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Hudson River Landscape: Painted steel sculpture by David Smith, 1951.

SJ Museum's new Whitney show highlights the peaks of New York modernism

By Ann Elliott Sherman

One look at the afterimage-inducing logo for American Art 1940-1965: Traditions Reconsidered and that sense of something almost familiar kicks in. It's like a subliminal message: Fear not, all ye who enter here--though you may enter the valley of abstraction, there's realism on the other side. The new show at the San Jose Museum of Art (the second of its borrowings from New York's Whitney Museum of American Art) covers the period when the axis of the art world shifted, so that as poet/art critic/curator Frank O'Hara put it, "New York is everywhere like Paris!"

By the time you've been carried along the show's gently serpentine flow through art's realm of the free and the brave, it just might strike you that painter Willem de Kooning had his finger on the collective pulse when he said, "What was given to me, I take for granted." The peculiarly American approach to getting around a bullying artistic tradition is less likely to be a rebellion than a nonchalant intermarriage of that tradition with whatever else one knows and loves/hates.

Although there is a nice exploration of these American artists' contributions in the continuum of landscape, portraiture and still-life traditions, what's even nicer is that you're not hit over the head with these educational efforts. While I applaud the democratic impetus, I'm also resistant to efforts to make every sensory experience readily explained, dryly analytical, good for us--the same academic approach that's soured so many on reading poetry.

Besides, it's always a balancing act between helping the viewer make the connections and presenting a dot-to-dot trajectory so obvious that any self-respecting second-grader would disdain putting pencil to it. Here, the curatorial notes are clearly, simply stated for those inclined to read them and unobtrusively placed for those who'd rather not. Bravo.

The first section focuses on work more directly tied to European art movements. Most of the pieces have a surrealist lineage. It's interesting to contrast William Baziotes' tranquil Sea Forms with Gerome Kamrowski's Emotional Seasons, a cosmic spinout merging ocean, plant, even cellular life with black space. But were the early Jackson Pollock drawings all that was available to represent his work?

Substitute "pale pink" for "violet," and the opening of O'Hara's box-shaped poem "Joseph Cornell" might be describing the desolate beauty of that artist's shadow-box assemblage displayed here, Rose Castle:

    Into a sweeping meticulously
    detailed disaster the violet
    light pours. It's not a sky,
    it's a room. ...

After gazing into the hazy red sun of Adolph Gottlieb's Excaliber and paying homage to Mark Rothko's transfixing candescent colors, set the way-back machine for Downtown New York City in the early '50s. It's impossible to view the abstract expressionist works without harking back to an O'Hara ode or two, or remembering some arch bon mot reportedly slung across the Cedar Bar from one member of the "New York School" to another.

There's Franz Kline's Mahoning, a zooming, dynamic hymn to American industrial muscle in his trademark, massive black-and-white, girderlike gestures. (According to Brad Gooch's O'Hara biography, de Kooning and Joan Mitchell used to poke fun at Kline's style "by pointing to tape on the windows of a newly built house and saying, 'Oh look, there's a Franz Kline.' ")

Next to Mahoning hangs a scarily wonderful, demonic de Kooning fractured female icon, Woman and Bicycle. Its exaggerated Gibson Girl/Marilyn Monroe silhouette, two sets of "red lips of Hollywood" in a grin simultaneously malevolent and compliant, the violently slashed brush strokes and the cruelly arched foot--all these elements testify to the artist's veracity in saying, "Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure. I always seem to be wrapped in the melodrama of vulgarity."

The women tough enough to hold their own with the nervy, macho excesses of the Cedar regulars are represented here, too. Grace Hartigan, one of O'Hara's female muses, painted her own ode to the city in Grand Street Brides, a view of the mannequins in a bridal-shop window that's both wry and bleak--is that a crown of thorns on that bride in the center? This could well have been the Hartigan piece O'Hara referred to in his epic poem "Second Avenue": "and thus make good our promise to destroy something but not us."

Contrary to the exhibition notes that explain it as an abstracted natural landscape of an evergreen in snow, Joan Mitchell's Hemlock is anything but peaceful, knifed so full of tension you hear the ice cracking. Perhaps I suffer a poet's hypersensitivity to titles, but she didn't name the work O, Tannenbaum.

There are lots of lovely moments to be had winding your way through the show. Richard Stankiewicz's Kabuki Dancer, an example of his pioneering sculpture with found objects, seems to be caught in the act of rotating one raised "foot" outward. I was pulled to its near-movement, in the words of the artist himself, "like iron to a magnet," so charged with "the peculiar posture of the convincing being, the stance of being about to move" is this oddly unsleeping, rusty piece.

En route to the pop and minimalist sampling, don't miss the Brown/Diebenkorn/Park troika proving that there was painting west of the Hudson, and stop in the lovely nook of paper works and see what Robert Motherwell could do with a torn piece of mailing wrapper.

Little Big Painting: Oil on canvas, 1968, by Roy Lichtenstein

    Many of us grew up taking the smart-ass Pop sensibility as a given, and the clearest example of it is Roy Lichtenstein's Little Big Painting, literally dripping with irony. Oddly enough, Andy Warhol's Campbell Soup cans and Coke bottles feel positively affectionate toward the consumer culture they supposedly mock, but then he was noted for his unconflicted business acumen.

    Whether you get that Claes Oldenburg was trying "to translate the eye into the fingers" with his soft vinyl Dormeyer Mixer or not, it's fun to look at. George Segal's The Bus Station is like 3-D Raymond Carver; Ed Ruscha's Double Standard is a slyly ravishing piece that would be at home in a Chandler novel.

    The attitude gets thick and cold as tule fog once you hit the minimalists. Fittingly, the exhibition ends in a showdown between Ad Reinhardt's attempt to suck painting into a black hole and Dan Flavin's austere assault of white fluorescent lights. You sure know you're there looking at it, but rather than a Zen zing, it packs the spirituality of a drive-in church. Welcome to the '70s.

    American Art 1940-1965: Traditions Reconsidered Selections From the Permanent Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art runs through March 30, 1997, at the San Jose Museum of Art, 110 S. Market St. (408/271-2977)

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From the Dec. 7-14, 1995 issue of Metro

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