various venues

One aspect of Surrealism, especially where it touches on Romanticism, is the use of fantasy in landscape, either interior or exterior. Fantasy or the proverbial dream-state is the prerequisite for the exploration of this terrain. Undoubtedly landscape allows the greatest latitude to the artist whose means are fantasy. Plausibility is less often a condition than when we view still life or the human figure. Identification with the latter is usually so strong that we are alerted to any distortion; objects with symbolic associations are both more and less open to a fantastic treatment.

The first viewing of the etchings and print collages by Vera Berdich in the Print Galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago leaves one with the strong impression of landscape as the dominant theme. It is rich and varied to be sure, but the evidence belies such a conclusion and in many examples landscape is subordinate to images such as eyes, faces or whole figures which come into focus from time to time. Like apparitions, they inhabit a forest now appearing oversized or moon-faced, dwellers of some dream-made structure now abandoned. These ruins undoubtedly help to create the strong feeling of place, reminiscent of a Cocteau film.

This is a major retrospective exhibition of 85 prints, both etchings and print collages, extending over a 25 year period. The latter, print collages, are an extension of ideas and techniques which were developed in her etchings and it is as a graphic artist that her great importance lies. Her peers are a small number of artists whose most creative efforts occur when they are working with the plate, the stone or the block. The inventiveness of this artist seems to be most evident when she is involved in the various technical processes.

From the beginning there has been a great deal of exploration and invention in the use of the medium, as shown by such prints as Things To Be Remembered, 1948, Through Distorting Spectacles, 1950, Pattern For Living, 1950, or Renaissance Composite, 1953. The freshness of discovery has given way to greater richness of texture and a full range of tone in such prints as Beyond The Threshold, 1957; The Doors Were Closed, 1962; Pool Of Tears, 1962; or Charades, 1963. The greater elaboration of symbols in some of the later works is occasionally too much, and it results in a lack of focus of the varied elements. However, her finest examples are of a highly developed personal symbology in which formal elements act as a framework holding the images in balance. It is a handsome exhibition by a fine craftsman and artist.

The first showing of Ray Johnson’s collages in Chicago was held at the Richard Feigen Gallery.

This artist is one of the innovators of what is known as the “New York Correspondence School” which involves a Dada-like mail participation of a far flung group of artists. There is a note of Dada in these collages as well, e.g., The Ice Falls On His Head, 1965, and Brigid Riley’s Comb, 1966, although here it is gentler and more refined than in the original movement. These works are deft and witty; understated and quiet. In their use of whites and pastel colors and the matte, sometimes chalky surfaces they are like Joseph Cornell and like Cornell too, is their aura of restraint and good taste. Admittedly, here they differ from Dada which banned these values and branded them pernicious.

Although collages, neither the idea of chance nor the use of discarded waste, both so prevalent in collage, are prominent. These are essentially paintings although composed of discrete shapes, i.e., pieces with edges and corners sanded down through several layers beneath the pristine surface. Color is limited, surface textures are slight and the cardboard elements are built up to a low, very low relief.

All of these seem like minor distinctions and to be sure they are; however, within this narrow range the artist has exercised the utmost control and only occasionally does his subtlety and his display of good taste deteriorate into the precious. Their appeal to our sensibilities rests at least partly on their contrast with much of today’s art, large in scale, bold and direct.

A group of paintings by Robert Barnes was shown by the Allan Frumkin Gallery. The show included a number of small paintings as well as five medium to large size canvases. It is the large ones which most involved the artist and which most demand attention. The quality of Barnes’s work can be high, as some of these, or passages in some, illustrate, although with few exceptions it is flawed and his considerable talent is capable of more.

This promise is indicated in the thematic material which has been characteristic of the work shown by the artist in his previous shows. His style is reminiscent of Manet or Hals, brushy washes of rich color with abrupt contrasts of value, all factors which enable him to exploit the possibilities of acrylics. It is bravura painting although bravura achieved without the obvious skill and without any display of the usual dash and facility. It might seem at first that this reticence on the part of the artist is a failure to follow through on the implications of his initial decision in adopting such a style, but it is instead related to his way of seeing, his particular angle of vision and the content of the paintings. The subject fluctuates in and out of focus and the artist confronts his material obliquely instead of directly. Both of these factors make these works difficult to “read” and often the theme is insufficient or it has not been stated strongly enough to hold together the varied elements, and the various components remain unresolved and chaotic.

The varied elements, subjects of a collateral nature drawn together in this fashion, parallel certain modern writings more than they do other painting. For example, Tristan Tzara, 1965; Alfred Stieglitz, 1966; Early 19th Of August 1936, 1966, have similarities with Joyce’s method, in which a mass of detail, seemingly trivial, is directed into the mainstream of the story. Barnes has avoided the usual role of the artist as “selector” who includes, evaluates or rejects each bit and piece which is placed in the painting. Rather than impose any preconceived hierarchy of values the artist achieves, or attempts to achieve a synthesis of the myriad elements. Historical figures such as Stieglitz or Tzara are presented as mythical personages, the main character in a drama in which the present and the past play a part in a setting that may include biographical elements, real or imagined. At their best these unexpected configurations are high in allusion.

Early 19th Of August 1936, exemplifies much of what has been said. It is almost a parody on the idea of genre, an amalgam which hovers between several states, e.g., interior-exterior, where the room fuses with landscape elements, such as the cloud-like effusion growing ambiguously above the two figures. Still life is abundantly present but it, too, is ambiguous in its identity and in its purpose and meaning. Consistent with the foregoing there is a density to the painting that results from an absence of drawing as such, as well as the crowded forms and slight development of conventional space. In the History Of Still Life Painting, 1966, there is a suggestion of room like space but it too, remains airless. All of this points up the fact that the painter refuses to indulge in illusion, or at least refuses to suppress the inherent qualities in the medium which would allow illusion to occur.

The idea which is behind these paintings is not limited to the work of Robert Barnes alone, although he has gone further than other artists in developing it. His conception of a painting as something which exists between thought and object, neither complete nor fragmentary, is filled with possibilities. It has proven to be neither easy to achieve nor readily accessible to the viewer.

Whitney Halstead