. Strauss preaches to the converted, but in life she makes a difference. That’s something to applaud.

It is, in fact, the only thing to applaud in Day for Night, the first Biennial to (a) have a title, (b) have been organized by foreign-born curators, and (c) include foreign-born artists. The show also includes dead painters (Ed Paschke for one), the requisite amount of teenagers with freshly minted MFA’s, and significant sculptors who should know better. Richard Serra and Mark di Suvero demean their considerable gifts in the service of puerile anti-Bush screeds. They’ve got a right to be angry, but has either man put his conscience into action like Ms. Strauss? You’ve got to wonder.

But what’s the difference? One of the great delusions of the art world is that the Biennial has something to do with art. Spectacle, fed by money, is the focus. Art merely supplements the fashionable poses and received resentments of an insular crowd so enamored of itself. The critical huzzahs greeting the Biennial are predictable: Apologists for official culture will do anything to obscure its aesthetic bankruptcy.

As usual, the Biennial is a benchmark, but rather than indicating art’s continuing vitality, it is just another celebration of everything wrong with today’s self-congratulatory scene.

Any Biennial that neglects the work of Warrington Colescott is a piss-poor excuse for an overview of American art. Who is he, you might ask? I’m still not sure. He lives and works in Wisconsin—you know, fly-over territory to most curators—and he exhibits only intermittently here in the city. On the rare occasions that I cross paths with his pieces, usually an etching of some sort, I leave a changed man. Happier, too—Mr. Colescott is something of a card.

A profound one, I’d quickly add. The Last Judgment (1987-88) is an intaglio and color-relief print featured in Artful Jesters, an exhibition devoted to “a growing legion of parodists, satirists, lampoonists, jokers, and caricaturists” on display at the Painting Center. Mr. Colescott more than holds his own among some formidable company, not least among them Trevor Winkfield, Peter Reginato, Gladys Nilsson and Peter Saul.

In the etching, a man’s spiritual fate is decided by way of a video presentation. A devil pleads the case to God himself, who’s pictured as a sleek, executive type. The Last Judgment is stuffed with pictorial incident and imagery—Mr. Colescott is a printmaker of stunningly soft-spoken means. You’ve got to love the devil-angel-devil-angel lineup ready to accuse and defend the souls of the newly departed.

The guy whose lot is being determined has got it coming—the this-is-your-life moments seen on the television screens are maliciously over the top. (Vehicular homicide is the least, but not the funniest, of the offenses.) The wonder is the amount of consideration given to the verdict. The word “HELL” appears on God’s computer screen. Chin in one hand, his right index finger hovers hesitantly above the “return” key. Clearly, God likes to mull things over.

Mr. Colescott is not a satirist, cartoonist or Red Grooms, though he resembles each. (Mr. Grooms is also included in Artful Jesters.) He’s a mischievous humanist with a bottomless appreciation for the absurdities of life and, in this case, the afterlife. He’s as many-sided and unsentimental as Twain, Hogarth or Bosch. I suspect his oeuvre contains more sharp insights and cunning amusements than I can begin to imagine; I wish a New York City museum would consider fêting Mr. Colescott with a retrospective. A task like that is clearly beyond the people at the Whitney—their loss as much as ours.

© 2006 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 26, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.

Hans Hofmann: The Legacy at The Painting Center

Hans Hoffman

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What does John Updike know about art, anyway? Enough to write about it perceptively. The renowned novelist’s art criticism appears in The New York Review of Books and has been collected in a newly published book. But he doesn’t know enough—or, perhaps it is better said, see enough—to re-imagine its historical and aesthetic contours.

In his recent assessment of Jed Perl’s New Art City in The New York Times Book Review, Mr. Updike upbraided Mr. Perl for refusing to buy into the standard account of postwar painting and sculpture—endorsed by museums, galleries, curators, critics, artists and, lest we forget, deep-pocketed collectors—that values Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Serra over Edwin Dickinson, Romare Bearden and Christopher Wilmarth.

You’d think that Mr. Updike, who has seen fit to write kind words about out-of-the-mainstream painters like George Nick and Roy De Forest, might be willing to challenge the status quo. Yet there he was, sniffing over Mr. Perl’s “curt treatment” of Abstract Expressionism, his dismissal of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein as “deft perpetrators of implicitly fraudulent effects,” and his disappointment at the pervasiveness of Marcel Duchamp’s gadfly cynicism. The history that prizes innovation, outrage and condescending populism over hard-won artistic truths remains all but untested.

I was reminded of these concerns upon visiting Hans Hofmann: The Legacy at the Painting Center in Soho. The exhibition is an effective antidote to a narrow art-historical view. Curated by the critic Karen Wilkin and the painter Geoffrey Dorfman, it spotlights the wide-ranging influence of the American painter and teacher Hans Hofmann (1880-1966). Centered on three Hofmann canvases, the exhibition features work by artists who either studied with Hofmann directly or who benefited from contact with his art.

The former camp includes (among others) George McNeil, Paul Resika, Louisa Matthiasdottir, Wolf Kahn and Robert De Niro Sr., whom Hofmann considered his best student. The latter includes Laurie Fendrich, Jill Nathanson and Walter Darby Bannard, and their paintings offer evidence of the continuing vitality of Hofmann’s example.

Hofmann: The Legacy is a modest exhibition with big ambitions. Mr. Dorfman, writing in the catalog, envisions Hofmann as a “delirious scientist, pouring potent substances into a container … measuring the chemical reaction, monitoring any rise in temperature and urging the result towards a convincing apotheosis.” He points despondently to a current scene “attuned to other frequencies,” chief among them the marketplace. Lamenting the “stifling repetitiveness among contemporary artists,” Mr. Dorfman posits Hofmann as an alternative whose work is “ebullient, radiant, courageous and various in [its] effects.”

When he goes on to endorse Hofmann as a practical role model (“He was not depressive, didn’t drink to excess, and was not a sufferer”), you know Mr. Dorfman is hoeing a tough row. People prefer genius-types who are poverty-stricken, alcoholic, crazy and earless; joyous just won’t do.

And while Hofmann’s position in the firmament is secure—he’s typically lumped in with the Abstract Expressionists—he’s somewhat misplaced and misunderstood. Notwithstanding similarities in painterly approach, the disposition and scope of his work set it apart from that of the New York School. At this date, Abstract Expressionism looks less like a stirring culmination than a closed book. Hofmann’s art, in contrast, is forever pointing forward, its optimism and propulsion encouraging unimagined possibilities.

He had no agenda and set no limits. Figuration and abstraction, or a mix in between, suited Hofmann fine, so long as the resulting art was coherently realized through its plastic values. His aesthetic is more encompassing, open-ended and generous than that of even the finest painters in the New York School. Sunny, galumphing and wildly imperfect, his paintings clear a path veering away from the knowing malaise of contemporary culture.

That’s what Mr. Dorfman and Ms. Wilkin suggest, and, by and large, they’re right. That said, Hofmann: The Legacy is unlikely to change the mind of the scene’s professional class of Doubting Thomases. It will not prompt a revision of the standard texts of art history, even among those sympathetic to its cause. The selection of paintings isn’t as definitive as it could be. Few of the painters, including Hofmann himself, are represented by their best or most representative work. Transitional canvases by Ludwig Sander and Carl Holty, for instance, fail to give an indication of what they were capable of as mature artists.

The curators are aware of the limitations. They cite space constraints and offer “earnest apologies” to “excellent” living artists who weren’t included. I’m sure Mr. Dorfman and Ms. Wilkin would love the space, time and financial resources to do right by Hofmann and his progeny. Would that they could bookend a major Hofmann painting—say, the Guggenheim’s The Gate (1959-60)—with sizable works by Matthiasdottir and McNeil. As it is, McNeil and Matthiasdottir—painters who thrived on wide expanses of canvas—are represented by smallish efforts. The correspondences between their art and Hofmann’s are recognized, but they’re not made electric. And Hofmann is all about electricity.

But the last thing I want to suggest is that Hofmann: The Legacy is a squandered opportunity—far from it. The show is the finest yet to be mounted at the Painting Center; it provides a splendid blueprint for a more comprehensive exhibition and makes palpable the eclectic and deeply humane character of Hofmann’s influence. The rare opportunity to view pictures by painters as good as Myron Stout, John Grillo, Ms. Nathanson and Ms. Fendrich is reason alone to be grateful.

Ms. Wilkin and Mr. Dorfman have started a dialogue that can only get more complex and compelling. History, like Hofmann’s art, never sits still. It’s always re-writing itself, forever offering its challenges. Mr. Updike has his work cut out for him. So do the rest of us. It will be a pleasure.

© 2005 Mario Naves

Originally published in the November 20, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.