John Chamberlain, Josef Albers, John Singer Sargent, Paula Modersohn-Becker (1972)



 John Chamberlain's crumpled sculpture is exhibited at the Guggenheim  Museum through Feb. 27th.  Crumpled cars, crumpled sponge rubber,  crumpled paper, crumpled aluminum, crumpled plastic.


 John Chamberlain began to crumple with the abstract-expressionists in the  late 1950's.  He also painted small abstract-expressionist pictures.  His crumples gained attention when he began to crumple cars.  Hoods, fenders and bumpers were crumpled and welded together.  And it may have been remarked that the artist was expressing the modern hell of industrialization and its shoddy products and practices (hellish enough) and/or showing us the beauty in all things, even technological residues.  Or, more likely, in the tradition of abstraction and non-objectivity, simply manipulating forms and colors that happened to be car parts.


 They are competent and repetitious.  When soft sculpture comes on the art scene, Mr. Chamberlain turns to sponge rubber crumples.  And, though it is a contradiction in terms to have "hard-edge," geometrically evened "crumples," Mr. Chamberlain produces a series of small, foot-square paintings of rectangles and larger painting/reliefs featuring attached stainless steel right-angles sixteen inches long.  These neat, geometric, hard-edge works are completely incongruous amid the irregularity of the artist's trademark crumples.   


 While he continues to turn out crumpled cars to satisfy the demands for this well-established image, his latest clear plastic or plexiglass crumples seem nearer to studies for coffee table supports than significant sculpture.


 There are several offerings down Fifth Avenue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Josef Albers exhibits scores of his prints and paintings of rectangles within rectangles.  While there is no question that he can handle a certain range of color well, it must also be apparent that he is an artist of extreme limitation.   Like Mr. Chamberlain, he must be questioned for his very narrow range of expression, for too-patiently sitting year after year on a square egg hatching out an endless series of rectangular omelets.


 Artists who have closed themselves to new experience -- narrowed their vision and possibilities -- are not helpful to younger artists (or anyone) in terms of giving them directions to explore...certainly nothing with artistic, philosophical or spiritual depth.   


 The artist, above all other people, should be open to life, to its visual and emotional sensations and implications.  This should be the position of the younger artist leaving school to begin the difficult task of developing his abilities and insights on his own.  Unfortunately, with so many negative examples of contemporary art and artists, and their disciples teaching in the colleges and art schools of the nation, many of the younger artists have been closed to new experience before they ever had any.


 If Alber's squares are in the spotlight, these young artists are taught to torture the rectangle to the point of ultimate refinement and utter nullity.  What kind of goal is this for a young man or woman?


 While at the Metropolitan, visit the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery containing Chinese art of the 5th and 6th Centuries.  On entering this large room filled with sculptures of Buddha you will feel a peace and repose of spirit you didn't think possible in "Fun City".   On one wall is an immense, complex painting of Buddha and other figures, which despite its complexity breathes utter calm.   Before it is an open space and a bench.   Seated on this bench, let the peace envelop you and marvel that an art can be so serene.   If you were frazzled by the holidays, don't miss the recuperative powers in this room.


 It becomes very clear here, that art is not just the manipulation of color or materials.   Nor is it only a question of design.  Art is all of these things given life by the emotion and the spirit of the artist's response to life.


 These qualities may be seen elsewhere in the work of Paula Modersohn-Becker at La Boetie, 1042 Madison Avenue through Jan. 22.   But before leaving the Met, the watercolors of John Singer Sargent (through Feb. 15) are worth a look.


 Sargent was a sparkling watercolorist with a deft and rapid brush in tune with the gleam and shimmer of water and sun-flecked foliage.   Many of these works are very enjoyable to look at in terms of his free and dashing technique and often lovely color harmonies.  His studies of Byzantine church interiors are mysterious and striking as are his deserted courtyards and doorways.


 But often he is too deft, and the paintings are lacking in form and structure (like his work in general, which is often unfavorably compared in this regard to Thomas Eakins).  Sargent is after surface alone, rather than surface strengthened by the inner core of things.


 In one picture, however, of a blue-clad woman painter seated at her easel in the shadow of a bush, watched by two women, he suggests a richness of form and interpenetration of character that is very strong.  The artist painting in the picture seems to work sadly, though her features are barely indicated, as if oppressed by a confident girl in white with a broad yellow hat, and an old woman seemingly hunched in pain, who rests her elbows on her lap, mouth turned down at the corners, grimly counting her losses and "might-have-beens."   A beautiful and tense contrast of human types, richly painted.


 Paula Modersohn-Becker's paintings, drawings and etchings are very emotional and moody, touched with a hint of childish strangeness or reverie.  One feels strongly the dark, romantic spirit of Van Gogh and the early 20th Century in all the works.   A study of a mill or factory buildings (No. 16) that could be from Van Gogh's early period, has the haunted feeling the Dutchman could give to architecture (or anything else for that matter).  A sketch of hands that have labored link her to Van Gogh though they are without his extraordinary power, as does a nude (No. 14) with a strong, simple contour suggesting his despondent angularity as well as the broad direct line of Gauguin.


 There is a very satisfying painting, touching and amusing at the same time, showing a dumpy little woman lost in herself, hat pulled down hiding her eyes, fists like little balls on her lap as she tilts and leans slightly to one side.   Another, a drawing of a haggard woman, nude to the waist with hanging breasts, closed eyes, with again a sense of personal "innerness," raises her hands, pulling at strands of hair on each side of her head.   In an etching, a hunched old woman in black with a cane is followed by a goose.


 My memory of these brooding pictures of women, children and nature is that a few almost dare to try for a pixyish gaiety at times, a gleam of demure animal sensuality like the bright eyes of a coy chipmunk.


 Paula Modersohn-Becker is definitely an artist of stature and individuality.   The more artists of feeling we see today, the better, because of the impersonality of the age and the fact that most artists hide behind abstract formulas and refuse, are afraid -- or are unable -- to come out and reveal themselves as human beings responsive to themselves and the world.


 An artist can only play the abstract game so long before we sense his limitations and futility and long for someone who will let themselves go and express some kind of emotion.  Paula Modersohn-Becker lived (for a tragically short 30 years, dying in 1907) in a time that was still connected to the world, if hauntingly and despairingly.   Perhaps the realists of our time will reconnect us to our world.   Today's "modernists" can do us little good.


Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms