New York

Brice Marden, David Novros, Paul Mogensen, Ralph Humphrey and Peter Gourfain

Bykert Gallery

To cross the street from the Wise Gallery to the Bykert is to experience a disorienting cultural shock. McNeil’s violent images and strident palette couldn’t be farther from the muted withdrawal of the younger generation displaying their works in a Group Show at the Bykert. Seeing the works juxtaposed is to see illustrated two diametrically opposed world views.

There is no question that the paintings by Brice Marden, David Novros, Paul Mogensen, Ralph Humphrey and Peter Gourfain at the Bykert aspire to be radical art. All are more or less “minimal” in that they are monochromatic or close to it. The ambition ranges from Marden’s modest small-scale panels to Gourfain’s expansive 18-foot plum color field painting and Novros’s angular shaped canvas constructions, which use the wall as negative space in their gestalt interplay. Common to all the work, however, is a curious listlessness and homogeneity that often accompanies derivative work. For not one idea in the show is original. Marden’s dense rectangles with their dripped lower margins look like the backgrounds of Johns’s large paintings; Mogensen’s and Novros’s modular art fill the gap between Stella and Judd. Only Ralph Humphrey’s tense, sensitive abstraction of three narrow, parallel bands on a pale grey field is sufficiently distinctive to be remembered.

A show like this only goes to prove that the reductive solution is a narrow one which leaves little play for the imagination or room for variety. Only master craftsmen like Larry Bell or Robert Irwin seem able to create a reductive art of any complexity or considerable esthetic impact. For the rest, there appears no exception to the rule that for a few people less is more, but for the vast uninspired majority, less is just simply less. The exhibition at the Bykert is a depressing reminder of the poverty of the current scene. It is quite representative of the work being turned out by young artists, work whose major virtue is competence and whose range of ambition is entirely within the possible.

Obviously, the younger generation sees the present cultural situation as calling for an art of introspective contemplation rather than one of empathetic catharsis. Their art rejects everything McNeil and his generation valued: “engagement,” self-expression, high-flown rhetoric, metaphor and symbolism. It is a truism that every gain represents a loss; the question now is whether what has been won is worth what has been sacrificed. The vulgarity and tastelessness that have characterized American art until the present have at least been vanquished; but in general they have been replaced by a tepid professionalism. The art schools are more advanced than painters like McNeil showing in the galleries, yet they seem unable to teach anything more than technique and theory. But this was always true of academies. Creativity, contrary to current American educational theory, cannot be taught. Only a complete overhaul of the environment can increase the pathetically small ratio of creative personalities.

In retrospect every historical period appears less rich than it did to the artist’s own contemporaries. The decades 1910–20 in Paris and 1940–50 in New York are the exceptional years of our century. Like the late fifties, the late sixties is basically an academic period. Most artists are still cannibalizing ideas generated by a handful of painters and sculptors in the early years of the decade. Now Olitski’s spray paintings promise to be the point of departure for a back-to-painterliness bandwagon. Second-generation hard edge painting and its “minimal” offshoot, neo-shaped canvases, the various forms of stained painting which derive from Noland and Frankenthaler are as dull, repetitive, mannered and predictable as anything one saw on Tenth Street. But they are not as tasteless or as vulgar, and in that, one supposes, one sees progress in American art. The tasteless and the vulgar have apparently been banished to areas outside painting and sculpture, the realm of art objects that lurch, jingle, light up, shimmy and belch, which seem even more at home in the museums than in the galleries.

Barbara Rose