New York

De Stael

Although this excellent exhibition contains works from the late thirties and early forties, a study of a woman’s face and a portrait of Jeanine (both marked by fretful sentiment), it really begins with the works painted toward the end of the Second World War. In 1944, Nicolas de Stael was still attracted by a wayward Cubist framework, filling in angular shapes produced by criss-crossings. It is already evident that de Stael at thirty was a natural painter in accord with the easy, ingratiating principles established in Paris between the two wars. He would become a still more personal colorist, a composer of assertive if derivative structures, for whom drawing would be a simple gestural act employed to establish areas rather than to circumscribe them.

In such a text book list, the virtues of de Stael’s remarkable coloristic gifts are insufficiently emphasized. At moments he will veer toward the Braque of the thirties, as later, the Matisse of the forties will be manifest in his work.

By the end of the forties the automatic character of de Stael’s painting emphasized a surface animation of paths within paths and sweeping glyptic gestures. Initial coloristic ineptitudes, related to the weak taste of Magnelli, fall away in favor of the firm, the dark and the rich. However, de Stael can work in exquisite ranges too, as in the 1948 Composition in Celadon. The lighter de Stael suggests an affinity to late Jacques Villon, with whom, in the late forties, he was also sharing a partiality for large color planes, which, if lacking Villon’s “pure refinement” are all the more lush in terms of surface. It is de Stael’s work from the late forties that places him at the forefront of third generation School of Paris painting and confirms the shoddiness of such contemporary merchandise as Poliakoff and Soulages.

As we enter the fifties an ease and confidence become marked characteristics. He now treats the surface as a paint-mosaic in which glowing pigment tesserae are implanted into clotty ground-matrices. The characteristic masterworks of the period are epitomized in the group of Soccer paintings from 1952. From here on to his suicide in 1955 the paint grows thinner, compositions more simple and lyrical. De Stael’s last work is, to my mind, not without its failures, principally because of his landscapish interpretations of the female nude and the suave smokiness of the freely-brushed pictures. Yet, as Thomas Messer’s exhibition demonstrates, these late paintings are part of an organically unified development. At a moment in vanguard esthetics when the painterly message seems all but hopelessly empty and displaced, the present retrospective makes a powerful argument against many of the precious claims of Object-Art, be they put forth by Urban Imagists or New Abstractionists. In this sense the de Stael retrospective is also a brilliant and topical coup.

Robert Pincus-Witten