New York

Paul Feeley

Guggenheim Museum

An exhibition of 49 paintings and a huge nine-piece sculpture court by Paul Feeley, who died in 1966, was organized by critic Gene Baro at the Guggenheim Museum, and included works dating from the last decade of the artist’s life. Since his death there has been a good deal of ballyhooing around and about the work of an artist whose modest and certainly not extraordinary talents do not seem commensurate with such attentions. Nor does one gather from the narrow ambitions of the paintings themselves that Feeley would have been party to such a fuss. The body of work exhibited is, in fact, notable for its singular lack of pretension—one never has the sense that Feeley aimed to overreach his own recognized limitations, and he often made positive use of these limits. It might be worthwhile to note that the impressively mounted red, white, and blue sculpture court—with its rippling columns made from two flat planes intersecting at right angles and reaching up to the museum’s second level ramp—was carried out posthumously, according to Feeley’s plans and models. Whether or not the artist would have finally approved of its execution is thus a matter of surmise, for its achievement is primarily and ultimately of a decorative and pictorial nature, rather than of a fully plastic experience. The columns remain simply pictures painted onto flat surfaces, and mounted on bases in modular arrangement.

During the last ten years of his life Feeley produced paintings of a restrained lyricism, whose forms (typically, barbells or hourglasses, beanlike and “jacks” shapes, or rippling-edged rhomboids) floated somewhere between the geometric and the biomorphic. These shapes, their symmetrical organization, and the range of muted, sandy colors he favored (ochres, teal or lavender blues, coral oranges) suited Feeley comfortably and repetitively well. The issue one must face, however, in viewing this fairly undistinguished, though sometimes pleasing collection of paintings, is the extent to which a current style and method of stain painting exerted pressure on an artist’s own originality. Around 1954 (the earliest work shown) Feeley seems to have already acquiesced, with not much of a struggle, to this mode. Although it is clear from the subtle colorism of certain works done from 1956 to 1957 that there is a unique talent at work, one remarks even this early the kind of conflict between a loose, painterly or improvisational imprecision (the hangover from Abstract Expressionist beginnings) and a will toward classical balance which was to mark the rest of his career. The vaguely biomorphic channels and pale, runny washes of paintings like Stereope or Thruway (1957) never stamp themselves out strongly enough either as colored surfaces or drawn areas, nor do they loom with sufficient authority or scale to truly claim the fields they occupy. This was to remain a major problem for Feeley—that his forms are usually sensed only as motifs, and not fully or solidly as pictorial armature.

Around 1962, however, Feeley seems to have come more into his own—hardening the edges of the shapes, using more saturated, intense colors, and generally tightening up the grid-like structure of his paintings. Laconia (1962), Katadoro (1963), or Ionia (1962), three of the finer paintings, have a Mediterranean brilliance and glow which derives from both the clarity of the formal elements as well as from the particularly fresh combinations of red-oranges, marine blues, and bare white canvas. Still, many works done throughout the years between 1961 and 1966, such as Arpa (1964), with its four groups of little colored bean shapes on a blue field, or the paired Aqueleia and Paeligni (1961), with their pitiful cookie cut-out circles in the middle of the wormy paths, have the kind of cute incidentalness which makes so much of Feeley’s work merely slight, expressively and formally, for all its otherwise humble attraction.

Emily Wasserman