Genial, Cautious Painter Favored Empty Rooms

Poèmes d’Intérieur is the title of an exhibition of paintings by the American artist Walter Gay, currently at James Graham & Sons, but there’s only one of the canvases that can be said to embrace the lyrical: Matilda Gay Reclining on a Lit de Repos (Château de Fortoseau) (undated). It is in some ways representative of his work. Gay (1856-1937), who was born in Hingham, Mass., and died an expatriate in France, specialized in painting the elegantly appointed rooms of the well-to-do. (Among the homes he depicted were those of Henry Clay Frick, Edith Wharton and his own.) He did so with a touch that was influenced by Impressionism but retained a Yankee pragmatism-loose enough to suggest improvisatory freshness and tight enough to capture particulars. As a painter, Gay cuts a genial figure: unfussy, relaxed, happy to be painting, happier with his lot in life.

Yet Matilda Gay Reclining on a Lit de Repos is also an atypical painting for Gay. Though he painted weavers, and a lone cartographer, for the most part Gay’s oeuvre is short on people-the human presence is absent . With their Chinese vases, elaborate mantelpieces, chandeliers and Old Master drawings, the pictures are less about domesticity than the luxuries wealth can afford. This isn’t a bad thing-Gay’s encomiums to the good life are discreet, tasteful-but he was too moderate a temperament to infuse them with any spark. These are pictures without spirit or curiosity. Compare Gay’s paintings of empty rooms to those of his contemporary, the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi, and one quickly divines the distinction between the dutiful and the haunting, the pedestrian and the uncanny, between art as dalliance and art as necessity.

Gay’s sole masterwork probably owes much to the presence of his wife, and more to bold tones. And he made an artistic leap that must have surprised him-scared him, too. Though there are other memorable paintings on view-in particular, The Artist’s Bedroom (11, Rue de l’Université, Paris) (undated), and also Dining Room, Magnanville (1895)-nothing else Gay painted came close to achieving the unfettered intimacy of Matilda Gay Reclining on a Lit de Repos . This is our loss, but it was also, one feels, Gay’s gain. No heroics or angst for him-just the unadventurous pleasure of daubing oils on canvas. It’s a measure of Gay’s unprepossessing talent that we don’t begrudge him his caution.

WalterGay: Poèmes d’Intérieur is at James Graham & Sons, 1014 Madison Avenue, until April 12.

Munch-y Business

While the Greek-born sculptor Jannis Kounellis is a significant figure in some (largely European) circles, he’s an unknown to me: The name rings a bell, but not so clearly that I’ll come running. Consequently, his current exhibition at the Michael Werner Gallery wasn’t high on my to-do list; in fact, it wasn’t on my list at all. Nonetheless, standing on 77th Street peering up at Werner’s windows, I caught sight of some big and blunt drawings. Thinking they might be worth the schlep up the stairs, I entered the gallery and discovered them to be without any redeeming value whatsoever-Mr. Kounellis hasn’t done much more than transform Edvard Munch’s The Scream into a kind of Expressionist wallpaper.

But those are the big drawings. The smaller drawings are something different. At first, they struck me as trifles from the bottom of the artist’s flat files-sketches unfit for public consumption. That was until I noticed how intently they evaded doodle-hood. Populated with cadaverous women, smoke-filled rooms, domineering rectangles and a bunker that may well be Plato’s cave, Mr. Kounellis’ drawings seem to be ruminations on the disappointments of culture and the futility of obsession. Particularly diverting are a handful of drawings that conflate the industrial revolution with erotic desire. One that depicts a large nude woman striking a pose atop a barreling steam engine may be a phallocentric joke, but it also situates itself deftly between Chagallian whimsy and a melancholy that evokes de Chirico. Slight, unkempt and more meaningful than they have any right to be, Mr. Kounellis’ smaller drawings are a big surprise.

Jannis Kounellis: Works on Paper is at the Michael Werner Gallery, 4 East 77th Street, until May 24.

Inside/Out

Near and Far , the title of John Moore’s last exhibition of paintings at the Hirschl & Adler Modern, also sums up the pictorial preoccupations of his new show at the same venue. Mr. Moore is something of a contrarian. Clearly taken with panoramic distances-parking lots sloping along the land, the receding Manhattan skyline, even the three smokestacks that tower over my home-he is equally taken with thwarting them. He does so by stopping the eye at the foreground of his canvases, placing books, Calla lilies, a chain-link fence or, most successfully, a bank of windows directly in front of the viewer. Mr. Moore is aided in this inside/out endeavor by a touch that is as insistent on materiality as it is on illusion. Perhaps it’s too insistent on materiality: The uniformity of the artist’s mottled surfaces makes his vistas lumpy and cloistered, static instead of startling. The brilliant exception is Sycamore (2001). Here, stasis infuses the American mundane with a sneaking, otherworldly magic.

John Moore: Recent Work is at the Hirschl & Adler Modern, 21 East 70th Street, until April 26.

Genial, Cautious Painter Favored Empty Rooms