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Calm, Stately Cruciform Shapes Excite Respect, Not EnthusiasmThe painter Harvey Quaytman, who died last year at the age of 64

Calm, Stately Cruciform Shapes

Excite Respect, Not EnthusiasmThe painter Harvey Quaytman, who died last year at the age of 64 after a long illness, was an unspectacular fixture of the New York art world for close to 40 years. If “unspectacular” seems an odd or callous adjective, especially in light of the artist’s recent passing, please understand that I mean it as a compliment.

Rooted in the Modernist ethos, particularly Constructivism and Neo-Plasticism, Quaytman paid little attention to artistic fashion. Though he took inspiration from Abstract Expressionism and shared affinities with Minimalism, Quaytman set himself apart from the stylistic convolutions that pass for recent art history, preferring the strictures of tradition to the distractions of culture: Making art, not noise, was his life’s mission. (He’s reminiscent, in this regard, of figures like Richard Diebenkorn and William Bailey.) The signature pictures, cruciform-shaped canvases done in acrylic and augmented with rust, are the culmination of an art put into motion by pioneering Russian abstractionists like Aleksandr Rodchenko and Kasimir Malevich.

Quaytman clarified that tradition, but he did not revitalize it, which accounts for the muted, somehow dutiful recognition his work has received. The paintings seem almost purposefully designed to thwart enthusiasm; they can be stately to a fault. That’s not to say that the memorial tribute organized by the McKee Gallery isn’t moving-it is. For anyone who prizes the art of painting, Harvey Quaytman: A Survey of Paintings and Drawings 1969-1998 is a must.

The show illustrates Quaytman’s artistic pursuit and the concomitant tussles it entailed. We begin with Riley Mumbling to Himself at Night (1961-63), a boxed-in ramble of de Kooning–esque shapes, and follow through the experiments-not always successful-with format and structure. A restless pictorial intellect, Quaytman steadfastly probed the rather fixed limitations of his art. Its mainstays are an abiding sense of craft, an understated material sensuality, irregularly shaped canvases and an almost grudging acknowledgment of illusion. By the time he settled on the cruciform format, the armature upon which his concerns would be refined, we feel that Quaytman deserved a rest.

You’re likely to leave the gallery wanting to see more of Quaytman’s art, which speaks to the pull and principle of his accomplishment. And yet we could twiddle our thumbs forever and a day waiting for one of our museums to mount even a modest retrospective. Now’s your chance to honor the handiwork of an admirably unspectacular man.

Harvey Quaytman: A Survey of Paintings and Drawings 1969-1998 is at the McKee Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, until Nov. 1.

Big and Skimpy

Having recently made the trek to Dia:Beacon, I vowed, on the train ride back to Grand Central, to temporarily limit my exposure to anything even remotely connected with Minimalism. How much big, skimpy art can a body stand? So it was with a resentful sense of duty that I headed to the Chelsea branch of the Gagosian Gallery to confront the latest efforts of sculptor Richard Serra. They’re more of the same coercive, gargantuan thing.

Catwalk (2003),asteelplank perched upon a ramp, is, in its dull arrogance, typically Minimalist. The two opposing walls of Vice-Versa (2003) would be precious if they weren’t so big-and they’re cute anyway. Blindspot (2003) literally ensnares the viewer inside a maze. Gallery-goers held captive alongside me complained of dizziness; my stomach turned. All of which proves that Mr. Serra considers control his primary artistic goal.

Then there’s Wake (2003), which is, well, pretty good. It’s composed of five torqued-or, as the press release informs us, “toroid”-walls, two of them shorter in length, placed in parallel relationship to one another. Imagine a series of ship hulls doing a shimmy and enjoying every minute of it; then you’ll have an idea of the work’s contradictions, rhythm and humor-yes, humor. It’s the rare Serra piece that makes us smile; here, he achieves an animism you could almost call Arpian.

Scale and material are used to sustain form, not as a means of intimidation. In other words, we don’t worry that Wake might tip over and kill us. What grates is the showy and distracting splashes of orange that run horizontally along the work’s steel surfaces. It’s enough to make you think that Mr. Serra, displeased that the work had gotten away from him, had to show who was boss. Fortunately for the rest of us, Wake put Mr. Serra in his place.

Richard Serra: Wake Blindspot Catwalk Vice-Versa is at the Gagosian Gallery, 555 West 24th Street, until Oct. 25.

Only Connect

A few weeks back, I argued that contemporary painting’s dependence on the photograph has resulted in constricted imaginations and dead art. No sooner were those words published than I walked into Cheim and Read and saw the canvases of Alessandro Raho. Mr. Raho works from his own photographs, painting friends and flowers against fields of white. The pictures aren’t constricted or dead-they’re diverting, maybe even arresting, but also problematic. The problem isn’t strictly related to photography; it has more to do with temperament. The work’s stark artificiality owes something to the contrivances of fashion photography (Richard Avedon is an influence), and Mr. Raho’s painterly antecedents (Alex Katz, David Hockney, Edouard Manet) don’t promise much in the way of substance, either. Mr. Raho favors the shallow end.

The pictures nevertheless do hint at emotional depth. It’s a good sign that the strongest of them depict people; it suggests that Mr. Raho perks up when connecting with a person other than himself. There’s pictorial depth as well: Shadows, slight and bluish, place the figures, which emerge from a soft, obliterating light and inhabit a disassociated psychological space. Unfortunately, when Mr. Raho paints complete environments-the view from a ship, houses along a suburban street-the pictures are forced and pointless, noticeably empty.

What makes the paintings is Mr. Raho’s touch. In its ease, lilt and modest confidence, it recalls, weirdly enough, Henri Matisse. Unlike Matisse, Mr. Raho doesn’t exhibit much drive-he’s content to stay in the corner into which he’s painted himself. Where will he go from here? Mr. Raho is breezy enough not to care about the answer, but pensive enough to give it some thought. While we wait for the sequel, Marvia (2002) shines and Catherine (2003) steals the show.

Alessandro Raho: New Paintings is at Cheim and Read, 547 West 25th Street, until Oct. 11

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