Delaney’s Optical Spark; Cousins Comes Home

Walking into the two-person exhibition Beauford Delaney, Liquid Light: Paris Abstractions 1954-1970 and Harold Cousins: The 1950’s, Welded Sculpture , currently at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, one is reminded of how vibrant and vital the New York art scene can be. For what we find there is a setting where art is taken seriously and is installed with a concomitant regard.

Every gallery takes itself seriously to the extent that it’s out to make a buck. Yet there is a difference between a gallery that proffers art as such, and one that milks the prestige art can generate. For those of us more interested in the art than in the scene, the environs of the Rosenfeld can seem downright haimish . It helps, of course, if the gallery exhibits worthwhile work. The paintings of Delaney (1901-1979) and the sculpture of Cousins (1916-1992) aren’t likely to compel a revision of the art-historical canon. But both men were artists whose work deserves, at the least, our attention and, in the case of Cousins, perhaps more.

In writing about Delaney’s paintings, James Baldwin stated that they led “the inner and the outer eye, directly and inexorably, to a new confrontation with reality.” This reality was embodied in all-over paintings comprised of closely valued tonal gradations. At their best, Delaney’s fields of color pulsate with a tremulous sense of light. In an untitled canvas from 1961, a dominant yellow is enlivened by submerged greens and touches of pinkish-orange. The painting’s rhythm is built up not only by understated brushwork, but by a fluctuating and open space.

Yet, as with any picture that forgoes internal relationships, there’s a lack of compositional tension in Delaney’s art. When his color harmonies fail to set off an optical spark, the canvases become mere accumulations of paint. This is particularly the case when Delaney’s facture becomes unmoored from his color: The looping traceries of a 1960 canvas, for instance, don’t dance so much as meander. Baldwin claimed that Delaney’s work had the capacity to “redeem and reconcile and heal.” Such inspirational hyperbole camouflages the art of a man who was only intermittently capable of the painterly sonorities his admirers claimed for him.

I first encountered the sculpture of Harold Cousins in a 1996 exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem titled Explorations in the City of Light: African-American Artists in Paris, 1945-65 . Although the show contained only a handful of his pieces, Cousins’ artistic acuity made itself felt.

Born in Washington, D.C., Cousins attended Howard University–interestingly, art was not his discipline–and was employed as a postal worker. He later moved to New York, where he studied at the Art Students League with the sculptor William Zorach and the painter Will Barnet. In 1949, he and his wife left for France, and Cousins continued his studies with Ossip Zadkine, a sculptor whose teaching was described by the artist as “bruising.” Cousins subsequently made Paris his home and later moved to Brussels, where he lived the rest of his life. Although he exhibited regularly in Europe and received public commissions there, Cousins’ work is virtually unknown in the United States.

Working in the tradition of welded-steel sculpture, Cousins acknowledged his debt to Julio Gonzalez and the notion of “drawing in space.” His tabletop works are pithy and all-but-abstract abbreviations of the human form. These configurations of steel rods are deftly handled, and their symbolic shorthand is terse and hieratic. Deeply fascinated with (as the artist had it) “the visual impression of something existing that was not present in the forms of their material parts,” Cousins created work that impels the viewer to walk around it. Certainly, part of this ineffable something is the intricate shadows the work casts, as well as the spatial volume these linear armatures generate when taken in from different vantage points.

The larger sculptures, in contrast, seem ponderous–they lack the resilience of the smaller works. Still, this is a sculptor whose art demands an accounting by the cultural custodians on this side of the Atlantic. Delaney may be the current focus of the Rosenfeld Gallery, but Cousins is, artistically speaking, its star. Beauford Delaney, Liquid Light: Paris Abstractions and Harold Cousins: The 1950’s, Welded Sculpture are at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, until Oct. 30.

Jim Nutt’s Women: Noses and Hairdos

In the 1960’s, the painter Jim Nutt was a member of the Hairy Who, a group of Chicago artists that adopted a (to use a trendy adjective) transgressive brand of figuration. They predicated their art in the vitality and vulgarity of popular culture–comic strips provided much of their formal vocabulary–and the idiosyncrasies of folk art. Mr. Nutt is, arguably, the best-known alumnus of the Hairy Who, and has achieved considerable success with his assiduously crafted dioramas of sexual tragicomedy and scatological angst.

In the last 10 years or so, the artist has taken to painting portraits of imaginary women, and with them his art has taken a leap in caliber and depth. Solitary, enigmatic and sometimes vulnerable, Mr. Nutt’s women gaze into space in a preoccupied manner, caught in a moment that is simultaneously revealing and unknowable. The inscrutable yet not unempathetic nature of these figures recalls the unwavering stillness of ancient Egyptian art and the quizzical allure of the Mona Lisa. I don’t want to suggest that Mr. Nutt’s accomplishment stands on equal footing with the pyramids or Leonardo Da Vinci, yet such associations do connote the dimension, both artistic and psychological, with which he has recently endowed his work. Comparing his women to the earlier narratives is to underscore the distinction between full-bodied art and sophisticated cartoons.

A group of Mr. Nutt’s drawings is now on view at the Nolan/Eckman Gallery. The nucleus–indeed, the pictorial stress–of each drawing originates in the angular and askew protuberance that is each woman’s nose, and is discharged–if that’s the right word for it–in their biomorphically bumptious hairdos. Notwithstanding traces of pictorial evolution, Mr. Nutt’s limber line travels with an elegant concision.

One can’t call these pieces sketches; there is, after all, nothing vague about them. Yet Mr. Nutt’s drawings don’t escape the fragmentary character of the preparatory study–which is, in fact, exactly what they are. Compared to the plastic fullness of the paintings, the drawings are schematic. This can be ascribed, in part, to essential differences between drawing and painting, but also to the artist’s methodology. The drawings set the parameters; the paintings go the distance. As blueprints, the drawings are pretty damned exquisite nonetheless.

There are historians and critics who will tell you that Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman are emblematic portraitists of the late 20th century, but these artists didn’t or haven’t come close to approaching the intense and introspective quietude of Mr. Nutt’s personages Here is a splendid opportunity to get acquainted with them. Jim Nutt: Portraits is at the Nolan/Eckman Gallery, located at 560 Broadway, until Oct. 23.