He is “the sort of genius that
communities usually massacre and then afterward revere,” wrote the great
American art critic Henry McBride of the
fine American painter Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), whose watercolors and
drawings are the subject of an exhibition at Kennedy Galleries. McBride’s
statement has to it a mock-dramatic flourish that is typical of his wit. His subsequent
commendation of Burchfield’s pictures-that they were “songs of hate”-did not.
That the latter remark was a curious plaudit is obvious, yet McBride was a bit
off the mark in making it. Certainly “hate” conveys the severity of
Burchfield’s vision. It also implies that the work is utterly subjective, and
that isn’t the case at all. What’s illumined in the pictures isn’t the artist’s
emotional temper, but that of his subject-the natural world.
Burchfield’s portrayals of
farmland and forests evidence mankind only through its artifacts: train tracks,
shacks and rickety fences. Nature is the animating force of the pictures, a
nature as unforgiving as it is independent. The tranquil moments in Burchfield’s
pictures are few; the nestling flowers of Bloodroot
(Black Ravine) and the storybook embrace of Snow Scene (both 1917) are peculiar in their calm. More typical is Sunburst After Spring Storm (1951),
wherein the land betokens an optimism and an order only as preparation for
admonition. This is a song of retribution, not hate. Think of Burchfield as kin
of Clyfford Still, another intransigent loner whose vision was as dour as his
gift was narrow. Then ponder the permanent berth the God of Jonathan Edwards
has taken in the American countryside. Charles
E. Burchfield: The Imaginative Landscape is at Kennedy Galleries, 730 Fifth
Avenue, until Jan. 19.
His Surfaces Sing,
His Forms Do Not
The surfaces of Ken Price’s
sculptures, seven of which are now on display at Franklin Parrasch Gallery, are
breathtakingly abraded. Mr. Price layers acrylic paint onto his ceramic
biomorphs and then wears it down, removing some of it; in the process, he achieves
a luxurious veneer of nubbly color. His palette ranges from psychedelic
mottlings of orange, green and blue to less flamboyant shimmers of aquamarine,
yellow and rust. Elbow grease has been invested in the work’s hard sensuality,
and it is to Mr. Price’s credit that the pieces never feel labored. His
surfaces sing. His forms, unfortunately, do not.
The sculptures bring to mind the usual suspects informing
biomorphism-microscopic life forms, vegetation, sea creatures and the like-and
that’s the problem with the work: its usualness. Imagine a Hans Arp enamored of
cartoons and taxidermy rather than the unconscious and nature, and you’ll have
an idea why Mr. Price’s blips and blobs feel freeze-dried and stilted. Lacking
a vital autonomy, the pieces engage us primarily as displays of artistic
know-how. We note how the artist keeps our eye engaged by making the pieces
various from every conceivable angle; we smile at the droll, groping comedy his
specimens engage in; and we drift back to those super surfaces.
Those for whom surface is
paramount will fall in love with Mr. Price’s work. The rest of us will respond
with an appreciative bemusement and move on. Ken Price: New Work is at Franklin Parrasch Gallery, 20 West 57th
Street, until Dec. 22.
The Internet Show?
Here We Go
The first rule of art criticism is that an exhibition must be
seen before it is written about. So why devote 200 words to a show I haven’t
seen and don’t intend to? Because Artists
of Brücke: Themes in German Expressionist Prints , which has been organized
by the Museum of Modern Art, isn’t real. It’s the museum’s “first exhibition
created exclusively for the [W]eb.” One understands why MoMA selected German
Expressionist prints for their initial Internet showcase. Prints are, by their
very nature, removed from the directness of touch, and prints by the
Expressionists are renowned for the punch they pack. The implication is that
the work is sort of virtual already, and that its graphic potency will,
nonetheless, make itself felt over the glare of the computer screen.
The fundamental truth that
MoMA is traipsing over is that a work of art is an object whose
physicality-whose thing-ness-is essential to the experience of it. It’s there
or it’s not. This goes for prints, too: Who could deny the brusque force of a
line that’s been put into shape through the gouging of a wood block? It is of
some small reassurance, then, that the claims made for Artists of Brücke have less to do with aesthetics than with
accessibility, “fluidity” and education-the usual bromides about the Internet.
So maybe I’m a nervous Nellie
peering down a slope that’s not as slippery as I think. Maybe the physical
integrity of art isn’t being undermined. Maybe ventures such as Artists of Brücke will go the way of the
eight-track tape. In a culture as tech-happy as our own, don’t count on it and
worry. Artists of Brücke: Themes in
German Expressionist Prints is at http://www.moma.org/brucke and will remain
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