A Minimalist Artist With a Modernist Bent

Certainty is not an attribute that immediately springs to mind when we think of 20th-century art. A certain anxiety-a Cézannean doubt-is one of the defining hallmarks of the modernist enterprise. Until, that is, the advent of Minimalism, an ethos so certain of its rightness, both aesthetic and historic, that it stands in the causeway of late 20th-century art as the most intractable of obstacles.

A clean and constricting air of certainty pervades the exhibition Tony Smith: Paintings and Sculpture, 1960-65, currently at Mitchell-Innes & Nash-or so I thought upon my initial visit to the show. Smith’s paintings and sculptures do share similarities with Minimalism: a severe concentration of form, a blunt physicality and an unapologetic, impersonal purity. After several viewings, however, Smith’s sculptures- schematic amalgams of the architectural, the mathematical and the industrial-began to feel less pure and more quirky, even cranky.

Rummaging through an old art-history text, I came across the opinion that Smith (1912-80) was too “expressionist” to be considered a doctrinaire Minimalist. “Expressionist” is a mite strong, but it does hint at why the work nags in a way that the sculpture of, say, Donald Judd or Ronald Bladen doesn’t. Smith wasn’t an authoritarian like Judd-his work is, in its own unadorned way, easy-going-and he’s more off-kilter, if less elegiac, than Bladen. There is, in fact, an almost perverse streak of contrariness to Smith’s sculpture. He wasn’t concerned with anything as tediously absolute as the proverbial primary structure (to dust off an old art-critical saw). Smith was fascinated by structures that were un-primary, if just by a smidgen. It is this “smidgen” that catches the eye, compelling us to look twice and look long.

Smith’s paintings aren’t much more than exercises-from all appearances, he could hardly be bothered with them-and his oeuvre is, as a whole, stretched too tightly over too narrow an artistic swath. Yet anyone who could make a mute rectangle of bronze seem like the sole arbiter of gravity, as Smith does with Wall (1964), deserves that long second look. Tony Smith: Paintings and Sculpture, 1960-65 is at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 1018 Madison Avenue, until June 23.

Post-Everything Art That Leads Nowhere

A commonplace of the current art scene is that the verbiage surrounding exhibitions of contemporary art is often of greater significance than the art itself. Take, as an example, Freestyle, an exhibition of 28 emerging African-American artists at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The word on the show is that it’s “post-black.” Thelma Golden, deputy director for exhibitions and programs at the museum and curator of the show, states that it is also “post-multicultural,” “post-identity” and “post-conceptual.” Given this litany of provocative “posts,” as well as the improvisatory punch of the title, one can reasonably assume that Freestyle concerns itself with artistic momentum, the oncoming wave. And there is, it must be admitted, a sense of shift here: The exhibition is, on the whole, absent of the cynicism typical of the postmodern, a phrase Ms. Golden prudently avoids. Which isn’t to say that this shift leads us anywhere.

The work currently at the Studio Museum is as ephemeral and disconnected as anything else that exemplifies our post-whatever mainstream. As it is, the only items New Yorkers will remember after exiting Freestyle, if for all the wrong reasons, are Susan Smith-Pinelo’s dancing bosom and Eric Wesley’s Kicking Ass (2000). The only thing that deserves to be remembered is Rico Gatson’s Jungle Jungle (2001), a video montage derived from King Kong that makes a pointed gibe about racial stereotyping while reminding us that what we expect from visual artists is, well, something to look at. Freestyle is at the Studio Museum of Harlem, 144 West 125th Street, until June 24.

À la Picasso in His ‘Dirty-Old-Man Phase’

The painter Knox Martin was exhibiting in Chelsea a good 20 to 25 years before the art scene caught up with him. This doesn’t make him a prophet, however. At the time he was commissioned to paint Venus (1970), an enormous mural on the exterior wall of the Bayview Correctional Facility on West 19th Street, no one had an inkling that this out-of-the-way place would become the place to be.

Mr. Martin’s recent black-and-white pictures, currently on view at Janos Gat Gallery, find him working in a decidedly less public vein, although they do make explicit-or more explicit, anyway-the erotic underpinnings informing Venus. The paintings, small in size and rash in momentum, employ abstract means for semi-figurative ends. Characterized by rough-and-tumble brushwork and densely layered surfaces, Mr. Martin’s fractured compendiums of lips, legs and go-go boots recall Picasso during his (as my dentist has it) “dirty-old-man phase.” Mr. Martin is less masterful than Picasso, but he’s also less prone to self-pity, largely because the images don’t feel retrospective. Each painting has a jolting immediacy, as if it were a reiteration of last night’s-or maybe this morning’s-amours.

Mr. Martin’s Old World appetites will have the politically correct among us pursing their lips and tsk-tsk-tsk-ing, while spoilsports will dismiss the paintings as derivative of classic de Kooning. I would argue that the artist makes a broad, good-natured and surprisingly tender farce out of both Abstract Expressionism and his own randiness. Knox Martin is at Janos Gat Gallery, 1100 Madison Avenue, until July 31.

The Most Hilarious Art You’ve Ever Seen

The National Academy of Design’s 176th Annual Exhibition, which includes paintings, sculptures and prints by more than 200 members of the academy, is too sprawling and spotty to please all of the people all of the time-and so what else is new? It is, however, a sprightly-that is to say, atypical-show, one that fairly pulses with a purposeful good cheer. Among its highlights are fine and, at times, superfine pieces by Lois Dodd, Vincent Longo, Andrew Forge, Ruth Miller, Tony Rosenthal and Paul Georges, whose unruly, hedonism gains in stature with each passing year.

Best of all, this year’s show has the distinction of including two of the most hilarious works of art I’ve ever seen. Warrington Colescott’s color etching, Sunday Service (2000), takes the rather uninspired notion that sports-in this case, football-is a surrogate form of religion and runs with it to rambunctiously satiric effect. It’s a cartoon that transcends the cartoonish, one that locates an acerbic sympathy for its eye-gougers, ball-busters and tailgaters.

Then there’s William King’s Spaziert (1996), a sculpture shaped from balsa, aluminum and fabric that depicts-how does one put it politely?-an antiquated egghead curtseying none too elegantly in his bathing trunks. Mr. King’s genteel but sharp-as-can-be wit is one of our finest natural resources, and his art is more profound than its amiable, down-home stylings might suggest. The hands of Spaziert alone, in the astonishing suppleness of their material means, are worth a jaunt to the Upper East Side. Hint to the academy: Can’t someone give this man a retrospective? The 176th Annual Exhibition is at the National Academy of Design Museum, 1083 Fifth Avenue, until June 24.