William Hudders’ Keen Eye Keeps Painterly Priorities In Place

Dragging Alex Katz into a review of William Hudders is unfair. It’s unfair to Mr. Hudders, whose recent paintings are on view at the Tatistcheff Gallery, but Mr. Katz can only benefit from the association. Both men have similar approaches to painting, tight-lipped and laconic. Both Mr. Katz and Mr. Hudders abbreviate observed phenomenon with an eye toward not quite outright abstraction, but a recognition of it. A Hudders painting of a tree, in its terse condensation of form, could be mistaken for a Katz—but that’s only one picture. The rest of the time Mr. Hudders is his own man, quietly putting into motion a dry, otherworldly art that encompasses the Manhattan skyline, the Citibank building in Long Island City, an army of clouds and a tangled length of garden hose. Possessed of an unobtrusive poetic gift, Mr. Hudders exposes Mr. Katz as a painter whose glib deployment of style can’t disguise an arrogant flimsiness of purpose.

Mr. Hudders has his painterly priorities in place. He doesn’t set himself above style; he employs it as a means of bolstering vision. The paintings, syncopated to the slo-mo cadences of a dream, make solid—and still ephemeral—intimate moments; think of them as immaculately arranged glances. As you might have guessed, Mr. Hudders is only nominally a realist. When painting architecture, he’s as streamlined and clean as Niles Spencer; when establishing atmosphere, he’s as uncanny as Giorgio de Chirico. He hints at the surreal, but avoids its literalist tendencies by paying merciless attention to pictorial form. Note, for example, the precise manner in which Mr. Hudders situates objects in relationship to each other and to the canvas’ edge—he’s no mean hand at structuring a composition. Couple that with a touch that clarifies the structure of a given object while intimating the spirit (or secret) housed within it, and you have an art that is magical and stoic, clear-headed, eccentric and recommended.

William Hudders: New Paintings is at the Tatistcheff Gallery, 529 West 20th Street, until Oct. 30.

Late Author’s Art

If you’re under the age of 60, there’s a good chance you’ve come in contact with the work of the abstract painter Esphyr Slobodkina (1908-2002), but maybe not through her abstract paintings. Slobodkina is the author of Caps for Sale, a picture book detailing the encounter between a peddler selling hats and a group of mischievous monkeys. Considered a classic of children’s literature, Caps for Sale has sold more than two million copies since it was first published in 1938. Slobodkina wrote other children’s books as well and achieved a level of fame as an author that eluded her as a painter. Not that the art went unnoticed—the work is out there, found in the collections of major museums through out the United States. Kraushaar Galleries Inc. is showing a small but representative selection of Slobodkina’s paintings and works on paper.

Slobodkina, the artist, is worth getting to know, though no one is likely to mistake her for a great painter. Born in Russia, she came to the States in 1928, enrolled at the National Academy of Design and helped found the American Abstract Artists group. Taking as a given the innovations of Cubism, Neo-Plasticism and, to a lesser degree, Surrealism, Slobodkina funneled them through a gentle and idiosyncratic temperament. Modernist purity wasn’t her thing: Slobodkina’s flat, interpenetrating planes and loose-limbed biomorphs engage in whimsically acrobatic scenarios. An erotic undercurrent is there to see in a tactile palette and, especially, the manner in which her cobbled shapes balance and touch, as if they were capable of registering the slightest sensation. Slobodkina’s “journey into abstraction” is more charming than epochal, but that’s not to say you won’t perk up when acquainted with it.

Esphyr Slobodkina: Journey into Abstraction is at the Kraushaar Galleries, 724 Fifth Avenue, until Oct. 30.

More Abstractions

Should the Kraushaar show pique your fancy, you’ll want to head west on 57th Street to the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, which is showcasing a few of Slobodkina’s peers (and some of her betters) in the exhibition Breaking Boundaries: Early American Abstraction, 1930-1945. Rosenfeld can slap together a show like this merely by having the cleaning crew take a vacuum to the storage racks, but that doesn’t mean what’s been displaced isn’t worth your time. Be patient with the work: What first appears to be a musty array of Modernist pastiches turns out to be quirky or eccentric or endearingly homespun.

The painter Carl Holty transmutes Miró by channeling Barney Google; Theodore Roszak indulges in a Suprematist pun by riffing on a sewing machine; Charles Shaw proves himself adroit at investing simple forms with balletic wit; Burgoyne Diller gets away with sculpture by hewing to the logic of painting; and Ed Garman—well, the transcendentalist yearnings he commits to canvas have the punch and pizzazz of a pinball machine. You’ll have to ask at the front desk if you can take a look at the picture—Mr. Rosenfeld has the Garman squirreled away in the back office. You can’t blame him for not wanting to share: It’s an upper of a painting and the best thing here.

Breaking Boundaries: American Abstract Art, 1930-1945 is at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, until Oct. 30.