28 June 2015 06:57PM
Before Abstract Expressionism there were Abstractionists and there were Expressionists. In the early 1940s, members of both schools—with a handful of Surrealists and Dadaists thrown into the mix—congregated as the “Club” in weekly meetings at the Waldorf Cafeteria at Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street, which became a melting pot for discussions regarding the future of art. The disputes that arose there, among the various schools, were so intellectually fractious that somebody—Philip Pavia, the Club’s tutelary host, or Harold Rosenberg, the critic par excellence, or somebody else—just threw their arms up in the air and announced something like: What the hell! We’re all just abstract expressionists. Thus began the movement that was to transform the definition of what constitutes art, and led to the stream of intertwined strands that defines its practice today. Pop, Minimal, Conceptual, etc., all began there, and then.
According to Pavia’s precisely maintained records, an up-and-coming young artist named Nicolas Carone, who had trained under Hans Hofmann and Giorgio Morandi, became the seventy-ninth member of the Club, after Bill de Kooning of 88 East 10th Street, third, Franz Kline, sixth, Ad Reinhardt, Philip Guston, and Barnett Newman, but before Mark Rothko of 1288 Sixth Avenue, and Jackson Pollock of Macdougal Alley.
If there was only one thing that united the Abstractionists and the Expressionists, it was their supreme regard for four earlier twentieth century artists: Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Soutine. Nick Carone fully embodied these influences as much as anyone else, a factor evident in the current sampling, which opened at the John Davis Gallery in Hudson yesterday evening, of his mid-period and late work. The impressive and delectable series of small-scale paintings presented underscore the artist’s own words: “I don’t think Abstract Expressionism was a concluded idea. I think it was in flux; it was becoming something. And it went two ways: to the very abstract or even minimal; and on the other hand, to a configuration of forms that identify with nature or to unconscious elements. There’s something of life’s experience that can give more to a picture.” Our neighbor, Nick Carone’s son Claude, himself a masterful exponent of the challenges of abstraction, was there at the opening, and happened to express his respect for Philip Pavia, who died at much the same age as Claude’s father, just a few years earlier, both among the very last of that exuberant and highly intelligent generation.
The second artist in John Davis’s current show, Kiki Smith, is also the child of a great artist and herself a poignant embodiment of generational influence. Her father, Tony Smith, was, with Moore and Caro, among the twentieth century’s most revered sculptors. Her own work, with its mastery of numerous media, veers off on a path uniquely hers, and is here dazzlingly represented in fifty or more rebellious, now and again delirious and gloriously discombobulated drawings, lithographs, and aquatints—huge and tiny—of apparently randomly juxtaposed subjects and inscriptions, mostly relating to nature, that delight both the eye and the mind. “Poetry is the haven that listens to the trees” says one and sums it up.
Smith so fully embodies craft and conception that it is tempting to place her outside today’s mainstream (her animals do not simply float in formaldehyde and are maybe a little too decorative): on the contrary, she projects her exposure to all manner of influences unstintingly and is among the most authentic artists working today.
Smith’s apprentice Rachel Ostrow is the third artist. Ostrow produces beautifully fashioned paintings, on thick panels, of inverted silhouettes that are genuinely both abstract and expressionist. Though modest in scale, with their Richter-esque precision, hung on the rough walls of Davis’s carriage house, they have the luminous impact and religious dimensionality of medieval stained glass.
A floor above is “Lure”, a selection of work by Californian Valerie Hammond, another of Kiki Smith’s cohort, whose graphic expertise is exquisitely revealed in seductively simple images of flora and fauna, but whose flair for expression is most exemplified in her tiny porcelain abstract sculptures, alone worth the climb and risk of hitting your head on very low ceilings.
And finally, the fifth, excellent artist in this whole compelling show (befitting a museum): the Spaniard Isidro Blasco. His wild, escalating, purposely disorienting structure “Prime”, obstinately occupying the gallery courtyard, has seemingly nothing to do with all the rest of it—other than a fully-embodied awareness of the interaction of expression and abstraction. (Sad that Blasco’s immaculately detailed urban reconstructions are no longer on display at Davis—they would have rounded out this otherwise immaculate show.)
For millennia, art sought simply to depict order within our world and experience. In the twenty-first century, art seeks to remind us of the underlying disorder and randomness of it all. The fluidity of reality—comprising every contingency, not just what appears to be—out of which it is our moral responsibility as a species to generate order, is at last the subject of art, an insight we owe to a great extent to the ground-breaking members of the “Club” who gathered, seventy years ago, at—of all places—the Waldorf Cafeteria.
1 Nicolas Carone, Untitled, 1971, pastel, gesso and pencil on paper, 9.875 x 12.75 inches
2 Kiki Smith, collaboration with Donald Rubinstein, Seed 7, 2003, Portfolio of eight prints, etching, 22 x 28 inches, 18 of Edition of 18 + 6 AP + 1 BAT + 1 TP. Publisher: Thirteen Moons
3 Rachel Ostrow, Ouroboros, 2015, oil on panel, 16 x 20 inches
4 Valerie Hammond, Effigy 1, 2015, glazed earthenware, 8.5 x 5 x 4.5 inches
5 Isidro Blasco, Construction: Prime, 2015, wood, paint, hardware, 10 x 14 x 10 feet