Mark Tobey, Manfred Schwartz, Whitney Museum of American Art (1971)



 Look in the window of Schrafft's at the colorfully displayed candies. Aren't they very similar in appearance to the sweet dainties at the Whitney Museum of American Art?

"Maple Pecan Fudge...79c 1/2 lb"

"Crystallized Orange Peel...$l.40"

"Coffee Breaks...84c lb"

All are wrapped in shiny bits of colored foil and paper gauze, and together with a selection of boxed chocolates, are presided over by a black-eared, black-nosed, white fluff dog with a protruding tongue clinging like a fat red tick to its lower lip.


 Consider the sweet confections of Frank Stella ("Gran Cairo") marching in ranks like so many boxes of Schrafft's finest. Or the 2454 square inches of dripping goo of Helen Frankenthaler's "Blue Territory," very much like an exploded bonbon with a little berry sauce here, a suggestion of chocolate there, touched off by a swathe of creamy caramel and egg white.


 Currently the Whitney has on early season display examples from its permanent collection as well as special exhibits showing the work of Mark Tobey (September 1-October 31) and Manfred Schwartz, who, in their seemingly endless repetitiousness, are well matched as exhibition partners with a display of the abstract patterns in 19th century

American quilts (through October 5).


 Mr. Tobey shows sixty-one prints (most of them lithographs) with little creativity, energy or originality in evidence. The boring sameness of these vague splats, scratches, swirls, specks and dots is pathetic, particularly when such a large number of works are involved.


 His one attempt at realism, three poorly drawn, scratchy heads, perhaps gives a clue to his dilemma. It was easier for Mr. Tobey to dissolve into Zen mists than to face the arduous task of making art from reality. How Mr. Tobey ever achieved his reputation as an artist should be the question asked after viewing this exhibition.


 Manfred Schwartz, gamely battling Mr. Tobey for the title "Master of Vagueness, King of Empty Repetition," presents a Schrafftian candied concoction of dots in fleeting, ephemeral combinations which he attempts to give cosmic significance by attaching such titles as "Celestial Sun," "Sombre Planet," etc., but as is usual with works of this level, they remain only dots. Mr. Schwartz, though now deceased, posthumously plays the game of little talent, no structure, no drawing, no color, no character and no meaning,


 The quilts on the top floor are colorful and attractive in a variety of geometric designs essentially rectangular in nature. They would be beautiful additions to any bedroom; or wall if used as a tapestry; or body if used as a serape. Seen in mass, however, and filling nearly the entire fourth floor, they become as tedious as a gallery full of contemporary geometric paintings (see the Whitney third floor).


 But they do point up a major problem facing artists today -- the inability to realize that design alone does not make a painting. The colored squares of Stella, Albers, Reinhardt, etc, are no more meaningful as art than the quilts are. They do not plumb the human spirit. There is little concern for emotion, content or profound meaning. The quilts are attractive, but they remain decorative tidbits. So, too, most of today's painting is colorful but essentially meaningless in terms of the greatest human expression. Decoration alone has never been the goal of the greatest artists.


 Perhaps that is why it is so refreshing after wading through the ineffectual efforts of Tobey, Schwartz and the rest of them to come upon the very large (108" x 72") and very powerful self-portrait by Alfred Leslie, painted in black, white and shades of grey, which greets the visitor with a blow when he steps from the elevator on the museum's third floor.


 There he stands, like a boulder among the marshmallows, introspective, intent, hands in pockets, white shirt pulled away from his paunch, his tightly drawn trouser-front twisted as if held together in a wrinkled knot by a piece of string or safety pin. How the Whitney ever allowed this piece of honest, straight-forward realism in the midst of such candy-box dainties and studio theoreticians as Kenneth Noland, Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, Billy Al Bengston and company who surround him, is a mystery.


 Where most of these works have a paint surface that looks as if it were scrubbed on by the itchy backside of a computerized camel, Mr. Leslie has attentively worked over his paint giving it a substance that is pleasing in itself as well as helping to create the immense solidity of the figure. There is a feeling of integrity and hard work here that is lacking in the show business formulas of his gaudy companions.


 If Mr. Leslie painted only self-portraits and never used any color other than black and white, then he would be nearly as limited in his own way as the other occupants of the Whitney third floor are in theirs. But judging from the solidity, power and sense of commitment in this work, Mr. Leslie is a potent antidote to the sterilities of the hard-edgers and the flabbiness of Tobey and Schwartz.


Copyright by Don Gray


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