The Drawing Impulse 1900-1950 Yields a High Aesthetic Pleasure

Upon entering The Drawing Impulse in American Art: 1900-1950, an exhibition of works on paper at the Hirschl and Adler Galleries, I was quick to dismiss it as pro forma and predictable, the result not of curatorial necessity but of the gallery’s spring cleaning of its storage racks. Another tasteful array of yesterday’s merchandise: Who needs it?

As it turns out, we all do. The exhibition offers a strong argument for the woeful inaccuracy of first impressions. After a second (and third) go-round, I was hard-pressed to pick out a drawing that is less than lively or, at the least, less than peculiar. Better yet, most of the drawings are first-rate. The surprising breadth of The Drawing Impulse can make you believe that no museum could match it piece for piece. There must be museums that have a better selection of American modernist drawings, mustn’t there? Maybe not.

The exhibition is also breathtakingly consistent. Included are figures familiar (Prendergast, Marin, Nadelman, Hopper and Hartley), less familiar (Bluemner, Dickinson, Pene du Bois and Roszak), dubious (Thomas Hart Benton, Reginald Marsh and George Grosz, lost in America) and surprising: The masterful blur of atmosphere, light and charcoal in Morning Mist at the Mine Mouth (Monongah, West Virginia) (1908) is the last thing I would’ve expected from Joseph Stella, he of Brooklyn Bridge fame.

Precisionism is well represented. Electric Power (c. 1941) by Charles Sheeler is particularly fine, as is George Ault’s oddly affectless Tree Trunks (1923). It’s good that the young lady at the front desk asks visitors to check their bags, otherwise the diminutive Sunset (c. 1935)-an exquisitely offhand watercolor by Arthur Dove-would have found its way off the wall and into my backpack. Abstraction isn’t seen in depth-Arshile Gorky, for instance, is represented by a study of a pirate-but there are solid drawings on view by Stuart Davis and Burgoyne Diller.

The heretofore unknown (to me, at least) John Rutherford Boyd is represented by a chilly, diagrammatic drawing and-perched aside from the exhibition’s stated purview-a considerably more interesting sculpture. Carved from wood, Wide Parabolic Carving (1935) is an amalgam of folk art and Futurism, a cornpone Metropolis. Is the rest of Boyd’s sculptural output as intriguing and weird? As we wait for Hirschl and Adler’s answer, The Drawing Impulse is there to provide an uncommonly high level of aesthetic reward.

The Drawing Impulse in American Art: 1900-1950 is at the Hirschl and Adler Galleries, 21 East 70th Street, until June 3.

Painted Flowers

Magnolias bring out the best in John Moore, whose recent paintings are seen upstairs at the Hirschl and Adler Modern; the other flora depicted in the pictures wilt, so to speak, in their company. For whatever reason-the color, maybe; for sure, the texture-Mr. Moore bestows upon magnolias a fleshy tactility that admits (albeit covertly) to delicacy and grace.

Occupying the foreground of the artist’s window-view still lifes (the best: Trestle and Crystal, both 2004), Mr. Moore’s magnolias are immovable and matter-of-fact in their painterly authority-so much so that you wish the studiously constructed compositions, with their not entirely logical shifts in space and imagery, were a little less studious. You start to wonder what might happen if Mr. Moore spent less time engineering the pictures and more time engaging with the motifs. Straightforwardness would become him, I’m willing to bet.

John Moore is at the Hirschl and Adler Modern until June 3.

Schnabel, Blah-bel

Is there anyone who takes Julian Schnabel the painter seriously? As far as I can tell, only collectors with deep pockets pay him credence as an artist. Culture mavens who don’t need to rationalize doling out big bucks for a Schnabel can live their lives without giving him a second thought. (First thoughts entail a level of deliberation the work can’t sustain.) Of course, if you consider the art scene solely as a sociological phenomenon, then Mr. Schnabel does bear scrutiny as an example of its worst excesses.

What I’m hearing is that Mr. Schnabel could be a credible painter. The critical response, in the press and on the street, to C and M Arts’ patchwork overview of paintings created between 1978 and 2001 has me wondering if the universe has undergone some kind of cosmological shift. Though by no means glowing, the word is that Mr. Schnabel isn’t, you know, all that bad. He’s kind of a classic, really. Those plate paintings? Outrageous-he’s so post-minimalist! Don’t you miss the 1980′s?

A trip to the Upper East Side quickly disabused me of the notion that the planet had lost its moorings. Mr. Schnabel remains a master of flatulent self-regard. The broken crockery you know about; the velvet, too. Then there are the brutish, box-like armatures, the bumbling portrayals of “ethnic types,” a cack-burdened hand, and ambitions so grandiose that God Himself would take a pass at the thought of having to fulfill them.

I don’t know … perhaps Mr. Schnabel is benefiting from historical distance and its attendant convolutions in fashion. After so many years of the Koonses and Barneys and Hirsts of the world debasing art, maybe a Great Man is something our culture needs right now. Mr. Schnabel isn’t great; he’s gross and pretentious. As an unironic emissary of High Art-or a version of it, anyway-he does fill a void. For this brief moment, a kinder, gentler version of time’s clarifying light is shining on Mr. Schnabel. He’d better enjoy it while he can.

Julian Schnabel is at C and M Arts, 45 East 78th Street, until June 4.