Dense, Humane and Moral, Bearden Sets a Fine Example

The Romare Bearden retrospective now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., will, after winding its way through the United States, arrive at the Whitney Museum of American Art next fall. That gives New Yorkers who admire this important American artist something to look forward to. Still, I wish the retrospective had traveled here sooner-say, on the heels of the Max Beckmann that just closed at MoMA Queens. That would have given an art scene made complacent by novelty and nihilism a double dose of inspiration. Beckmann and Bearden offer a much-needed example in our rudderless times: headstrong art that partakes of mainstream tradition, yet stands decisively apart. Beckmann and Bearden, though hugely indebted to Modernism, are in many ways premodern in temperament. Art, for them, is a matter of encompassing experience and traversing history, of embracing the literary without succumbing to the literal. Beckmann’s paintings, burdened by myth, are almost impossibly thick with symbolism. Bearden’s collages, inspired by the archetypes and accomplishments of African-Americans, are similarly dense, humane and moral. The example both men set has to do less with style than vision. They thought outside the box before the term was coined.

Having not made the trip to Washington, I can’t say how well Bearden is served by the retrospective. Dreams and Memories: The Art of Romare Bearden (1911-1988) at ACA Galleries is the kind of catch-as-catch-can show you would expect to see when the artist’s available inventory is dwindling, the best of it having been scooped up by museums and private collectors. Bearden’s portraits of musicians done in watercolor and oil certainly won’t convert anyone. When he isn’t working in his signature medium, his art lacks concentration; it’s mannered and dated. Still, there’s strong stuff to be seen in Chelsea: the lusty reminiscence of Memories (Ritual Bayou) (undated); the noble melancholy of New Orleans Farewell (1974); the urban juxtapositions of City Scene (circa 1966); and the paradise found of Khayam and the Black Girl (1971). That last collage riffs on Surrealism and Dada, infusing both with a lyricism neither could have managed on its own.

Dreams and Memories: The Art of Romare Bearden (1911-1988) is at ACA Galleries, 529 West 20th Street, fifth floor, until Nov. 1.

Eye on the Sky

I don’t know whether Ron Milewicz lives in Queens or keeps a studio there; I do know that he loves the borough for the panoramic vistas it affords. His paintings of Long Island City in his show at the George Billis Gallery are dominated by luminous expanses of sky. Though he pays homage to the elevated tracks of the No. 7 train, the lonesome monolith that is the Citibank Building and Silvercup Studios, his eye is on the heavens. The better paintings let the sky do its thing, tucking the city in neatly at the bottom of the canvas. Mr. Milewicz is less persuasive when he sets up dramatic feats of architectural perspective (theater doesn’t become him), and the palette is various enough to make you wonder if there is one. Having said that, Brooklyn Bridge Parking (2003) exploits both shortcomings to splendid effect, creating a zooming romantic machine, all bluish purple and reddish orange. No wonder it’s been banished to the back room: The tornado-like manipulation of space would have blown the rest of the pictures away.

Ron Milewicz is at the George Billis Gallery, 511 West 25th Street, ground floor, until Oct. 25.

A Happy Bind

On the evidence of the paintings on view at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., Stephen Westfall is in something of a bind. Having investigated at length the quirkier nooks and crannies of high Modernist abstraction, he now finds himself drawn to representation. Recent titles like Across the Street (2003) and Harlem Window (2003) underscore the new or, at least, more plainly stated dependence on things and places. That Mr. Westfall is intrigued by stuff that’s out there beyond the boundaries to which he previously consigned himself doesn’t mean he thinks that abstraction is over and done with. He’s simply exploring how the fundamentals of geometric painting-clean forms, uninflected surfaces and a bare-bones approach to composition-can be rejuvenated by flirtation with the quotidian. This isn’t a revolutionary tack-just ask Ralston Crawford or Stuart Davis-and it isn’t a dead end, either. If the new canvases aren’t quite convincing in the way they try to reconcile contradictory impulses, they do benefit from a heartening, inquisitive momentum. In other words: Mr. Westfall is enjoying his bind. The finest (and most quizzical) of the bunch, Memory (2003), suggests that the more thoroughly abstraction absorbs representation, the truer the paintings will be to themselves.

Stephen Westfall: New Paintings 2002-2003 is at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., 560 Broadway, Suite 308, until Nov. 1.