Before there was a New York School or an Artists’ Club, and before anyone above 14th Street had ever heard of the Cedar Tavern, there was the Jane Street Gallery in Greenwich Village, where a group of young, unknown painters-among them, Nell Blaine, Hyde Solomon, Leland Bell, Louisa Matthiasdottir, Albert Kresch and Judith Rothschild-established a co-op exhibition space and debated the relative merits of abstraction and representation. That was in the early 1940’s, when World War II was raging overseas and Paris, the capital of every painter’s dreams, was occupied by the German Army.
The teacher of choice in this circle was Hans Hofmann, a veteran of the School of Paris, and some regarded the French émigré painter Jean Hélion-who had escaped from a German prison camp and lived to write a book about it, They Shall Not Have Me (1943)-as a role model. Mondrian, who died in New York in 1944, was also greatly admired, and jazz was a passion. The critic who put the Jane Street Group (as it came to be called) on the map was Clement Greenberg, who wrote favorable reviews in The Nation in 1947 and 1949.
This is the period recalled for us in two exhibitions at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery: The Jane Street Gallery: Celebrating New York’s First Artist Cooperative and Selected Works: Jean Hélion . Together, they document a chapter in the modern history of New York art life that few artists, critics or curators under the age of 40 are now likely to be even vaguely acquainted with. The reason, of course, is that by the end of 1949, when the Jane Street Gallery closed its doors, the Abstract Expressionist painters of the New York School-Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell et al.-had achieved an ascendancy unrivaled by any other movement or group. This left the Jane Street painters, most of whom came to reject abstraction, in the difficult position of inviting attention as the kind of independent talents that trendy opinion had already declared orphans of the Zeitgeist .
It was in this situation that Jean Hélion (1904-1987) emerged as an emblematic figure for the Jane Street painters. As a member of the Abstraction-Création group in Paris in the early 1930’s, Hélion had achieved recognition on both sides of the Atlantic as a master of abstraction. When that group was dissolved in 1936, he came to the United States, where he spent four years before returning to France in 1940 to join the French Army. It was owing to his experience as a prisoner of war in Germany (1940-42) that he made his fateful decision to abandon abstraction in favor of a mode of representation closely tethered to the observation of everyday life. He thus became a sort of father figure for those painters in the Jane Street Group who were similarly inclined to break free of the orthodoxies of abstraction.
It was as individuals, however, rather than as a group that the Jane Street painters responded to the conflict between abstraction and representation. Nell Blaine (1922-1996) certainly had the gifts to win an immense success as an abstractionist, as we can see from the knockout in the current show, Red and Black (1945). Yet she went on to create her finest work in landscapes, interiors and still lifes that were inspired by Bonnard and Matisse. Judith Rothschild (1921-1993), on the other hand, remained a dedicated and highly accomplished abstract painterfrom
start to finish. LelandBell (1922-1991),whose high-intensity self-portraits_now occupy an honored place in the canon of 20th-century American figurative painting, seems never to have had a vocation for abstraction, to judge from thehapless, heavy-handed variations on the art of Jean Arp he was exhibiting at the Jane Street Gallery in the 1940’s.
Abstraction was_nevera temptation_for Larry_Rivers (1923-2002), a latecomer to the group who commanded attention with his very first show, in_1949,_with paintings heavily influenced by Bonnard._This didn’t_bother Clement Greenberg, who in his Nation review did not hesitate to declare that Rivers was “a better composer of pictures than was Bonnard himself in many instances”-a judgment that many people (Rivers included) found shocking at the time, and still find shocking today. There’s certainly nothing in the Bonnardesque painting in the current show to support the critic’s bizarre claim. But then, Bonnard was always something of a problem for Greenberg, who could never quite forgive him for failing to become an abstractionist.
For myself, anyway, the star of the Jane Street Group is Louisa Matthiasdottir (1917-2000). She was another painter never tempted by abstraction. She had already achieved a mastery of her bold, figurative style in her 1945-46 paintings, as we can see in the Jane Street show, and her later work is even more powerful. (A Self-Portrait in Overalls , circa 1987, is currently on view at the National Academy of Design.) It’s a scandal that no New York museum ever mounted a retrospective of her paintings during the five decades she lived and worked in the city.
The small show of selected works that accompanies the Jane Street Gallery exhibition is unlikely to make many converts among newcomers to the work of Jean Hélion. But for Hélion fans-among whom I count myself-it’s nonetheless a pleasure to see even some minor examples of an artist who’s still insufficiently known here, and to be reminded of the role he played in a now-forgotten chapter of New York art life.
Both The Jane Street Gallery: Celebrating New York’s First Artist Cooperative and Selected Works: Jean Hélion remain on view at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, through July 25.