An Artist’s Formidable Gaze, Withering and a Touch Arrogant

I wasn’t eager to visit the exhibition of paintings by Andrew Spence currently on display at the Edward Thorp Gallery: I doubted he had anything fresh to show me. Mr. Spence’s emblematic semi-abstractions-distillations of observed phenomena keyed to a hard, bright palette and characterized by densely worked surfaces-have been a reliable fixture on the art scene for a couple of decades now. So reliable, in fact, that the artist’s droll mix of Suprematist purity and representational symbol has lost a lot of its luster and, not coincidentally, many of its admirers. Duty, then, brought me to Thorp, and the five paintings in the main gallery were just what I expected. The unfortunate addition of iridescent gold paint has changed nothing: Mr. Spence offers more of the same brand-name style. He’s clearly content to tread water.

So how to explain Grace , Bob and Lumpy , all of which were painted this year? Segregated from the main body of the exhibition, tucked away in the back gallery, they’re unlike the rest of the pictures in kind and in quality. With art of minimal means, minimal shifts in emphasis make all the difference. In these three paintings, Mr. Spence doubles up on pictorial space, thereby breaking the bounds of his flat, sign-like images and providing a flexibility to his wobbly targets, diagrammatic curlicues and pointed ovoid glyphs. As a result, the paintings don’t just declare themselves, they do something. They also have the deadpan wit and the scrupulous attention to surface and color we expect from Mr. Spence. And they’re damn good.

The lesson here is that a painter is better off fine-tuning the conventions of his medium than finessing design. Should Mr. Spence prove to be his own best student, his forthcoming pictures will be something to see.

Andrew Spence: Recent Paintings is at the Edward Thorp Gallery, 210 11th Avenue, sixth floor, until Dec. 7.

Synesthesia

Let’s hear it for the good-not great, but good-artist, the painter or sculptor whose scope is small, who makes few innovations and delivers real and sometimes profound pleasure. The American artist Alan Gussow (1933-97), whose pastel drawings are the subject of an exhibition at the Babcock Galleries, is a minor figure following in the path of a major one-the early American modernist Arthur Dove. Like Dove, Gussow pursued an often clunky mixture of the mystical and the pragmatic, the abstract and the true-to-life. His deep-seated regard for the natural world is evident with each smudge of pastel he put to paper-fitting for an artist who was also a politically involved environmentalist. The best of the pictures use abstraction as a cloak to wrap around their inspiration-whether it be a chili pepper, an eggplant or the full moon-and Gussow’s palette is finest when muted: Smoky browns and dusty purples are his forte. The standout at Babcock, The Feel of a Ripe Tomato in My Left Hand (1987), is a gem of synesthesia: The title seems silly at first, but then you see how thoroughly Gussow’s self-contained scrawls realize his conceit.

Alan Gussow is at the Babcock Galleries, 724 Fifth Avenue, until Dec. 20.

Cinematic Urgency

It’s not a good sign when a catalog outshines the exhibition it accompanies, but such is the case with The Barbarians , a new series of sculptures by Sir Anthony Caro, now on display at Mitchell-Innes & Nash. Looking at the photographs of Sir Anthony’s totemic warriors and hieratic steeds, one is impressed by their fearsome yet comic power, their cinematic urgency. Assembled from terra-cotta, steel, leather and wood, his archetypal sculptures, with their building-block torsos and coarsely abbreviated features, bring to mind a range of influences: Egyptian reliquaries, Chinese armor, African fetishes, Mongolian vestments, Picasso, Giacometti. Whether seen in cropped close-ups or in action shots, The Barbarians appear as participants in a grand historical pageant-one can almost hear the soundtrack, all martial rhythm and stirring crescendo. But again, that’s looking at the catalog, after the camera lens and the book designer have done their bit. Looking at the pieces themselves, one is disappointed by the absence of vitality: The sculptures look plain poky.

The last time he exhibited in New York, Sir Anthony was daunted by precedent-the 13th-century Italian painter Duccio, to be specific-and bored by his own expertise. This time around, he’s revitalized and purposeful, ambitious and how. His intent is clear: to give body to paradigmatic attributes specific to humanity and to art itself. Here and there, he succeeds-or at least entertains. The gnarled schnozz of Kharjar (1999-2002) is a grotesque wonder, and I love the rumpled old geezer driving the kharsag , a traditional Mongolian cart made of wood.

Overall, The Barbarians series is too literal in its primitivism, too pedestrian in its distortions and too willful by half. In the end, one wishes Sir Anthony would forgo the heroics to muck about in the studio-fool around, have some fun. He can do it, too: Ask the folks at Mitchell-Innes & Nash to show you the toy-like maquettes he created for the current installation. They might not be art, but neither are they burdened by it.

Anthony Caro: The Barbarians is at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 1018 Madison Avenue, until Dec. 20.