Abstract Photographs Sexier Than Anything O’Keeffe Did
During his lifetime, Konrad Cramer was known, primarily if not widely, as a painter. Born in Wurtzburg, Germany, in 1888, Cramer emigrated to the United States in 1911, hobnobbed with the Stieglitz circle and was among the first stateside to pursue abstraction. (He died in 1963.) At this date, he’s familiar primarily to specialists in early American modernism-and even that might be an iffy call. Given the few Cramer canvases I’ve seen, he’s fated to footnote-hood for a reason. As a photographer, however, Cramer warrants a deeper scrutiny.
The work included in Konrad Cramer: Experimental Photography from the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, an exhibition currently at Zabriskie Gallery, forms the kind of solid accomplishment that tends to get glossed over by those with bigger fish to fry. Admittedly, some of the photographs reiterate why we value big fish in the first place. Cramer’s “experiments”-his solarized nudes, double exposures and pictures of sculpture constructed specifically to be photographed-are dated in a way that only the most enthusiastic of larks can be. Yet when he played it straight-photographing desktops, fish tanks and wagon wheels without (or with little) mediation-Cramer achieved a delicacy so full and sharp that it’s enough to break one’s heart. What he does with gourds and fabric constitutes the sternest magic. And when Cramer brings the camera up close to the botanical, he’s sexier than Georgia O’Keeffe ever was. Konrad Cramer: Experimental Photography from the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s is at Zabriskie Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until Aug. 3.
This Is the Good Stuff
Culture mavens wanting to gauge just how blasé they’ve become in a city as full of riches as our own need only ask themselves how recently they’ve taken the Jan Krugier Gallery for granted. The answer, I would bet, is pretty darn recently. Were Krugier’s current show, From Turner to Cézanne: Works on Paper, exhibited anywhere else in the country, people would be lining up to get in the door, and with good reason. It’s elegant, understated and, most significantly, peppered with gems by the likes of Eugene Delacroix, J.A.D. Ingres, Claude Monet, Georges Seurat and Paul Cézanne, whose watercolors are touched by genius even when barely touched by brush.
Of course, one of the luxuries of being a New Yorker is that our proximity to great art allows us the leeway to get caught up on curiosities more than might otherwise be beneficial. In the case of Turner to Cézanne, such oddments include an enticing array of smudges and smears by Victor Hugo that could’ve been smudged and smeared last week; a dramatic rush of space courtesy of a chalk drawing by Theodore Rousseau; and a charcoal by Odilon Redon that is as atypically coarse as it is atypically apocalyptic.
There’s sculpture here, too, although Auguste Rodin-that ham of all hams-nearly drags the whole thing to a standstill. Fortunately Edgar Degas, with his golden-or, in this case, bronze-touch, gives the show the pensive uplift it deserves. From Turner to Cézanne: Works on Paper is at Jan Krugier Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until July 26.
Western Culture On His Shoulders
The American painter Leland Bell (1922-1991), whose canvases are included in a group exhibition titled Larger Than Life currently at the Center for Figurative Painting, cuts a formidable figure-and a troublesome one, too. His elaborately choreographed pictures combine a classically styled representation with the pictorial verities of the School of Paris, particularly those of Jean Helion, Fernand Léger and, sneaking in sideways, Hans Arp. Bell’s domestic scenes are less a kind of intimism than pictorial armatures upon which are draped ringing colors, a dancing black line and, most dauntingly, the solemn and sturdy weight of tradition. In Bell’s pictures, even the smallest detail-the glass of water left unfinished in Figure Group with Bird (1991), for example-is a standard-bearer of history, immovable and dense.
Bell’s art is huge in its ambition-as huge, one should add, as it is belligerent. Here’s a painter who couldn’t put brush to canvas without advertising that it is he, and he alone, who shoulders the burden that is Western Culture. Who needs such hectoring self-righteousness? The thing is that Bell’s considerable liabilities as an artist are inseparable from his considerable powers as a painter. There’s no getting around how right the pictures can be. Their exacting artifice seduces even as we resist the seducer.
Bell’s reputation will gain in stature even as his achievement continues to vex and prickle. Future cultural custodians will have their hands full with him. One imagines that Bell wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Larger Than Life is at the Center for Figurative Painting, 115 West 30th Street, until Sept. 28.
Torpedoboy And Shag Carpeting
Trenton Doyle Hancock’s mixed-media works, currently on display at James Cohan Gallery, are awful, but not so awful that they obscure the artist’s talent. Populated by corpulent monsters, thickets of trees, ravenous voyeurs, blood vessels and bones, Mr. Hancock’s collages depict a fantastic realm so personal that one can’t tell the players without a scorecard. In lieu of a scorecard, the gallery provides a copy of The Legend Is in Trouble, Mr. Hancock’s explication of his art. The pictures offer (as the press release has it) a “tragic and operatic” narrative, one that concerns itself with ape-men jacking off, vicious vegan rebels, “leaking moundmeat” and someone-our hero?-called Torpedoboy.
Such mythopoeic twaddle is easy enough to dismiss, but Mr. Hancock isn’t. He’s an artist with a real feel for collage, for the choppy contour created by a pair of scissors and the electricity that is sparked when materials, textures and spaces are juxtaposed just so. He even makes a case for shag carpeting as a viable means of artistic expression. Yet Mr. Hancock’s work is never as outrageous or gutsy as it prides itself on being. It’s kid’s stuff writ with a grubby expertise. If Mr. Hancock wants to build on his gift, he’s got to put more effort into getting out of his own head-or at least out of the back pages of old art magazines. There are better exemplars for up-and-comers than the overheated turgidities of Neo-Expressionism. Mr. Hancock doesn’t think so, and therein lies the hurdle. Trenton Doyle Hancock: The Legend Is in Trouble is at James Cohan Gallery, 41 West 57th Street, until July 28.