Bracing Philosophical Openness Freshens a 60’s Retrospective

I’ve been trying to avoid writing about Summer in the City: High in the 60’s , an exhibition currently on view at Ameringer/Howard/Yohe. It’s a show that has a lot going against it. First of all, there’s the title: I don’t mind the Lovin’ Spoonful reference, but alluding to the era’s drug culture is too cute, particularly for a classy 57th Street venue-I mean, Cheech & Chong this gallery ain’t. Then there’s the matter of curatorial expediency. The folks at Ameringer/Howard/Yohe don’t have to dig too deep in the warehouse to round up a decent display of colorfield painting. That’s something they can do with their eyes closed.

Finally, the fact that most of the artists featured-painters like Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Friedel Dzubas and the sculptor Anthony Caro-are linked with the art critic Clement Greenberg is mildly off-putting. Don’t get me wrong-my esteem for Greenberg’s criticism is considerable. But these particular artists signal Greenberg’s aesthetic petrification; they mark the point beyond which he would never venture, at least in print.

All in all, Summer in the City seemed a purely reflexive endeavor. Yet here I am, writing about it. Why? Because this is a summer show with purpose. At a time when most galleries trot out any old thing on the theory that no one’s paying attention, Ameringer/Howard/Yohe offers a sense of vision . Looking at the two paintings by Ms. Frankenthaler, I was struck by their color and spaciousness, but I was most impressed by their grandeur. These aren’t “watercolor[s] that ate the art world,” as a critic of note dismissively put it; they are paintings with reach, momentum and optimism. Ms. Frankenthaler’s canvases, in contrast to so much of what passes for art nowadays, acknowledge the world that exists beyond their borders. This philosophical openness-a kind of healthy engagement with experience in all of its varieties-is a bracing thing to behold.

A similar give-and-take weaves its way through Summer in the City , even among its lesser lights. For instance, I’ve never fathomed the appeal of Mr. Noland, and the jury’s still out on Mr. Olitski. Flats (1964), a welded-steel sculpture by Mr. Caro, strikes me as a relatively pedestrian work from this artist’s strongest period. Here, however, all three are buoyed by the show’s expansive generosity. Dzubas is represented by a jolly gem of a picture. A glib canvas by Robert Motherwell is redeemed by a fine collage from 1984 (so much for the chronological coherence). The elegiac beauty of Louis’ Italian Veil (1959) should be enough to silence this underrated painter’s overheated detractors.

And let’s not forget Hans Hofmann, in many ways the sine qua non of this show. His four ink-on-paper self-portraits and Olive Grove , a magisterial oil on canvas from 1960, radiate with his signature propulsive exuberance. The casual élan of Wolf Kahn’s pastel landscapes, the subject of a concurrent exhibition in the side gallery, adds to the predominating spirit. Summer in the City is a vivifying antidote to the heat, humidity and humdrum art currently engulfing us.

Summer in the City: High in the 60’s is at Ameringer/Howard/Yohe, 20 West 57th Street, until Sept. 14.

Gerardo Rueda’s New York Debut

Until I visited Mono-chrome , a group show curated by the art historian Dr. Barbara Rose that closed last month at Paul Rodgers/9W in Chelsea, I’d never heard of the Spanish painter and sculptor Gerardo Rueda (1926-1996). There’s a reason why I was in the dark about Rueda: His work had never been exhibited in New York. One of the pieces, a painted wall construction titled CHAVI (1976), announced itself forthrightly and withheld its secrets steadfastly; its rigor set it off from its neighbors. The other Ruedas in Mono-chrome didn’t come up to that level, but all were marked by the same firm intelligence.

As it happens, the first New York exhibition of Rueda’s work-or rather, one aspect of it-is currently on display at the Spanish Institute. Titled Gerardo Rueda: The Master of Silence , it’s dedicated exclusively to Rueda’s abstract collages. Like the Rodgers show, The Master of Silence was curated by Dr. Rose, who is, one gathers, a fan of the artist. (Her biography of Rueda is coming out next year.) The pieces on view at the Spanish Institute date from 1954 to 1993. In them, we see Rueda glance upon solid precedents-Cubism, Arp and Constructivism most notably; Surrealism and Dada less so; and Matisse here and there. The pieces are characterized by simple though not uncomplicated relationships, biomorphic shapes, crisp contours and soft rhythms.

The collages are whimsical and knotty by turns, and always received and recycled-Rueda didn’t partake of Modernism so much as follow in its wake. Still, a curious quality-something absurdist, maybe, or a tad metaphysical-eventually comes to the fore. The best works date from the 1960’s, when Rueda’s elemental forms coalesce into amusing caprices. The weakest come at the end of his life, where we see design principles mask a lack of inspiration. Ultimately, the truncated nature of The Master of Silence frustrates. One’s left to wonder: Would more Rueda be more-or less? A fuller accounting would help. Let’s hope Ms. Rose will oblige.

Gerardo Rueda: The Master of Silence is at the Spanish Institute, 684 Park Avenue, until July 31.