New York

Harold Stevenson

Lolas Gallery

The art of Harold Stevenson, like that of Andy Warhol, is in great part one of collusion between artist and public. The difference of course is that Warhol is a major artist while Stevenson is not. Stevenson’s crippling deficiencies are easier to enumerate than his virtues. Above all else he cannot draw. He is scarcely a colorist, a lack disguised behind merely passable value painting. Sensuous exploration of color, of surface, of facture still evades Stevenson’s reach, although in the present exhibition there has been an improvement along these lines.

Were these inadequacies all there is to Stevenson’s work such an assessment would be tantamount to drowning a kitten in a block of cement. Something far more serious hangs in the balance, a collective artistic guilt. Stevenson’s culpability is also why he is spared. Marcel Duchamp, that natural son of Des Esseintes (were he ever able to have had one) established beyond question the right of the twentieth century art object to be judged as a contingency of the artist’s life. Oscar Wilde knew this as did Whistler, and so does Stevenson. The present exhibition is accompanied by a set of diary entries which the artist transmitted to his dealer to give him “some idea of how these paintings came into being.”

7 August . . . Mother and Daddy pay a visit to studio think anatomy of horse is off. They may be right. Going to Broken Bow Rodeo with Laverne de Ramus (she’s from Pikins, a village in the mountains) and then to dance at the barn called “Salome Where She Danced.” [ . . . ]That time Laverne sang western songs like “I Feel A Sin Coming On” and wore turquoise pants and turquoise boots. I would really love to have Iris (Clert) and Yves (Saint Laurent) see the rodeo dress fashions.

Well of course Mother and Daddy were right, but they are swallowed up by larger immediate artistic questions concerned with Camp, Name-dropping (both cosmopolitan and rural), and of Local Color. There is something rather wonderful, after all, in the fact that an elegant young cowboy from Oklahoma can write to Alexander (lolas) about Iris and Yves. That is art today, or at least a part of it (as Warhol too has proven). Stevenson does wear marvelously cut plaid trousers, certainly meriting a page of Kenneth Paul Block sketches in “Women’s Wear Daily.” He really did antedate the present cult of El Cordobes by years, don’t you know.

In addition to the utterly essential artistic ephemera, Stevenson attempts to deal as best he can in visual metaphors and homosexual anagrams that fall within the narrower provinces of artistic evolution. A rose unfurling is less a botanical observation for Stevenson than a sexual exploration in which phallic fingers deftly penetrate still more delicate membranes and orifices (see “Mysteries Unfold Slowly”). Stevenson’s predilection for buttock-like forms, for hairy pits, for tenebrous apertures blown out of scale like Victorian nightmares of sexual repression (with all that is factitious and prurient in Victorianism), are trickor-treat reconstitutions of the genitourinary tract. For this reason Italian officials during the recent Venice Biennale branded his work obscene and almost cost Iris Clert (his dealer at the time) a two-month incarceration.

One cannot help but be entertained by this much nerviness, and one follows the adventures of Harold Stevenson with a certain amusement. They lead him, more and more, away from esthetic issues into the glossy world of public relations and publicity. To play the clown of this world—and it is not such an easy role—Stevenson has eminent qualifications.

––Robert Pincus-Witten