Anne Ryan: The Belle Of the N.Y. School

Is there an exhibition currently on display in New York City that is more beautiful than that dedicated to the collages of Anne Ryan (1889-1954) at Grant Selwyn Fine Art? The tempered answer is “probably”–there are a lot of shows out there. But the concluding reply is a resounding “no.” Indeed, it goes to the distinction of Ryan’s deeply unassuming art that even considering the question seems farcical.

To say that Ryan is an unknown quantity is to deny the quiet passion of her admirers, yet she remains an elusive figure in the annals of 20th-century American art. Too diffident to make a splash and too small to bully the room, her collages abjure the historic and the histrionic. They engage us, instead, with gestures, rhythms and relationships that are as deft as they are delicate. With her gridded arrangements of fabric, paper, paint and string, Ryan created an art that channeled precedent (Klee and Schwitters), currents (Abstract Expressionism) and moved with the gentlest intensity. We readily recognize the work’s pleasing informality, tune in to its compositional authority and thrill to its juxtapositions–between metallic sheen and soft surfaces, sharp lines and ragged edges, stolid horizontals and driving verticals.

The aesthetic weight Ryan invested in her materials is uncanny; few artists achieve such immediacy or poise. This “touch” is undoubtedly what Hans Hofmann responded to when he told Ryan, upon visiting her studio, that she “might turn out better than the lot of us.” That “lot of us” was the New York School, and Hofmann proved prophetic. Notwithstanding their diminutive scale, Ryan’s collages tower over the pictures of Still, Pollock, Rothko and Krasner–if not Hofmann himself. And if that seems like a fan’s hyperbole, I invite you to take a look at Ryan’s work. Then I dare you to not fall in love. Anne Ryan: Collages is at Grant Selwyn Fine Art, 37 West 57th Street, until Feb. 9.

Painting Scared

A visit to Abstract Redux , an exhibition currently at Danese Gallery, prompted my pulling the dictionary off the shelf to look up the word “redux.” According to the Random House Unabridged Webster’s Dictionary , “redux” is defined as “brought back; resurgent.” Looking over my notes, I don’t find that any of my responses to Abstract Redux come close to that conceit–although “secondhand” and “Pop-infected” might. Another phrase I saw scrawled in my notes is a suggested alternate title for the show: Fatal Abstraction . It’s a hokey joke, I admit, but any exhibition as D.O.A. as this one deserves what it gets.

The artists featured in Abstract Redux prove their contemporaneity by “exploit[ing] and parody[ing] the formal conventions of fifty years of American abstraction.” Notwithstanding that American abstraction is a tad older than 50, all this statement augurs is a generation of artists running scared from a culture entranced by technology. (Which is, of course, why they set out to co-opt it.) The exceptions are the painter Warren Isensee and the sculptor Bruce Brosnan, both of whom forgo future shock in order to mine their childhoods for inspiration. Neither man is immune to postmodern affectation. Yet both radiate promise, if only because they realize that there’s more to art than in-jokes and cheap gibes. What that “more” is Mr. Isensee and Mr. Brosnan will have to find out for themselves. It will be fun seeing them learn. Abstract Redux is at Danese Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until Feb. 9.

Another Revelation From Lynda Benglis

The sculptor Lynda Benglis will forever be dogged by the advertisement she took out in the November 1974 issue of Artforum . You remember the one: the “centerfold” where she bared all, greased herself down and wielded a dildo in the cause of politics, both feminist and art-world. It may seem unfair to reiterate this dubious stunt–Ms. Benglis has, after all, accomplished a lot as an artist. Yet little of that accomplishment has convinced me that the Artforum ad won’t be her legacy–until, that is, I happened upon the exhibition of Ms. Benglis’ ceramic sculptures currently at Franklin Parrasch Gallery. They are unlike anything else I’ve seen by this artist.

What is remarkable about the seven pieces on display, collectively titled Chimera and dating between 1992-96, is their sense of play. There’s not a moment in the work that isn’t infused with enthusiasm, curiosity and wonder. Using coiling trails of clay, Ms. Benglis makes effusive and roughhewn forms whose esprit can be likened to dance. Her shapes pirouette, constrict, tense up and plunk like a baby who’s fallen on her rump. The sculptures recall Abstract Expressionism in their improvisatory brio, as does the manner in which Ms. Benglis applies color–by slathering, dripping and gobbing. Her palette ranges from baby blue to mustard yellow to ashy purple, and it’s as intrinsic a part of the work as one could want from painted sculpture. Loose-limbed and surprisingly warm, Ms. Benglis’ ceramic work is no big deal and a big deal indeed. That is its paradox and its pleasure. Lynda Benglis: Ceramic Sculpture at Franklin Parrasch Gallery, 20 West 57th Street, until Feb. 16.

You can e-mail Mario Naves at Anne Ryan: The Belle Of the N.Y. School