Chicago

Chicago

To open the exhibition season here the Hyde Park Art Center presented a show entitled simply “Wedge.” Contrasting with a long-standing local tendency toward the figurative, the show was emphatically abstract, oriented toward the minimal concept. The six artists included were Allan Boutin, John Brower, James Falconer, Robert Phillips, Dennis Subia and James Zanzi. Certainly the show was not programmatic and there was considerable personal variation within the theme. Brower’s painting with ladders was of interest in itself but it had little in common with the other works, and Phillips’s Light Picture, its severe balance of black and white behind the isolated blinking bulb and the circle of bulbs, was consistent with the spirit but needed different surroundings in order to achieve its strongest effect.

These structures (and, significantly, that word seems more appropriate than either “sculpture” or “construction”) eliminate allusion and metaphor and to a large extent their effectiveness is in proportion to this achievement. Within this general context, the set of parts by Dennis Subia—like the enlarged elements from some game—held to this idea, but the carefully selected colors were an added qualification of almost too personal a nature for this context. The artist’s touch—which, before certain developments in this century questioned the idea, was generally accepted and expected in a work of art—is incompatible with the concepts behind this style. In Jim Zanzi’s large white piece—the magnification of miniscule form—the surface texture of the combination of tool and material left an unresolved ambivalence in the work.

If the artist’s own “touch” has been suppressed by sculptors involved with primary structures there are in turn a number of possibilities which are opened to him. Al Boutin’s work has progressed through a series of stages during the last few years toward an increasingly uncompromising position. Yet it retains a strain, personal and romantic, which is at odds with the thrust of his work and the elimination of personal elements. The tension set up between such disparate attitudes becomes the crux of the idea in his large orange Free Fall. From several views it was all but impervious, visually. Not even the fan-like steps gave us the customary “entry” into its idea. The form as a whole seemed to reverse our usual experience, encroaching as it did on our own physical existence rather than acting as an object. This was also true of the long, black, low-pitched piece by Jim Falconer. Similar in form to the nondescript covers used to protect pools and fountains in winter, it succeeded in unifying the commonplace and the mysterious. Unlike most works within the minimal style, or at least in deviating from them in their most emphatic position, its “presence” was stronger and more suggestive than its mere functional “existence.”

The poster announcement for the three-man show at the Allan Frumkin Gallery in October consisted of a bar of each of the primary colors, set as an equilateral triangle and it seemed to forecast the character of the show. This balance could not be considered the result of similarities of style, since the work of each artist was quite distinct.

Jordan Davies’s high-keyed color can best be described in relation to taste—sweet, acrid, bitter, etc. The elements of form which he uses are relatively simple interwoven tubelike strands and he achieves a delicate balance between color and form, one set against the other. The airbrushed smooth surfaces tend to become decorative in the extreme. With color and form in the present stage, the lack of surface and the lack of emphasis on the brushed pigment deprives them of material surface. It is not an advantage or an advancement over the more conventional means. However, the handsome untitled painting with its suggestion of specific form and organic placement shows his current development at its best.

The smooth, machined surface was entirely suitable for Ray Siemanowski’s work—both the paintings and the constructions—polished and sophisticated as was their character. Titles such as Spain Rain, Polka Dot Hills, Cardboard Lightning, suggest the patent quality in them and indicate their treatment as well. The painted constructions of welded steel which stretch up and out from floor and wall panels are involved with the complicated problem of combining color with sculpture. Siemanowski’s great facility may enable him to resolve the difficulties in the area of painting, but in these, color succeeds only in decorating the surfaces.

The juxtaposition of images in Art Green’s paintings is evidence of his sources and also affirms his position as a Surrealist. The painting Absolute Purity (over 10 feet in height) is a celebration of the banal, with the trompe l’oeil image of a gigantic “tastee-freeze” floating beside the grotesque, inflated leg. The super edible artifact taken from our food-oriented milieu was suspended in front of a construction which held in place the gross, almost unrecognizable anatomical fragment, one image acting as a foil for the other. The fire belching from the monstrous leg-become-chimney, evoked the purifying idea and played upon the words of the title. As a whole it was a strong, unique and mystifying allegory.

The work of an old, acknowledged master is apt to be greeted with readymade views which tend to be hypercritical or overly enthusiastic. With an artist such as Jean Arp whose grace and ease of style are almost ingratiating these extreme positions become a hazard. The Kovler Gallery exhibition of over 30 works—sculpture, collages, drawings, and prints—was the most considerable show of his work that we have had here for some time. Although most of the material dates from the last decade, some came from the ’40s and one piece from as early as 1930.

On occasion his facility leads him to an easy, all too easy solution, the result being little more than a highly skilled acrobatic performance. But this is rare and even when it happens one is awed by the very deftness which is his. Each time there is an opportunity to evaluate any part of his oeuvre his position as one of the important 20th-century artists is more secure. His is a terse, lean style, almost suave. The presentation of what appears to be deceptively simplified form, it is the great ease of his accomplishment which at times trivializes his work.

Early in his career he adopted a position of acceptance of the fortuitous encounter, the accidental—almost anything which might be classified as the result of chance. (If you cannot control chance then why not let chance work for and with you?) By deftly undermining his own ego Arp equipped himself with a concept which frees his work and acts as a vitalizing point of departure. What might seem to give anonymity to his work makes it highly individual and personal.

That the idea of chance and all of its ramifications is still so much a part of today’s art indicates its value in an historical sense. This fact is amply illustrated in the show “Pictures to be Read / Poetry to be Seen,” one of the two shows which opened the new Museum of Contemporary Art. (The second exhibition was the extraordinary series of drawings, Projects for Monuments, by Claes Oldenburg.)

Jan van der Marck’s introduction to the catalog of the exhibition drew attention to three sources of influence behind much of the work. That of Duchamp can be easily confirmed, and the ideas of John Cage parallel Duchamp’s (and Arp’s). The influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein is less clear, less apparent and certainly more limited, though his studies in linguistics and his interest in the idea of games are of importance in the light of developments in “concrete poetry,” an element at work in this show.

In much of the work by the 12 artists included (Shusaku Arakawa, Gianfranco Baruchello, Mary Bauermeister, George Brecht, Oyvind Fahlström, Ray Johnson, Allan Kaprow, R. B. Kitaj, Alison Knowles, James Nutt, Gianni-Emilio Simonetti and Wolf Vostell), the viewer becomes a player and participates in a game. Word games with double meanings, puns, ambiguities and other devices, are all used with more conventional visual means.

Fahlström’s work, his variable paintings and his variable sculptures, are based on the game idea. He has established the basis for play by giving us certain images, but the outcome, i.e., the composition of the picture, is a gamble, dependent upon the chance encounter and the skill and endurance of the second player, the viewer, who must place the separate elements into a composition. Although he may not have established set rules, Fahlström has provided the limitations and has made the initial selection. His work too, is open-ended and remains continually in process. Arcane as is its theme, on first encounter it was some of the most interesting in the show.

The work of art as process, rather than a finished idea is also characteristic of Alison Knowles’s Big Book and, to a limited degree, is to be found in Kaprow’s environment, Words (a reconstruction of one first created in 1962). True to the Futurist idea that the viewer should be put into the picture, one is surrounded here by the texture, both visual and audible, of the written and spoken word. It exemplifies the concrete in contrast to the abstract.

Vostell’s transfer drawings and Kitaj’s screen prints seemed to be minor statements on the basic theme; Ray Johnson’s relief collages, precise and handsome, suggested that the game had already been played and that we were privileged to view only the carefully set out result.

Mary Bauermeister’s works, the collages of stones, the magnifying lenses, the affected drawings combined with photographs of the work in progress, were an overly precious treatment of interweaving levels of reality. Although this idea is a vital one in art today, her treatment was coy and precious.

The paintings on several layers of plastic by Baruchello suggested nothing so much as a cryptic map and, essentially linear, they might well be more effective in an album. The scale of images in Simonetti’s work suggested that the process of miniaturization had been employed, as in much of today’s technology. Their size as well as their placement too, played upon the game idea.

Arakawa’s paintings present specific concrete elements, e.g., stencilled words such as “head,” “ball,” “airplane,” “foot,” mere diagrams of ideas evoking images in place of any abstraction of them. They are, however, more visual than one might expect in spite of their “invisibility.” Theirs is a tenuous poise which stands between what might have been and what may become.

The strongest paintings in the show, and the richest visually, were by Jim Nutt. Here there was an interplay of words and images, puns, homonyms, etc., combined with objects and collaged material characterized by intelligence and wit. Images such as Snooper Trooper, She’s Hit, Miss C. Knows, are wildly extravagant, allusive and metaphorical, reminiscent of a latter day Finnegan’s Wake. Unlike Joyce’s formidable erudition, which draws heavily upon traditional sources in literature, myth, history, etc., Nutt’s is purely con- temporary with reference to comic strips, advertising, pathological texts, etc., an area all but ignored in the context of art before the present time. These paintings have uncommon comic powers, richer in con- tent and more powerful in the formal means which they employ than most of the other works included here.

Whitney Halstead