Jacob Lawrence’s Legacy, Still Years In the Making

The recent death of any individual is likely to put their life and achievement into high and not necessarily lucid relief loss can breed hyperbole. So, I wonder, was the astonishment I experienced while attending the memorial retrospective of paintings by Jacob Lawrence, currently on view at DC Moore Gallery, intensified by the artist’s death last June at the age of 82? Maybe. Certainly his art is now weighted by history, in all of its inevitability. But for sentimentality to amplify (or cloud) the accomplishment of this most unsentimental of artists would be, if not impossible, then close to it.

As a painter, Lawrence knew his own mind from the outset; the exhibition, while all over the place chronologically, is of a piece aesthetically. Transcending the fusty bromides of the Social Realism that was his cultural birthright, Lawrence plumbed the arts of ancient Egypt, the Renaissance, Africa and early Modernism to achieve a pictorial synthesis so magisterial, yet so plainspoken, that it’s going to take years for us to catch up with it. Whether it be Brooklyn builders or The Petition of Many Slaves, his images are charged with a deep-seated, affirming but by no means credulous humanism. Lawrence’s wasn’t political art, but to ignore its propulsive sense of mission is to deny the paintings of their stoic, steely power. A major museum retrospective of the work opens at the Phillips collection this May. It’s hard to believe it will make a stronger case for Lawrence’s oeuvre than the DC Moore show. But it will. Jacob Lawrence: Memorial Exhibition is at DC Moore Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, until March 3.

Primordial Scratchings, Circa 1940

The prominent spot Theodoros Stamos (1922-97) occupies in The Irascibles, the Mt. Rushmore–like photo of the New York School featured in a 1951 issue of Life magazine, couldn’t buy him a more secure place in the annals of Abstract Expressionism than did his later involvement in the Rothko scandal. His paintings have pretty much earned themselves a permanent berth in the storage racks of our museums. One can get a feel for why that is by visiting the Foundation for Hellenic Culture, where a sampling of Stamos’ canvases is on display.

The pictographic abstractions of the 1940′s exhibit a painter yearning to tap into the mythic authority of primordial symbols. Their flinty tones and grainy surfaces suggest scratchings on a cave wall. The dust blanketed over them, however, isn’t that of pre-history, but of mid-20th-century Manhattan. The paintings aren’t without their moments. The splay of elbow-like forms in Deserted Garden (1950) and the wavering spectral presence of The Ancestral (1948) catch the eye, but only an eye willing to make allowances for a figure who seems so much more a hanger-on than the real thing.

The best picture isn’t abstract: It’s an Avery-esque depiction, circa 1940-44, of a lobster in a basket. Ensconced under a moonlit sky occupied by a single sinister cloud, the title crustacean is less trapped than philosophically resigned to his fate. A more thorough overview of Stamos’ oeuvre might yield some surprises, but it’s unlikely that any of them will best the listless melancholy of The Lobster. Theodoros Stamos: 1922-1997 is at the Foundation for Hellenic Culture, 7 West 57th Street, until Feb. 26.

Stout’s Conventioneers, Nixon and Clinton

Droves of contemporary artists employing high-tech implements, suitably obtuse theories and hundreds of square feet of exhibition space only dream of the disassociated weirdness Frank Stout achieves with materials as quotidian as oil paint and canvas. The centerpiece of this Vermont-based painter’s attenuated retrospective, currently on view at the Painting Center, is his “convention pictures.” Based on photographs of conventioneers the artist discovered while rooting around in flea markets, these sweeping ruminations on individuality and anonymity evoke a smoky, meat-and-potatoes America, one that’s not so much bygone as absorbed into our collective memory.

The figures populating the paintings look out expectantly, as if they were relying on us to fulfill our role in some unnamable bargain. These personages, at once bland and grotesque, are flicked into life by Mr. Stout’s deft and wicked brush. His wicked wit, however, isn’t always so deft. When we spot Richard Nixon grinning at us from The Lobster Convention, the painting stumbles to a sarcastic halt. Yet Mr. Stout must also be considered something of a prophet. How else are we to explain the presence of William Jefferson Clinton or at least, his doppelgänger meekly peering out at us from the bottom left corner of the same 1974 canvas? Compelling, uncanny and this side of cruel, Mr. Stout is more disconcerting than Francis Bacon ever was. The Art of Frank Stout is at the Painting Center, 52 Greene Street, until Feb. 24.

Photographic Kudos To Six Painters

Six American Painters and the Photograph, an exhibition at Zabriskie Gallery, is in caliber and discrimination, if not scale and scope, a museum-quality show. (Whether some of our museums are museum-quality is the subject of another column.) The exhibition features Konrad Cramer, Ralston Crawford, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Richard Pousette-Dart, Ben Shahn and Charles Sheeler, all of whom are given priority as photographers rather than painters. Viewers unfamiliar with their achievements as the latter may feel a bit lost contemplating their achievements as the former.

Cramer and Kuniyoshi, artists who are at best dimly remembered, register as little more than blurs, although Kuniyoshi’s Untitled (Two Bathers) (circa 1920) is memorable as a cheap joke and the ethereal Untitled (Man Perched on a Rigging Ship) (1938) is memorable as something more. Pousette-Dart’s photographs of ice crystals and flowers underscore his Horton the Elephant–like ability to intuit an expansive cosmos within the most minute of locales. Shahn, the shoot-from-the-hip documentarian, is always preferable to Shahn the Social Realist. And if Crawford’s photographs are interesting primarily as studies for his paintings, the same can’t be said for those of Charles Sheeler. His River Rouge Plant (1927), one of the most beautiful works of art currently on view in the city, demands that a retrospective of Sheeler the photographer be put into motion. Maybe some enterprising museum curator will take the lead. Better yet, maybe Zabriskie will. Six American Painters and the Photograph is at Zabriskie Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until March 17.