Allusive, Eccentric Complex: A Different Kind of de Kooning

The thematic conceit of Willem de Kooning: Garden in Delft , a career-spanning exhibition of landscape-inspired paintings at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, would be a lot more convincing if the first canvas you encountered wasn’t Untitled (Big Red) (1988). The picture evokes natural phenomenon, I suppose, but it’s ambiguous enough in structure, form and palette to allude to any number of motifs-still life, say, or portraiture, perhaps an architectural interior.

I’ve got an uneasy feeling that the inclusion of Untitled (Big Red) has less to do with how well it jibes with the exhibition’s theme and more with it being one of de Kooning’s “Alzheimer” paintings, as his late works have come to be known. The big question that dogs these paintings is how active a hand de Kooning had in their making. It’s a can of worms a lot of people don’t want to open, let alone acknowledge; the same goes for the quality of the pictures. In fact, it’s more politic to extol de Kooning’s great late style than to point out that the pictures are less than great.

Were de Kooning (1904-1997) of sound health in 1988, would he have let a painting as meandering and dull as Untitled (Big Red) out of his studio? I’d like to believe not. I suspect that Mitchell-Innes & Nash thought the same thing, and that’s why they put it in the company of knockouts like Bolton Landing (1957), two irresistible gouache miniatures from the late 30′s and Untitled (The Cow Jumps Over the Moon) (1937-38). It serves to bolster the fantasy that the Alzheimer pictures are of a piece with the rest of the oeuvre and, as such, defined by mastery and (ahem) worthy of investment.

If I may be allowed further conjecture, let me note that Untitled (The Cow Jumps Over the Moon) is the exhibition’s most exciting picture, largely because of its potential. Glancing off Miró, Picasso and Ingres as swiftly and seductively as the famed line that animates it, the painting offers an intriguingly contrary image: Its slippery embrace of narrative and provocative conflagration of representation and abstraction suggest a different de Kooning-more allusive, eccentric and poetic. Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t trade an existing masterpiece as electric as Attic (1949) for the world-or at least de Kooning’s chunk of it. Yet Untitled does prompt you to ask: Did this consummate talent realize his promise? Or did he miss the boat to destinations more complicated and strange?

Willem de Kooning: Garden in Delft is at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 1018 Madison Avenue, until June 26.

Lessons of Precedent

Though Jan Muller’s “mosaic paintings”-pictures made up of slow accumulations of discrete and stubby brushstrokes-were created in mid-20th-century America, they could be mistaken as the efforts of an early Modernist painter from Europe. Muller (1922-1958) absorbed the lessons of precedent-Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Orphism and the quiddities of the unclassifiable Paul Klee-with determination and fidelity. He painted as if tradition were a burden he barely had the strength to shoulder. Looking at the 13 pictures at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, you’d never guess that Muller followed in the wake of Abstract Expressionism or his teacher, Hans Hoffman.

If he did have any opinions about the New York School, they probably involved misgivings-about its abandonment of observed phenomenon or its diminished capacity to embody mythical narratives. However far Muller strayed from representation, he never abandoned a subject, whether it be the nude, flowers or the landscape. In the pictures, there’s an urgent need to hold onto the world of appearances, of things . This quality is evident even in an all-over abstraction painted between 1953-1955; the insistence of the densely patterned dabs of oil offers a vision of something tangible and specific.

Muller’s paintings are hard work-his severe-bordering-on-apocalyptic fervor is oppressive and dour, wrapped up in its own mysteries. The moments when Muller’s world opens up-in the stern, undulating rhythms of Untitled (Three Figures in Landscape) (c. 1955), or in hard-won pockets of beauty here and there-evince a painter of singular powers. Each time I come across a Muller (a rare occurrence), I wish someone would organize a retrospective. I don’t think it would occasion a rewrite of art history, but it just might expand our knowledge of it.

Jan Muller: The Mosaic Paintings: 1952-1955 is at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, 37 West 57th Street, until June 18.

Rough-Hewn Elegance

In the brochure accompanying Conrad Marca-Relli: Collages on Paper , an exhibition at the Washburn Gallery, Carlos Basaldua writes of the “sacred sense of harmony” typifying Marca-Relli’s work. My eye snagged on the phrase-”sacred” is a mite rich, don’t you think? Or does it just sound that way since we’ve become so inured to the easy cynicism bred by contemporary culture?

Marca-Relli died in 2000, at the age of 87. His collages-brusque admixtures of burlap, newsprint, scrubby washes of brown paint-marry biomorphic shapes with rigorous Cubist underpinnings. No form, however tender, bumptious or aggressive, is allowed independence; his “figures” remain anchored within a field that reprises their angular, irritable rhythms.

Locating a lax spot in the compositions is a futile pursuit: They’ve been clamped down to impressive effect. How sacred you consider the results is a matter of opinion. I think they’re romantic: From the edges of contours that have been burnt with a flame to the lubricious inspiration Marca-Relli found in the human form, the collages are as picturesque as they are adept. Their uniform quality should set off alarms-any artist that consistent isn’t pushing himself hard enough. Marca-Relli’s rough-hewn elegance nevertheless provides aesthetic sustenance of a caliber that should convince even the most cynical among us.

Conrad Marca-Relli: Collages on Paper is at the Washburn Gallery, 20 West 57th Street, until May 28.