On the Rocks: Swiss Sculptor Makes Magic From Monoliths

Starry-eyed cynicism coupled with careerist savvy characterizes an increasingly youthful contemporary-art world. Critics, dealers and collectors, eager to exploit the drive of untried talent, snatch students from their M.F.A. cradles and hope for star material. The scene is heady as a result, but ultimately, we’re left with a glut of product that nobody needs.

As a bracing corrective, the Peter Blum gallery in Soho is displaying five sculptures by Hans Josephsohn—the first American showing for this 86-year-old Zurich-based artist. As such, the exhibition hearteningly affirms artistic longevity and, in this case, the creative intensity with which it can be blessed. What will all the young ’uns out in Williamsburg make of Mr. Josephsohn’s achievement? Not much, perhaps: It has so little truck with commerce and pop culture. More’s the pity. This is sculpture of a very high order. Let’s hear it for a grand old style.

Mr. Josephsohn’s Half-Figures consist of work created between 1990 and 2003. In their own mute and crusty way, these sculptures are startlingly pure. Each piece is a rock-like monolith shaped from plaster, then cast in bronze. Set upon white pedestals, they’re not-so-distant relatives of the outsized totems on Easter Island. Their choppy and chunky surfaces divulge, if somewhat grudgingly, noses, ears and a decided sense of gesture. The effigies lean with purpose, as if laboring to endure not just gravity’s pull but also the symbolic portent with which each is endowed.

Channeling magical properties residing within primal shapes sounds like a romantic’s game. Yet the dour intelligence informing the pieces dodges loopy notions of getting in touch with one’s inner caveman. The sculptures recall those of William Tucker, Philip Pavia and Irving Kriesberg, each of whom divines an inchoate poetry from bluntly articulated archetypal forms. Giacometti’s relentless search for objective fact permeates Mr. Josephsohn’s efforts as well.

But perhaps the painter Eugene Leroy offers the best comparison. Like Leroy, another European artist who gradually and persistently developed his vision while working in relative isolation, Mr. Josephsohn has dedicated himself almost exclusively to the figure. How far that pursuit has taken him away from a strict fidelity to observed phenomenon could be read as a mordant commentary on the futility of representation. Yet it could also be seen as a strategy—albeit largely unconscious—of reinvesting sculptural form with the longings of the spirit.

In an odd way, then, Mr. Josephsohn works from the inside out. That’s why the monoliths seem to grapple with their own existence: Physical manifestation tries to catch up with psychological desire. The results are heroic, somewhat terrifying, surprisingly winsome and more than a little comical. Giving coherent shape to such contradictory impulses takes someone with enough experience to relish the challenge head-on. Mr. Josephsohn is just such an artist. This is one hell of a debut.

Josephsohn: Sculpture is at Peter Blum Soho, 99 Wooster Street, until May 27.

Before Ocean Park

Thank God for hindsight: Otherwise, how much would we prize the figurative art of Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)? The Greenberg Van Doren Gallery is presenting never-before-exhibited works-on-paper that capture the American painter between the Ab-Ex-inspired paintings that put him on the map and the famed Ocean Park series, those stately meditations on light and locale that assured him a place in history.

Dating roughly from the mid-1950’s to the mid-1960’s, the pieces—not only of figures, but also of suburban landscapes and domestic bric-a-brac—evince a painter in transition. Diebenkorn’s restlessness and curiosity, and sometimes frustration, are palpable in his juggling of observational description, painterly independence and an ambitious array of influences—among them, the roughhewn vigor of the New York School, the rigorous sensuality of Matisse and the all-American severity of Edward Hopper.

The excitement comes from Diebenkorn pulling these impulses together even as they pull each other apart. Not that the drawings and paintings are uniformly successful. A series of female heads are the least convincing, largely because their debt to Matisse is slavish and ham-handed. In contrast, the full-body pictures of a woman take the Matissean ball and run with it. Here the human form encompasses hard-nosed structure, concise contours and sweeping fields of lyrical color.

Yet it is the still-life pictures—washy and scrabbled arrays of scissors, knives, bottles of ink and, here and there, a flower—that express Diebenkorn’s stern gift for rhythm, composition and (the attribute he valued above all else) “rightness” most impressively. There’s a democratic bent to how he redeemed the mundane—as if the most profound of experiences could be gleaned from the contents of an ashtray. The still-lifes are no match for the abstractions that would soon follow. But they’re more than most painters can claim even in maturity.

Richard Diebenkorn: Paintings and Drawings on Paper is at the Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, 730 Fifth Avenue, until May 20.

Beyond Therapy

Recent History is the title of Sarah McEneaney’s exhibition of egg-tempera paintings at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, but My History is more like it.

That’s the way it’s always been with the Philadelphia-based artist. Ms. McEneaney’s art is an unapologetic and rather pitiless brand of autobiography. In these paintings, we follow her recent bout with cancer, the attendant hair loss, the stark realization of the body’s fragility, the death of a beloved pet and quiet moments of productivity in the studio. Ms. McEneaney’s life is filled with conflict, illness, loss and fleeting joy. It’s like anyone else’s life, really: Why should we care enough to look at her paintings?

We shouldn’t always. Ms. McEneaney’s tirelessly delineated folk mannerisms continue to be her strength—and her limitation. When the work misfires, as it tends to do in the smaller pictures, stilted drawing and uneven navigations of pictorial space come off as affectations. As such, they can’t deliver the pictures from their therapeutic basis. She may be sophisticated, but Ms. McEneaney doesn’t always avoid the pitfalls of style or self-indulgence.

But given a little more surface area, her diaristic art gains in ambition, skill and scope. Suddenly there are spaces that careen with purpose, an acidic palette and the kind of brushwork in which every inch means something. We end up caring about Ms. McEneaney’s garden, neighborhood and acupuncture treatments because the intensely realized craft propels the paintings beyond mere anecdote. The best of them elaborate upon the recognizable burdens of humanity, but there are moments of solace. In Watsonville, Ms. McEneaney depicts herself bathing nude under a bucolic starlit sky, and she distills a rare moment of grace in which all of us can partake.

Sarah McEneaney: Recent History is at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, until June 2.

On the Rocks: Swiss Sculptor  Makes Magic From Monoliths