Less Is More: Diller Thrived On Limitations of Painting

What on earth prompted the painter Burgoyne Diller (1906-1965), whose work is the subject of an exhibition at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, to take up sculpture? Diller, an American follower of Mondrian, was incapable of treating an aesthetic decision lightly; the move to make sculpture came, no doubt, after prolonged consideration. Maybe an explanation can be found in whatever papers are held by his estate. Because let me tell you: It isn’t present at Rosenfeld. Diller’s austere brand of geometric abstraction, with its taut eccentricities of interval, space and form, is rendered squat and cartoonish when transferred to wood and formica. The sculptures look like oversized building blocks, a kind of neo-plasticist Lego. Failing to inhabit, enliven or, for that matter, recognize actual space, they’re dead on arrival and as dated as the hula hoop. Given their inertia, it makes perfect sense that the sculptures have been hailed as the bridge between Modernism and Minimalism. But, really, such a legacy is too awful a burden for such a good artist-or, I should reiterate, such a good painter .

Diller thrived only within the invented space of painting. The limitations specific to the medium-in particular, the parameters of the canvas’ surface area-are indispensable to the vigor of his art. He took a few elements (the square, the rectangle and the stripe) and a restricted palette (the primaries, black and white and a range of washed-out grays) and did a lot with them. First Theme (1962), with its emphatic vertical format, and the magisterial First Theme (1959-60) are typical: The relationships between forms and format have been magnetized, animated in a manner that is low-key yet thoroughly impassioned. The result is an equilibrium too headstrong to be dubbed classical; nonetheless, the paintings achieve a steadfast rightness. Diller’s art is too self-effacing, too caught up in the exigencies of the studio, to earn a prominent place in our museums. That makes an exhibition like this one all the more valuable.

Burgoyne Diller: The 1960s; Paintings, Sculpture and Drawings is at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, until May 8.

Delving into the Darkness

A friend and I have been engaging in an e-mail correspondence about who deserves the status of Greatest American Painter of the 20th Century. His vote goes to Arshile Gorky; mine to Stuart Davis. Additional names have been thrown into the hat. All are given their props and summarily dismissed, except one: Edwin Dickinson (1891-1978). His name lingers in the debate with a nagging persistence, though Dickinson isn’t anyone’s idea of a major artist. His oeuvre -consisting of landscapes, portraits and impenetrable, ghostly allegories-is uneven in quality, dour in temper, reclusive in character and expressly, if not absolutely, puritanical. There’s no explaining Dickinson; fitting him into the grand tradition of American iconoclasts like Eakins, Marin, Hopper and Porter is do-able, though not wholly satisfactory. Looking at the small show of Dickinson’s paintings and drawings in the back room at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, you come to the conclusion that there’s no tradition capable of holding him.

Take Self-Portrait (1914), a roiling, darkly introspective canvas painted when Dickinson was all of 23 years old. Its consciousness of Modernism, particularly the emphasis on oil paint’s physicality, is clear. Still, you can’t call it a Modernist picture-it doesn’t demonstrate a radical rethinking of pictorial form. In fact, a harsh strain of 19th-century propriety pervades the painting, an abiding, even moral fidelity to observed fact. Self-Portrait is, in many ways, an old-fashioned picture, yet have we truly seen anything like it before? Of Dickinson’s contemporaries, only Max Beckmann and Pierre Bonnard delved more deeply into the daunting interior life of the self. Otherwise, he makes Soutine look like a Sunday painter, Kokoschka a narcissistic poser and Francis Bacon a colossal waste of time. Bear in mind that it isn’t even the strongest painting at de Nagy-a distinction that belongs to Evangeline (1942), a canvas whose fragile beauty is inseparable from the violent manner in which Dickinson has scarred and scraped its surface. Where does Dickinson fit in the hierarchy of American painters? Up around the top, and nowhere at all.

Edwin Dickinson: Paintings is at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, until April 24.

Mysterious Ambivalence

After three visits to Leon Goldin: Five Decades of Works on Paper , an exhibition at the Kraushaar Galleries, I’m hard-pressed to account for my ambivalent response to the work. I mean, there’s not a bad drawing in the bunch. From the fairly straightforward depiction of trees in Riverside Park (1964) to Summer (2003), a more abstract though no less concrete evocation of nature, Mr. Goldin puts charcoal and pastel to paper with a consistent and enviable forthrightness. His line is irresistible: Confident, choppy and somewhat irritable, it carves out from each sheet of paper great chunks of space and mass. The blunt abbreviations of sky, trees, boulders and 23rd Street are similarly winning in their rough-hewn clarity. So why the dispassion? I suspect it has something to do with the fact that Mr. Goldin can be too easily seduced by his Midas touch. Couple that with a rather lax take on the relationship between abstraction and representation, and you have work that is appealingly middle-of-the-road. Not that I’m going to hold fast to my opinion: That I’ve got an itch to return to Kraushaar a fourth (and maybe fifth) time speaks to something genuine in the work.

Leon Goldin:Five Decades of Works on Paper is at the Kraushaar Galleries, 724 Fifth Avenue, until April 10.