Happy Release of Drawing Exposes Artist’s Lighter Side

New Yorkers who enjoyed Ellsworth Kelly: Tablet 1949-1973 , an exhibition last summer at Soho’s Drawing Center, should go see Helmut Federle: Works on Paper from 1969 to 2001 at the Peter Blum Gallery. The pleasure of Tablet stemmed from watching Mr. Kelly think out loud-scribbling ideas for paintings and sculptures, doodling on whatever surface happened to be at hand, pursuing momentary caprices that may (or may not) have been fruitful. Familiarity with Mr. Kelly’s finished work, elegant and impeccable, added to the fun. Who doesn’t like to watch a sober-sides get loose as a goose? Mr. Federle isn’t as well-known as Mr. Kelly-though a prominent figure in his native Switzerland, he’s shown only intermittently in the United States. Our response to the drawings, then, can’t depend upon the ability to contrast them with the paintings.

What little I’ve seen of Mr. Federle’s canvases-austere geometric abstractions keyed to a dour, sulfurous green-confirms that, when putting paint to canvas, he is well-intentioned, but also dry and ponderous, overly theoretical. This isn’t the artist we see in the 200 drawings at Blum. The artist who made the drawings is offhand and quizzical, light on his feet. Taking inspiration from Malevich, the Bauhaus, Auguste Herbin and maybe even Ellsworth Kelly himself, Mr. Federle entertains whatever notion comes to mind, however skimpy, idiosyncratic or obvious. An often funny dialogue between representation and abstraction is a constant in the work. Early on, spiky, oddball shapes are extracted from the play of light over the Alps; later, the human form is constructed from a stack of triangles. Mr. Federle’s attention to composition leads him to some arresting flights of fancy-in a stand-out drawing, strips of masking tape inadvertently set off a calisthenic counterrhythm to a punchy group of squares and rectangles. He stumbles attempting to reclaim the pre-Nazi swastika as a pictorial arbiter; mere art can’t redeem what has been forever tainted. The rest of the time, Mr. Federle hits, misses, knocks it out of the ballpark and is never not asking questions. Would that Mr. Kelly were so inquisitive.

Helmut Federle: Works on Paper from 1969 to 2001 is at the Peter Blum Gallery, 99 Wooster Street, until July 12.

Systematic Spaghetti

The Federle show is inexhaustible-even when there isn’t much to look at, there’s still something to see. At the 19-year overview of drawings by the painter James Siena, currently at Gorney, Bravin and Lee, there’s always something to see, and it’s invariably highly accomplished and intensely realized. Yet the show itself wears out its welcome quickly. Mr. Siena’s meticulously delineated abstractions have garnered a quiet though significant and seemingly obsessive coterie of fans. They’re surely more obsessive than the artist himself: Mr. Siena’s wobbly patterning may bring to mind the convoluted fancies of an outsider artist, but he’s not haunted by demons or oblivious to the world. He’s more duty-bound than driven-a workaholic, not a visionary.

The drawings rely on the systematic, but always veer off-course. They do conform unfailingly to the perimeters of the page. They resemble pseudo-Surrealist webbing, ornate architectural structures, lumpish crystals and endless strands of spaghetti. Various cultures have influenced Mr. Siena, most notably Islam and Navajo. The crafting of the drawings is winning in its dedication; there’s no doubt one would look good hanging in the living room. Seen as a group, however, it becomes clear that flexibility of means does not guarantee flexibility of ends. The tension Mr. Siena creates has no variety or nuance; in terms of pictorial effect, the images are indistinguishable one from another. Gallery-goers are bound to love the first drawing they come across-the second one, too. Round about the ninth or 10th, they’ll start to wonder what else there is to look at in Chelsea.

James Siena: Drawings is at Gorney, Bravin and Lee, 534 West 26th Street, until July 31.

Drunk on

Modernism

The exhibition Herbert Bayer: Bauhaus Legacy , at the Kent Gallery in Soho, won’t win any awards for truth in advertising. Not much of a case can be made for Bayer’s legacy, either as a proponent of the Bauhaus or as a Modernist master, on the evidence of this truncated and rather discursive retrospective. The show aims to underscore Bayer’s artistic consistency and stylistic fluency; it includes paintings, drawings, photographs and montages spanning almost 40 years. Instead, it makes Bayer (1900-1985) look flighty and unfocused, incapable of staying for long with any one thing.Unfurlingdreamscapes, designer Cubism, Magrittean montages, Dadaist-inspired tomfoolery and, later in life, a quasi-religious futurism-Bayer brought the same keen and glancing intelligence to them all. The early work shows us the excitement of an artist drunk on Modernism: We exult in Bayer’s dizzying and newfound sense of freedom, the license to explore artistic avenues not yet imagined. The Lonely Metropolitan (1932), an absurdist exegesis on urban anomie, is the keeper; Symbols in Blue (1960), a comic procession of cosmological entities, is the charmer. The loss of tone between the two defines the exhibition and, for all I know, the oeuvre itself.

Herbert Bayer: Bauhaus Legacy is at the Kent Gallery, 67 Prince Street, until July 25.