Six New York City Exhibitions, David Salle, Sylvia Mangold, Kenneth Evett (1983)



 The 20th Century is a disease from which its survivors are still trying to recover. Carl Jung, the psychologist, wrote in 1928, "1 believe I am not exaggerating when I say that modern man has suffered an almost fatal shock, psychologically speaking, and as a result has fallen into profound uncertainty."


 Fifty years later, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, during his commencement address at Harvard, said, "There are tell-tale symptoms by which history gives warning to a threatened or perishing society. Such are, for instance, a decline of the arts or a lack of great statesmen."


 The loss of direction and coherence in life, the decline of spiritual, ethical and aesthetic values and standards, cause and effect of 20th Century evil, are symptoms of the disease resulting in further loss of faith in human worth and destiny.


 Common to all civilizations during periods of lost purpose, this anxious sense of meaninglessness produces, at one extreme, an anarchic (dadaist) nihilism, while, at the other, breeds an inordinate desire for order and stability at any cost, even aesthetic or political totalitarianism. Both reactions result in increasing dehumanization of life and art.


 Artists of feeling and expressionist bent react to this dehumanization with shrieks of outrage, pain and frustration. Geometric artists of the intellect respond with icy acceptance. In a displacement of religious devotion onto technology by much of society, geometric shapes and forms, as well as automobiles, space shots and computers become the religious attributes of our technological god, as the fish, lamb, wine, bread, cross and crown of thorns are the mystical symbols of another age, another God.


 Thus, the cult of the stripe and square in the art of our time indicates a secularized religious desire for machine shapes, forms and products, which in their incisive clarity and stability, are seen as salvational antitheses to flux and chaos.


 The exhibition "Artists Choose Artists II" at CDS Gallery, 13 E. 75, from June 8 through July 16, is heavily indebted to the geometric aesthetic. With Carl Andre, Jim Dine, Brice Marden, Larry Poons, Richard Serra, Frank Stella, William Tucker and John Walker as exhibiting and selecting artists, could it be any other way? While it might be suggested that Dine, Poons, Stella and Walker are now closer to the expressionist camp, the major thrust of their work as a whole has been geometric, and in any case, the depersonalization of their current work continues the essential dehumanization basic to a geometric conception of art.


 As might be expected, the younger artists chosen for the show by the older hands are worthy bearers of the abstract standard, a blend of geometry and nearly 60-year-old surrealist linear automatism. They seem to believe that what has been done before, despite being aesthetically limited and spiritually drained in its original form, is worth doing over again.


 Sylvia Plimack Mangold's retrospective of paintings from 1965-82 at Brooke Alexander, 20 W. 57 through June 18, also reveals a heavily geometrically-oriented artist literally fixating, in earlier work, on the perspective intersection of meticulously-detailed floor boards as if fearful of what she might see if she raised her eyes.


 Mangold continues this anxious intellectual overlay in recent large landscapes that combine color field, stripe and rectangle painting with observations of reality. Though her gaze has been lifted from floor to poetry-filled skies, trompe I'oeil masking tape and metal rulers still incongruously frame her clouds, as if, recovering from an illness, the artist's trembling creative limbs still need the support of a walker...geometric theory. Her, at least partial, use of the photograph seems similarly a crutch to aid in controlling the forgotten, unsettling experience of visual response to nature. However, Mangold is to be congratulated for beginning what is, for all contemporary artists, a long, difficult, necessary journey toward emotional and visual re-contact with nature.


 Barbara Cushing's oil landscapes at the Schoelkopf Gallery through June 15, are the work of a tonalist rather than colorist, though pleasing, muted color is used. An artist of integrity and commitment, Cushing's response to nature is most spontaneous in oil sketches on paper with a touch of Lovis Corinth, a satisfying impressionist-expressionist tangle of foliage and sweepingly-brushed skies.


 The landscapes on canvas, impressive as they are in their love of detail, have the tight effect of a photograph (Cushing's crutch) which erodes an initial suggestion of the Barbizon and Hudson River School's direct freshness of execution and feel for the physical and spiritual realities of nature.


 The glory of these pictures is in the skies -- there is something of van Ruisdael, Constable and Turner -- fair, stormy, spaciously empty or cloud-clotted, swathed in rain or sunset. Like Mangold, Cushing seems to wish to move beyond the earthly.


 The two-part exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum through September 11, "Aspects of Post-War Painting in Europe" and "Recent European Painting," springs generally from expressionist rather than geometric sources.


 While Europe and the world rejoiced at the ending of the Second World War, commencing the rebirth of lives and cities, going about the business of making money again, artists continued assiduously to inspect the worm they perceived still eating at the heart of the world apple. There is both truth in their attitude and a strange attraction to, and insidious, Baudelaireian love of, horror that is as spell-binding to expressionists, dadaists and surrealists as it is repulsive to geometrists.


 Francis Bacon emerges, here at least, as the great post-war European painter. The vividness and strength of image and reds in "Three Studies for a Crucifixion" create the most strikingly dominant work at the Guggenheim, as does "Three Studies from the Human Body" with its black background. Both reveal, in convincing artistic terms, the materialist horror of modern life where the human body, without soul or spirit, is only so much mangled meat.


 Linked with the expressionism of the exhibitions is the desire for the primitive -- a reconnection with foundational verities of life -- perhaps the single most important aspect of late 19th and 20th Century art.


 At the Guggenheim, Dubuffet, Jorn, Burri, Tapies, Matta, Tamayo, De Stael, Alechinsky, Michaux, Klein and the rest, whatever their overt surrealist-expressionist characteristics, are, at bottom, linked by the need for the elemental in their automatism, espousal of passion, primitive imagery and burned or earthy materials.


 Today's rise of a fashionable punk-expressionism and its importation from Germany and Italy amounts to little more than a rehashing of 75-year-old German expressionist mannerisms, now cliches constructed on a grandiose scale in an attempt to enhance content and disguise aesthetic emptiness, predictably continuing the love affair with violence and horror.


 David Salle's suite of eight silk-screens, "A Drunken Chauffeur," at Castelli Graphics, 4 E. 77, through July 30, are linearly drawn with the brush in a style a blend of Manet lithographs and the comic strip. In their centrally whirling, Pollock-like compositions, they express the confusion and pace of life today, as if we are all in a vehicle driven at high speed by a drunkard toward an unknown destination with little chance of ever getting there alive.


 Embracing couples, nudes, lustful animal heads, lustful human animals, phallic extended tongues, phallic horses' necks, weeping, bristle-headed boys, hairy penises about to enter hairy vaginas, a soldier, women's faces suffering from malaise, spread-legged women, fingers fingering vulvas, hands offering plates, women presenting nude buttocks, a saluting comic strip nurse, and a lewdly interested, phallic-snouted crocodile (no tears)...are some of the habitues of Salle's seething psyche.


 They are remembrances of things past and present; undigested -- perhaps indigestible -- media images, successful within the narrow range of art and life they attempt to define. Undifferentiated lust and life's struggles never end, except perhaps in the coffin with a huge bowl of fruit and the buttock-offering girl...fornicating one's way to perdition, one presumes.


 Kenneth Evett's nearly 10-year retrospective of paintings at the Kraushaar Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, through June 11, reveals a continuing interest in visual reality undistorted by the yen for the novel or bizarre...unusual, to say the least, in 20th Century artists. In the 1940's, the artist is essentially a social realist commenting on human isolation, often racial in the separation of black from white.


 Among Evett's recent work, the carefully-brushed still-lifes seem most personal. An interesting series named after the months, traces the passage of the seasons seen through studio windows behind classically conceived, calmly monumental objects...fruit, vegetables, plants, books, brushes and varnish jars. These paintings convincingly distill reality, evoking the artist's inner world, contained and quietly private, contrasting foreground order with the growth and irregularity of close-up limbs, vines and fields beyond ... as if outside the studio, life -- but also unease -- resides.


 Stoicism, an element in Evett's work, has not been a 20th Century virtue. Neither has breadth of vision. Irmgard Woldering, in his book, "Gods, Men and Pharoahs," describing the downfall of ancient Egypt from its once high artistic standards, says, "Although the men of the Late Period are sufficiently alert intellectually to recognize how seriously their world is threatened, they lack the creative energy to stop the decline."


 If we should ever become alert enough to realize that we have been in a state of artistic, moral and societal decline for some time, will we have sufficient creative energy to reverse our fall?


Copyright by Don Gray


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