Baring Conflicting Impulses, Two Portraits Take the Day

A rather nondescript listing, in the February Gallery Guide for “Marsden Hartley”—that fascinatingly complex American painter—prompted a trip to Babcock Galleries on 57th Street. But stepping out of the elevator, I found myself waylaid in the entryway gallery by a group show culled from Babcock’s inventory. A painting of a young boy by Edwin Dickinson was particularly distracting.

A virtuoso orchestration of muffled grays and gruff brushstrokes, Boy, Provincetown (1916) encapsulates everything that is riveting and forbidding about Dickinson. His sparing disclosure of intent and dryness of affect can’t disguise a wealth of harsh emotions. And his dedication to observed phenomenon is paradoxically derisive of physical fact. Dickinson is a barbed-wire bundle of conflicting impulses—a difficult artist to contend with, yet immensely absorbing nonetheless. He is, though hardly anybody knows it, an American classic.

Turning away from the Dickinson, on my way to the Hartleys, I was diverted by another painting: Woman Sewing (1915) by Charles Webster Hawthorne. Wedged into a wall space between the elevator banks—you walk right by it upon entering the gallery—Hawthorne’s singular portrait is an essay on Yankee fortitude. Though he was a 19th-century artist in aesthetic, the exquisitely mottled surfaces and subtle streamlining of form evince a painter not immune to the seductions of modernism.

The picture is almost brutally forthright: Giving just due to the woman’s physical characteristics—she’s a stern, tightly wound beauty—Hawthorne was nonetheless uninterested in flattery. Holding a sewing pattern in her lap, the woman considers the viewer with a stringent mix of distrust and intimacy. She is clearly posing and just as clearly ambivalent about posing. A battle of wills is set in motion—a battle that includes not only the model and the artist, but us as well. It’s an unsettling and unforgettable picture. Can the Edvard Munch exhibition currently at MoMA match the Hawthorne painting in its psychological tension? We’ll see.

By the time I finally made it to Marsden Hartley—a cursory array of drawings and prints—it felt beside the point. The paintings by Dickinson and Hawthorne are good enough to reward and exhaust the aesthetic capabilities of even the most hardened gallery-goer. Inadvertently, and with stealthy, caustic force, these two men take the day.

Marsden Hartley and American Masterworks are at Babcock Galleries, 724 Fifth Avenue, until March 14.

Little Boy Blue

It makes perfect sense that the strongest paintings featured in the Forum Gallery’s informal overview of Gregory Gillespie’s art involve sex—and illicit sex at that. Though he benefited from the pictorial and thematic liberties brought about by the advent of modernism—Surrealism and Dadaism, in particular—Gillespie (who died in 2000 at the age of 64) can’t comfortably be planted in that tradition. He followed his own wayward muse, meticulously contriving cloistered reveries about culture, spirituality and representation in an often-elaborate realist style.

Yet it is sex—or, rather, the memory of sex—that is best served by Gillespie’s fetishistic technique: Both are driven by exceedingly private desires. In Three Sisters (1967), a small boy is bluntly introduced to the mysteries of the female body. It’s less an evocation of experience than a curse upon childhood, rendered with heartless clarity. In comparison, everything Gillespie put his hand to afterward forms an extended—though always impeccably crafted—postscript.

Gregory Gillespie (1936-2000) is at the Forum Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, until Feb. 25.

Loosely Defined

There’s nothing that special about artists mediating between abstraction and representation—locating a synthesis between the prerequisites of artistic form and the thing depicted is an inherent part of the job. But you’d better believe that it isn’t an easy thing to do.

Loose Borders: Paintings Mediating Abstraction and Representation, a group exhibition of 20-some artists at Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery, proves how difficult it can be—or, rather, how difficult it can be to recognize when it’s done well. This mishmash of good intentions has neither the scope nor the rigor to illuminate the title conceit. Cleaning out the storage racks won’t garner an “A” for effort; an exploration of an artistic fundamental deserves at least a modicum of curatorial muscle. Someone with a more discerning eye should have done the heavy lifting here.

Having said that, the same eye singled out Laurie Fendrich for inclusion, and that’s a happy circumstance. Ms. Fendrich’s Tolerable Cheerful (2005) is an energetic compendium of bulbous forms, luminous tones and lovingly modulated surfaces. Mining geometric abstraction for inspiration and adding a comic spin, Ms. Fendrich endows her increasingly figurative art with an engaging cartoonish vigor. Spotlighting an anxiety-ridden protagonist bookended by a pair of busty cohorts, Tolerable Cheerful plays out like a ménage-à-trois as conceived by Auguste Herbin and choreographed by Mack Sennett. Rollicking good humor mixed with an unstinting seriousness of purpose—Ms. Fendrich pulls it off handsomely.

Loose Borders: Paintings Mediating Abstraction and Representation is at the Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until March 4.