Talent at the End of the Line: Perfecting Abstract Equipoise

One measure of an artwork’s vitality is its capacity to suggest new possibilities. The artist may not be aware of the forward momentum his work will generate, and it’s rarely the viewer’s primary concern. Picasso and Braque may have had an inkling, when they invented Cubism, that they were putting a ball in motion; whether they knew just how far the ball would roll is doubtful. Not all examples of influence in the making are so earthshaking; some are subtle, and others barely apparent-in fact, it may be easier to detect an artistic dead end than the living conduit of tradition.

All of which serves as a lousy lead-in for a review of Salvatore Federico’s paintings, currently the subject of an exhibition at the Amos Eno Gallery in Tribeca. I say “lousy” because I don’t want to lowball Mr. Federico’s accomplishment: His abstract paintings are substantial and solid, even thrilling. Placing a single, pared-down form against a field of strong color, he engages in a tautly configured dialogue between figure and ground: When one of his pirouetting shapes decides to occupy space, the space it occupies elbows right back. The tense equipoise the pictures achieve may seem simplistic-until one realizes just how various and muscular Mr. Federico’s sharply heraldic shapes are. Their jutting, often unpredictable angles pull at the canvas, at once threatening its collapse and reaffirming its stability. That’s a tough act to pull off, and Mr. Federico does so consummately and consistently.

The balletic lilt of Mr. Federico’s paintings comes from Matisse as filtered through the rarefied sensibility of Ellsworth Kelly. The peculiar concentration of form comes from his teacher, Tony Smith. Mr. Federico can’t be said to enlarge the aesthetic terrain defined by these precedents, but he does thrive within narrow horizons. The pleasure one derives from the paintings has a lot to do with how dynamically he bounces off its parameters. (It makes a perverse kind of sense that this show is in a basement gallery with no windows-enclosure is so much of what the work is about.) Nonetheless, tradition is a force to be kick-started, not a monument to be burnished, and Mr. Federico burnishes lovingly, with fierce intelligence. Hence his limitations, and his strengths.

Salvatore Federico: Recent Paintings is at the Amos Eno Gallery, 59 Franklin Street, No. B2, until March 1.

Only The Shadow Knows

Modern Shadows , a group exhibition on display at the Painting Center, shows us shadows as literal phenomena, as a vehicle for metaphor and-only once-as a rationale for abstraction. The abstract canvas is Marc Sapir’s Host (2002), a vibrantly colored painting that calls to mind the disassociated verities of virtual reality. Abstraction’s lonely status here may be traced to the fact that shadows depend on things and stuff-in other words, actual reality-for their existence. Realist painters such as Philip Pearlstein, Richard Haas, David Kapp and Donna Tadelman-all of whom are featured in Modern Shadows -are fascinated by how shadows can transfigure or dramatize the everyday.

The other, less emphatically realist painters in the show-one can’t quite call them “symbolists”-employ shadow as an agent for poetic commentary: on art and life (Anne Abrons), heroism and solitude (Saul Steinberg), spiritual attainment (Mary Frank), and hellfire and damnation (H.C. Westermann). How Richard Hull’s fidgety architectural fantasy Las Lomas (2001) fits into all of this, I don’t know. I do know that Rafael Ferrer’s unapologetically hetero Mediodia (1983) trades on the shadows of liaisons past, or maybe liaisons imagined. As for curator David Sharpe: He should be commended for putting together a thoughtful and engaging exhibition, as should the Painting Center for allowing him the leeway to do his thing.

Modern Shadows at is at the Painting Center, 52 Greene Street, until March 1.

Teenage Chic

New Yorkers requiring additional proof that commercial galleries the size of airplane hangars don’t necessarily foster the cause of art are invited to attend Matthew Marks’ 24th Street gallery, which is exhibiting Lucian Freud: Drawings 1940 . Actually, “drawings” is a misnomer-juvenilia is more like it. At the age of 80, Mr. Freud is an inescapable figure in the art world, a painter of international renown, huge ambition, undeniable interest and manifest-though not unproblematic-accomplishment. At age 17, when he made all of the drawings on display at the Marks, Mr. Freud was none of these things. He was merely, well, 17 . His pen-and-ink drawings-of friends, horses, and the kind of grim fantasies that are the special purview of teenage boys-divulge no precocious talent: The draftsmanship is slack, the proportions pinched, and the tenor as earnest as it is self-involved.

In the context of an art scene all but defined by the terminally adolescent, Mr. Freud’s early drawings look downright au courant . Maybe that’s why Mr. Marks felt it necessary to exhibit a whopping 168 items: He proves conclusively that old fogeys can be as up-to-the-minute as hipsters like Raymond Pettibon and Elizabeth Peyton. If I were Mr. Freud-that is to say, a painter who looks to Chardin and Velazquez for inspiration-I’d be insulted. But he must have agreed to this ill-advised venture, so he bears some responsibility for it. As for Mr. Marks: Were his gallery a third of the size, or even half, would he have felt the need to exhibit so many of the drawings? I doubt it. As it is, the exhibition includes a self-portrait that awaits reproduction in an as-yet-to-be-published life of the artist. Biographers take note! Anyone else can take a pass.

Lucian Freud: Drawings 1940 is at the Matthew Marks Gallery, 523 West 24th Street, until April 12.