Duke Ellington’s Legacy Inspires Painters’ Moody Blues

By all rights, I should be getting on my high horse to excoriate Mood Indigo: The Legacy of Duke Ellington , an exhibition at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. Centered on the white baby-grand piano upon which Ellington composed many of his signature songs (the gallery breathlessly informs us that it’s valued at a million bucks), the exhibition employs works of art as thematic auxiliaries and ornamental addendum. You’d almost think the folks at Rosenfeld were taking a cue from the Brooklyn Museum-placing pictures by Burgoyne Diller, Hans Hofmann, Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, William H. Johnson, Lee Krasner and Stuart Davis on walls painted with a “follow-the-bouncing-ball” motif, trivializing them for the sake of a condescending, feel-good populism.

Then again, the pictures are top-notch-the Bearden is great -and their relationship to jazz (or the blues) is far from arbitrary. Just ask Stuart Davis, who felt that “jazz was the only thing that corresponded to an authentic art in America.” When a pictorial link to the music doesn’t exist as an image-as it does in the Bearden, Johnson’s funny picture of jitterbugs and Jan Matulka’s Jazz Band (circa 1925)-form does the trick. Hofmann and Diller provide the punch, Lewis the passion and Krasner the tight-knit orchestration.

Why First Rhomboid Column (1976), a sculpture by the underrated American painter Ilya Bolotowsky, merits inclusion is a question that’s left unanswered; that goes double for Norman Bluhm’s splashy Ab-Ex canvas. Making up for the lapse is Gjon Mili, whose photographs of Ellington provide documentary evidence and aesthetic reward-their burnished tonality and stylized artifice capture Ellington’s innate elegance. Then there’s the music that filters through the gallery; at this point, critical dudgeon succumbs to pleasure. Mood Indigo is a light treat-let’s just hope Rosenfeld doesn’t make a habit of it.

Mood Indigo: The Legacy of Duke Ellington is at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, until July 30.

Proudly Sentimental

If Julian Schnabel were any good, he’d be Paton Miller, whose paintings are on display at David Findlay Jr. Fine Art. Not that Mr. Miller is into broken crockery or flattering the rich. If anything, he’s down with the proletariat-a tendency made obvious by the subjects of the pictures (a toymaker, a laborer, a church in “need of repair”) and a heavy, earnest style recalling the “people’s art” of Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Then there are the paintings-in actuality, sizable collages pieced together from what look to be remnants of old or discarded canvases. Though Mr. Miller shares with Mr. Schnabel a brusque attitude toward materials, he doesn’t coast on chutzpah alone. Pictorial coherence is the goal.

The primary Schnabelesque commonality is the conviction that an artist can do no wrong. Mr. Miller isn’t exactly a victim of self-expression, but he is seduced by its self-indulgent freedom. The resulting paintings are a romantic mélange of operatic gestures, overworked surfaces and unembarrassed sentimentality. That coherence is achieved at all is due to the artist’s knack for unifying abrupt collisions of surface and image. Up close, the pictures-at times mosaic-like in facture-are slapdash and coarse; step back and everything holds firm. Only once, however, does a composition flow -in Hammer and Horse (2004), a mystical reverie posing as a still life. Transcending his excesses even as they’re embraced, Mr. Miller has pulled off a painting that must have surprised even him. That’s why it’s memorable.

Paton Miller: Recent Work is at David Findlay Jr. Fine Art, 41 East 57th Street, until July 31.

Summer Sloth

No one should expect too much from a gallery’s summer exhibition. July and August, being dead months in the art year, promise little more than curtailed operating hours, an airing of the inventory and personnel who are anxious to go on vacation. So it is at the Barbara Mathes Gallery, which has mounted American Modernism , an exhibition that treats its title subject with little regard for historical breadth. Any show of 20th-century American art that goes heavy on the pictures by minor artists like Oscar Bluemner and Ad Reinhardt has a lopsided idea of what constitutes its apex.

Then again, who needs an apex when you’ve got various and lively? The examples of work by Bluemner and Reinhardt are first-rate, particularly for those of us who prefer early Reinhardt (rambunctious and droll) to late Reinhardt (dogmatic and dull). Add to the mix a jaunty abstraction by Marsden Hartley, a superlative Still Life with Oranges by Hans Hofmann, a fine gouache by Stuart Davis, a lovely study of a woman’s profile by Elie Nadelman, and engaging pieces by Alexander Calder, Joseph Stella and Arthur Dove. This selection is good enough to almost make you forget the stuff in the back room: negligible works on paper by Richard Artschwager, Louise Bourgeois, David Smith and Willem de Kooning. Take my advice: Stick to the pictures in the front gallery and leave happy.

American Modernism is at the Barbara Mathes Gallery, 41 East 57th Street until July 23.