A Soundtrack Might Help: Thin Portraits of Music Greats

By now, we’re all used to the merchandising of museum exhibitions. We tolerate the gift shops, the scarves, the handbags, coasters, key chains and melting clocks that actually work (in honor of Salvador Dali, of course). It’s cheesy-it degrades the museum-going experience-but we tell ourselves that it’s a way to generate funds for the greater cause of art.

The other day, I found myself wishing that the Studio Museum in Harlem’s gift shop sold a CD of musical accompaniment for Frederick J. Brown: Portraits in Jazz, Blues and Other Icons . Mr. Brown’s paintings depict, among other notables, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, B.B. King, Koko Taylor and the incomparable Otis Spann, whose piano graced some of Muddy Waters’ finest recordings. A soundtrack for the show might have been popular and profitable, though it wouldn’t have done much for the paintings. Never less than heartfelt, Mr. Brown’s valentines to jazz and the blues are also, sadly, clumsy in their drawing and cursory in their execution, almost shockingly superficial. If there were music, one wouldn’t mind so much that the paintings aren’t very good.

Mr. Brown has been compared to Expressionists of all stripes, from German to Abstract to Neo-. This is, to an extent, justified. A glance at the work’s bold and often jarring colors, forthright surfaces and distorted figures, and you can tell that Mr. Brown has spent time looking at the work of Max Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, as well folk art, African masks and the paintings of Willem de Kooning (who is the subject of an engaging and goofy homage). Yet Expressionism, for Mr. Brown, isn’t about caustic emotions or ugly truths; it’s about style and choice. There isn’t an iota of angst in these pictures. In fact, you get the idea from the Studio Museum show that Mr. Brown is an ingratiating and cheerful guy. He plays fast and loose with color, gesture and anatomy because he’s happily able to do so. Can he be self-indulgent? Yes: As a paint handler, Mr. Brown is convinced of his Midas touch. He’s not as stern with himself as he should be.

This is not the case with the New York City paintings: Bleecker Street (1981), with its grimacing quintet of gender-benders, and the monumental Stagger Lee (1984). An African-American archetype whose roots most likely originate in Memphis, Stagger Lee is the hero of an allegory about lawlessness as a kind of freedom-hence the picture’s looming array of cocksure and totemic figures. Yet it is this city that pervades Stagger Lee , through its rattling rhythms, compacted space and abrupt juxtapositions of pattern, color and value. As aggressively intimate and dizzyingly various as a ride on the No. 7 train, it’s probably Mr. Brown’s masterpiece. However much he may love the blues, it’s the city that makes this painter sing.

Frederick J. Brown: Portraits in Jazz, Blues and Other Icons is at the Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 West 125th Street, until June 29.

Slack Minimalist

I missed Richard Tuttle’s last show at Sperone Westwater and have been kicking myself ever since: Artists and critics whose opinions I respect extolled the virtues of Mr. Tuttle’s painted wall constructions. I was curious about this, because I’ve never paid much attention to Mr. Tuttle. His unkempt brand of Minimalism-so rarefied it hardly exists-always seemed to me one more 60’s holdover saddled with far too much critical and historical baggage. Had he, with his new work, broken free from the iron grip of Minimalism, that dull and deadly monolith? I made a mental note not to miss Mr. Tuttle’s next exhibition.

Having taken a look at the new exhibition, I’ve decided that all that kicking was misplaced. Mr. Tuttle has applied washes, splashes, drips, stripes and roaming brushstrokes to museum board and foam core, which he then cuts into irregular shapes and uses to construct two-tiered relief paintings. Vaguely Asian in their ease and vaguely lyrical in their palette, the pieces are mostly slack. I know Mr. Tuttle’s offhandedness is his charm, but he could’ve put some effort into giving the contours just a modicum of flex. As it is, the work is lazily at odds with itself and easily resistible. Consider how these precious nothings are affixed to the wall-with a nail driven meticulously and conspicuously through the front of each piece. Mr. Tuttle is trying to tell us two things: He’s in charge, and metaphor is a cheat. Guess that means he’s still a Minimalist after all.

Richard Tuttle: 20 Pearls is at Sperone Westwater, 415 West 13th Street, until May 31.

A Glimmer of Hope

On the invitation to Louise Fishman’s show at Cheim & Read is a reproduction of one of her latest paintings, a hasty sprawl of snarled brushstrokes titled The End of a Perfect Day . Looking at it made me wonder whether there shouldn’t be a moratorium on the making of art that claims Abstract Expressionism as its birthright. Not that the New York School hasn’t occasioned a lot of terrific art; where would painters like Melissa Meyer, Tine Lundsfryd and Michael Mulhern be without it? Nor would I want to go on record claiming that any particular tradition has played itself out. Still, there are moments when one wishes that Action Painting would go the way of the passenger pigeon. Certainly, it has resulted in a lot of overheated painting: sloppy and turgid stuff that could serve as an inadvertent advertisement for tempered emotions and artistic decisions deliberately nudged into shape.

Seeing The End of a Perfect Day in the flesh-it’s the first painting you see when you walk into Cheim & Read-does nothing to dispel such thoughts. This is an artist for whom intuition and desperation are all but indistinguishable. Walking in to the second gallery, you’re confronted by architectural structures, discordant greens, surging brushwork and Abstract Expressionism as a dead horse that’s been flogged one too many times. It’s at this point that Ms. Fishman vindicates herself by demonstrating that Action Painting is a myth we can still buy into. There are three good paintings here … well, two and a half: The somber, purplish light of Stone Out of Sleep (2003) is marred by snaky brushstrokes-needless flourishes on an otherwise solid structure. The other two canvases are Perilous Things (2003), the best Joan Mitchell painting Joan Mitchell never painted, and My City (2002), which features the most complex-or, at least, unexpected-pictorial space of Ms. Fishman’s career. Will she be able to follow up on the promise of this good new work? Only if she’s willing to risk a sense of measure that has so far proved incompatible with her aesthetic.

Louise Fishman: My City; Paintings and Drawings is at Cheim & Read, 547 West 25th Street, until May 24.