New York

Figurative Painting Of The Fifties

Schoelkopf Gallery

The Schoelkopf Gallery mounted a show of 34 works by 31 artists active in New York in the 1950s. The paintings tend to group around the date 1955. Two of the artists represented, Jan Muller and Ben Johnson, are now dead, and three, Robert Goodnough, Felix Pasilis and Wolf Kahn, no longer work in the tradition of figurative expressionism characteristic of the works exhibited here. Although the paintings exhibited depended on the holdings of the gallery and of friendly collectors, in many instances exceptional works were shown, such as Gandy Brodie’s Green Apples, Paul Georges’s Girl in Chair, Al Kresch’s Figure, Leland Bell’s Le Maison Tellier, Hyde Solomon’s Portrait of May Swenson, Louisa Matthiasdottir’s Young Girl with Book, Lester Johnson’s Red Chair and Robert De Niro’s Still Life.

The show is so good that it makes one wish for a larger show including several major paintings by each of the artists, the kind of show only a museum could successfully mount.

With the few exceptions cited above, most of these artists have not only continued to work within their self-established tradition but have gotten better and better at it. Gandy Brodie’s little paintings were, and are, moments of intensified expressionist emotion allied to the works of Monticelli and Fantin-Latour as much as to the more obvious Sou-tine. Nell Blaine has continued to paint with the force of a latter-day post-Impressionist. De Niro, Bell and Matthiasdottir work freely and exuberantly as latter-day descendents of the Fauves, although with an abstract sophistication which the original Fauves did not possess during their most exuberant periods. Paul Georges and Al Kresch continue as expressionists who look back to the romantic monumentality of the 19th century, and both Freilicher and Porter, without varying from their original positions, have increased their skill and power.

What is most curious and interesting is the fact that these artists’ work has continued to improve while the style within which they work has become, at least in the eyes of the official and voluble American art world, passé and even cliché. In the case of these artists quality has not followed the new; rather, it has been their attempts to arrive at quality as expressed in the vanguard paintings of the classic 20th century through a procedure comparable to that used by the earlier artists which produced similar quality. The discipline of imposed limitations, including that of not being avant-garde if avant-garde means denying some artistic or procedural dictum fundamental to the artists’ sensibility, need not produce work of inferior quality.

Gabriel Laderman