Give a Painter His Due: Inness Deserves Top Honors

What standing does the landscape painter George Inness (1825-1894) have in the history of American art? As a student, I remember Inness occupying a marginal nook, his place obscured by the homegrown transcendentalism of the Hudson River School and by Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer and Albert Pinkham Ryder, the holy trinity of 19th-century American painting.

About a year or so ago, when I visited the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey, I began to wonder whether Inness was being shortchanged. A recent renovation had made way for an entire gallery dedicated to the artist, a former resident of the town. The dozen or so paintings on display, particularly Autumn in Montclair (circa 1894), were stunning and surprising; their majesty (there’s no other word for it) whetted my appetite for a thorough overview of his achievement.

Which is what we have at the National Academy of Design, and let me tell you: If George Inness and the Visionary Landscape doesn’t propel Inness to the forefront of American painters, then all hope is lost. Though largely self-taught, Inness was no Sunday painter. He brought to the act of painting an abundance of voracious feeling. A paint-handler and colorist of exquisite power, he aimed to avoid “the sleek polish of lackadaisical sentiments, or the puerilities of impossible conditions.” He learned much from Corot and the Barbizon School, but he transformed those lessons and created an evanescent art that stubbornly, even brutishly, affirms the concrete. The pictures have a material and emotional forthrightness that is, to this day, not a little shocking. Sometimes it feels like we have yet to catch up with him.

I wish the exhibition had been arranged chronologically instead of by theme (“Landscape Painting as a Science” or “The Rhythm of the Working Hand”): It would have been thrilling to follow the transition from gorgeous anecdotalist to roughhewn mystic. As it is, The Visionary Landscape is packed with masterworks. I don’t know where to tell you to start- Moonrise (1888), maybe, or Hazy Morning, Montclair (1893). Then there’s Indian Summer (1894), a canvas any painter worth his snuff would give his right arm to claim; the same is true of The Old Barn (circa 1888). Congratulations to curator Adrienne Baxter Bell and the National Academy of Design for organizing an exhibition that delights the eye and nourishes the soul.

George Inness and the Visionary Landscape is at the National Academy of Design, 1083 Fifth Avenue, until Dec. 28.

Billbored

It’s de rigueur , when writing about the Pop artist James Rosenquist, to mention his training as a billboard painter. Has anyone mentioned how much that training has hobbled his paintings? Walk down the ramp at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where a 30-year retrospective of Mr. Rosenquist’s work is on exhibit, and you’ll appreciate how well the compositions read from a distance. On closer inspection, you’ll see that the paintings are deplorably workmanlike, drab and uninvolving.

Forget the museum context and the major-league rep: Mr. Rosenquist doesn’t know about painting . If he did, he’d acknowledge the fundamental truth that a painting has to hold the viewer’s attention both from a distance and from a few inches away. This Mr. Rosenquist can’t do: He has a negligible touch and little feel for surface, both of which are essential to the painter’s craft. In practice, he’s still making billboards. Taking his cue from Dadaism and (to a lesser extent) Surrealism, he appropriates and reconfigures disparate and conflicting fragments of commodity culture (lips, combs, Duncan Hines cake mix, Liquid Prell and so on). The only time he truly engages us is with the collages, hands-on explorations of material and form. Why he insists on transposing them with oil paint onto sizable canvases, to no discernible pictorial effect, only his dealer knows for sure.

As for the rest of the oeuvre , it’s smart, bland and interminable, and promises more in the way of historical significance than it could ever hope to deliver.

James Rosenquist: A Retrospective is at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, until Jan. 25, 2004.

Buried Under Cliché

The Howard Hodgkin exhibition at the Chelsea branch of the Gagosian Gallery has to be the saddest show in town. Mr. Hodgkin was once an engaging painter of almost willfully minor distinction; he crafted small, densely knit abstractions that looked to Intimism for inspiration. Now he’s a hack, and he knows it. How else to explain the haste and distaste with which he applies oils? Everything in the work is mannered: the painted frames, the oversized pit-a-pats of paint, the spatial markers, the lazy nods to Vuillard, Bonnard and Indian miniatures. In the past, Mr. Hodgkin used pictorial cliché to witty effect; now he can’t find his way out from under it. Trying to fill up Larry Gagosian’s mega-space can’t have helped matters, but Mr. Hodgkin was already exhibiting symptoms of artistic decline. Things couldn’t get any worse if he took up video art-at this point, in fact, that might be an improvement.

Howard Hodgkin is at the Gagosian Gallery, 555 West 24th Street, until Dec. 20.