An Artist’s Explosive Abandon
And His Spirit of Resistance
Willem de Kooning was said to have wondered why the American painter George McNeil (1908-1995), an artist whose work he admired enormously, was never accorded the success he deserved. After having visited ACA Galleries, which is currently hosting a stirring array of McNeil’s bathers, dancers and “abstracts,” I find this question eminently repeatable. Why hasn’t this great painter been accorded the success, or at least the recognition, he deserves? Helen McNeil, writing in the exhibition catalog, attributes her father’s historical fate to his “spirit of resistance.” She has a point: Any artist who made a concerted effort not to appear in Life magazine’s historic “Irascibles” photograph was irascible enough to shoot himself in the foot.
Still, McNeil’s dissatisfying standing has just as much-and probably more-to do with an art culture indifferent to life. Finding inspiration in the sights, sounds and sensations of the city, McNeil “celebrate[d] the pulsating vividness of being.” Whether channeling cave painting or Bonnard, El Greco or graffiti, he approached each canvas with an explosive and consistent abandon. The resulting images, however, are remarkably various in temper. By turns manic and elegiac, magisterial and droll, McNeil’s art constitutes an unapologetic and headlong hymn to freedom. No wonder he’s undervalued; anyone who doesn’t confirm the closed-down horizons of the scene doesn’t register with its tastemakers. McNeil knew better: Life is short, so grab it while you can. His achievement lies not in how enthusiastically he took in the world, but in how brilliantly he gave it back. GeorgeMcNeil(1908-1995): Bathers, Dancers and Abstracts is at ACA Galleries, 529 West 20th Street, fifth floor, until May 11.
In Great, Stifled Art
The “prop” sculptures of Richard Serra, currently the subject of an exhibition at Van de Weghe Fine Art, are so taut and terse and good that it might seem the height of contrariness to use them as a platform for complaint. Yet complain I will. What afflicts these pieces is the same thing that stifles any work that can trace its origins back to Minimalism: a disregard for the pliability of art. By insisting on the primacy of the object rather than on the slipperiness of metaphor, Minimalist artists deflect engagement-that is to say, they ignore you and me-in the quest for the absolute. This is a weighty ambition, to be sure, but we meet up with enough rejection in life. Why should we have to put up with art that doesn’t want to put up with us?
Having said that, Mr. Serra’s prop sculptures are compelling in that they underscore just how tenuous the absolute can be. By subjecting planks of steel and lead to the pull of gravity and the particulars of place, Mr. Serra creates sculptures that snuggle, tilt and sit with a decisive and, at times, gentle concision. Some of them even evince a sense of humor-a quality we don’t normally associate with this artist. As muscular and blunt as Mr. Serra’s signature arcs and torques, the props are atypical in that they recognize vulnerability even as they refuse to surrender to it. How much one admires them will depend on whether one prefers this artist as a sculptor of undeniable gifts or as a Master of the Universe. I know which I prefer. Sad to say, I think I know which Mr. Serra prefers, too. Richard Serra: Prop Sculptures 1969-1987 is at Van de Weghe Fine Art, 521 West 23rd Street, until May 26.
Don’t be put off by the Victorian must emanating from the work of the British photographer Charles Jones (1866-1959)-there’s more to his pictures than period flavor. Jones, whose photographs of Brussels sprouts, dahlias, pea pods and tulips are currently the subject of an exhibition at Davis & Langdale, achieved notoriety during his lifetime for his skills as a gardener; he received rave reviews in The Gardener’s Chronicle , in fact. What wasn’t known during Jones’ lifetime-indeed, what wasn’t discovered until 22 years after his death-was his output as a photographer. Discovered in a trunk at an antique market in London, Jones’ photographs are nothing short of a find.
Given that he kept his extra-botanical pursuits a secret from those around him, one might regard Jones’ photographic efforts less as a calling than as an obsession, perhaps even a fetish. Certainly the work has an illicit character, with its clinical remove and intimately cropped compositions. Even more uncanny is Jones’ sense of mortality-his sugar beets and zinnias expound upon our fleeting stay on earth with the utmost delicacy. These have to be some of the most beautiful photographs ever taken; some of the creepiest, too. Not with standing their exquisite veneer, Jones’ pictures aren’t for the faint of heart. But they are recommended. Charles Jones (1866-1959): Photographs is at Davis & Langdale Company Inc., 231 East 60th Street, until May 11.