A Principled Loneliness: Eugène Leroy’s Heroic Muddle

The paintings of the French artist Eugène Leroy (1910-2000), currently the subject of an exhibition at Michael Werner, have to be among the loneliest works of art I’ve seen. I’m thinking, in part, of the solitary and barely discernible figures depicted in the canvases, of their compositional isolation as well as Leroy’s tendency to bury them in slathered layers of oil paint. Yet the work’s loneliness is also a matter of principle. Leroy was a distinctly conservative painter. His work has no truck with pop culture, Dadaism or theory, so it can feel marginal or reactionary: It lives at a huge distance from the prevailing orthodoxy.

Leroy immersed himself in the tradition of Western painting-so deeply, in fact, that he seems often to have gone in over his head. His canvases, with their clotted, crusty and sculptural surfaces, reveal a painter who could be drowning in irresolution.

The basis of Leroy’s art was the reconciliation of observed phenomenon-usually the female form-and material fact. This wasn’t a revolutionary tack; one can trace it back to our forebears daubing the likeness of a bison on a cave wall. But Leroy brought to this fundamental dichotomy a muffled and not inelegant force. He didn’t “make it new” so much as remind us of why some things never get old. His pictures recall those of Alberto Giacometti, another artist with doubts about realizing “the nearest possible sensation to that felt at the sight of the subject.” Giacometti considered this goal unattainable, yet his paintings are marked by a clarity of purpose. The same can’t be said of Leroy. What his paintings leave us with is a muddle-a heroic muddle, but a muddle all the same. Whatever his limitations, Leroy was on the side of the angels. He may not elicit our passion, but he deserves our respect.

Eugène Leroy: Nudes is at Michael Werner, 4 East 77th Street, until Sept. 7.

Yellow, in Abundance

There’s a charming painting near the beginning of Beauford Delaney: The Color Yellow , an exhibition currently at the Studio Museum in Harlem. It’s a 1949 picture of Washington Square, an idyllic portrayal of rambunctious dogs, playing children and the ubiquitous flock of pigeons. A picturesque compromise between folksy sentimentality and Modernist sophistication, Delaney’s sweet canvas is toughened by an abrupt, if somewhat ham-handed, authority. Despite some threatening portents-a couple of gnarled trees that could have been the handiwork of Clyfford Still-Delaney’s tableau is suffused with contentment, a world of creamy pinks, ashy purples and impermeable blues.

Unfortunately, nothing else in The Color Yellow comes close to matching Washington Square in terms of aesthetic delight. If anything, the exhibition demonstrates Delaney’s reliance on painterly cliché. The majority of the paintings can be separated into two camps, portraits and abstractions, ruled by one style, Expressionism. Working in the abstract, Delaney (1901-1979) was an unexceptional talent. His all-over fields of scrubby brushwork fail to distinguish between painting as purposeful accretion and painting as meandering busywork. The portraits aren’t much better. Delaney’s forays into primitivism are hapless, and his insight into the personality of his subjects minimal-quite a feat if you’re painting Marian Anderson or James Baldwin. All of which leads me to believe that there are better role models for painters than Jackson Pollock and Vincent van Gogh. As for the color yellow, it’s here in abundance-right out of the tube and of no great distinction.

Beauford Delaney: The Color Yellow is at the Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 West 125th Street, until Sept. 22.

Lurid and Slick

In a recent essay, the painter and art critic Peter Plagens wrote that the “seamless continuum” between the worlds of art and fashion is “the most unsalutary development I’ve seen as a critic.” Those who agree with Mr. Plagens are advised to steer clear of the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, which is hosting an exhibition of photographs by David LaChapelle. To say that Mr. LaChapelleisa celebrity photographer is to shortchange the intensity of his vision. His elaborately contrived pictures of superstars, megastars, wannabes and has-beens are relentlessly superficial, lurid and slick. Mr. LaChapelle has made a successful career out of underscoring the vacuity of celebrity culture even as he revels in it. He’s an artist who gets to have his cake-or, in this case, giant inflatable hamburger-and eat it, too.

There’s nothing at risk in Mr. LaChapelle’s photographs. That Leonardo DiCaprio, Jocelyn Wildenstein, Britney Spears and Sylvester Stallone are eager to participate in his hyperstylized undertakings only proves how banal disaffection has become. One can’t step into a subway train, walk down a city street or enter an art gallery without being subjected to imagery that is equal parts artifice, glamour, nihilism and sex. Or should I say cheap sex: Mr. LaChapelle’s reliance on the conventions of pornography-the garish presentation, the clinical lighting-makes perfect sense. Like pornography, celebrity is characterized by infinite promise and ultimate distance. What this equals, in Mr. LaChapelle’s case, is an art stunningly devoid of humanity. When he makes a fashion statement out of a seedy room where an unspeakable tragedy has taken place, a lot of things are mocked, but mostly life itself. It’s hard not to be a moralist when faced by what Mr. LaChapelle does. It’s even harder to escape it.

David LaChapelle: All American is at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 119 Wooster Street, until Sept. 21.

A Principled Loneliness: Eugène Leroy’s Heroic Muddle