Neil Welliver, the American artist who died last spring at the age of 75, was one hell of a painter, and if you want a surefire way of confirming it, go to the memorial exhibition mounted at Alexandre Gallery, take advantage of the bench in the main gallery, and take a good, hard gander at Back of Hatchet (1978), a depiction of birch trees in winter painted on a swath of canvas measuring eight by 10 feet.
Note the crisp, almost clinical lucidity with which Welliver delineated the dense forest, seeming to capture every wiry twist and turn of the leafless branches. Marvel at how he retained the bracing blue of the sprawling Maine sky, seen through the thicket in the distance. Realize that though the palette is limited, it’s effect is nevertheless expansive, an illusion aided by three green trees placed precisely and unexpectedly in the foreground. Finally, scratch your head at how a picture so true to life—to the light, sweep and untamed logic of nature—could simultaneously have so little to do with representation.
Welliver didn’t care about representation. You don’t have to get up close to the canvas—with its confounding network of drawling and, at times, impatient slurs of buttery oil paint—to sense Welliver’s remove from observed phenomenon or his not altogether unskeptical debt to Abstract Expressionism. You can read his motivations in the insistent, all-but-manic attention paid to every last inch of the composition and in the way clarity of definition keeps the image resolutely on the surface of the canvas. Welliver was an impudent painter: He set up certain expectations (ah, the grandeur of nature!) only to thumb his nose at them (it’s just colored mud on a piece of rag).
That paradox is inherent to the art of painting, of course, but rarely has it been brought to such a relentlessly inflexible conclusion. The accompanying prints are merely fetching in comparison, and the smaller canvases are muddled. Oil paint and a massive scale were integral to Welliver’s coolly intractable vision. Luckily for us, five other big pictures tag alongside Back of Hatchet, offering plenty to take pleasure in.
Neil Welliver: A Memorial Exhibition is at Alexandre Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until Oct. 22.
Drawings by Diller
The Michael Rosenfeld Gallery has organized a lovely show of small, unprepossessing drawings done in graphite, crayon and, here and there, tempera by the American painter Burgoyne Diller (1906-1965). A follower of Mondrian, Diller put his own individual stamp on the Dutch master’s brand of geometric abstraction, yet how that individuality was wrested from such seemingly finite means can be baffling. Diller’s pictorial rudiments—the black scaffolding, the forceful but by no means empty white spaces, the punchy arrangements of primary colors—are inconceivable without Mondrian’s example. A casual observer, told that two or three (or 10) of the drawings were Mondrians, would likely accept it as fact.
A closer inspection, though, reveals that Diller was less of an absolutist—and not just because the drawings are loose-limbed and impromptu. Whether drawing or painting (though not in making sculpture), Diller explored uncertainty, continuity and flux. The open-ended planes and shifting architecture evince a restless and questioning spirit. The pictures hold tight, but not at the expense of flexibility or doubt. Mondrian, God bless him, wanted the last word; for Diller, the conversation wasn’t over by a long shot. That doesn’t make him a better artist than Mondrian. It does make Diller an artist more deserving of your attention than you might at first grant.
Burgoyne Diller: Twenty-Five on Paper is at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, until Nov. 5.
The California artist John McLaughlin (1898-1976), whose paintings are the subject of an exhibition at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art, followed in Mondrian’s wake as well—or at least partially in his wake. As an artist who sought within geometric form a material equivalent for otherworldly longings, McLaughlin perhaps owed more to the Russian Suprematist painter Kasimir Malevich.
An aficionado of Japanese art and culture, McLaughlin intuited a philosophical connection between Malevich’s drive to free art from “vulgar subject matter” and the Zen mysticism of Sesshu, a 15th-century monk who specialized in painting landscapes. In the end, the bump-and-grind of Mondrian’s paintings may have proven too earthy for McLaughlin; he preferred something more cerebral.
In other words, there’s no boogie-woogie in McLaughlin’s art. Instead, there are broad, barely inflected planes of color—usually black and white along with spare, idiosyncratic variations of tan and blue—that pull at one another in an attempt to establish some sense of compositional hierarchy. That the paintings pull at all is a testament to McLaughlin’s Spartan gift for composition; the pictures, despite the stark and simple means, generate enough tension to keep the eye engaged. This is how McLaughlin distinguished himself from a pretentious blowhard like Barnett Newman, a tepid miniaturist like Agnes Martin and, for that matter, Malevich: with the ability to state his spiritual yearnings through the judicious modulation of contrast and juxtaposition. What do you know? McLaughlin was Mondrian’s boy after all.
John McLaughlin: Paintings is at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art, 20 West 57th Street, until Oct. 1.