New York

“Direct Representation”

Fischbach Gallery

“Direct Representation” is an exhibition of five artists, selected by critic Scott Burton. They are chosen, at least in part, to illustrate Mr. Burton’s critical position that, “Straight figuration is, I think, the only major mode now available to painting adequate for the expression of the fullest individuality.” Since the proposition is manifestly untrue, it places an unfair burden on the artists, who are, then, perhaps best discussed without reference to it.

The artists in question are Yvonne Jacquette, Sylvia Mangold, Robert Bechtle, Bruno Civitico and John Moore, named more or less in order of preference. Yvonne Jacquette’s door hinges and architectural moldings impressed me as strainingly precious. Their hard linearity and formica-like surfaces reveal a Surrealizing sensibility such as one finds in Lowell Nesbitt or Konrad Klapheck (or, sadly enough, in Jack Beal of late). In her attachment to dislocated elements of interior architecture, Jacquette’s paintings may be compared with those of Sylvia Mangold—which also struck me as eerily precious. She strains for visual mileage in the grainy variations of parquet patterns. Yet her diffident—not to say inept—transparent painting of these sinewy patterns are at odds with the rigorous perspectival renderings which she has been at equal pains to reproduce. In the case of both artists I find the architectural fragmentation—absence of room corners, wainscotting, woodwork, that is of “horizons”—forced and artificial. Both artists, in the guise of straightforward documentation, aim at polemic: Jacquette for the irreality of reality and Mangold for the Minimalist understructure beneath the apparent skin.

I thought Robert Bechtle more challenging. A West Coast artist about whom one often has read, he paints with local coloration, tonal dexterity and a surface anonymity which makes his pictures appear as if they had been simultaneously printed in black and white and in color. His surfaces refer back to Rosenquist’s billboard passages although the stroke is less broad, at times even feathery. The imagery of popular culture—the station wagon, the tile bathroom, the Zenith TV, the California Stucco—strikes me at this time as a depleted vein, although Pop-derived subjects cannot, alone, ever be taken for indices of quality. Still, to persist in reading his painting in terms of social commentary, as his defenders do, is to falsify Bechtle’s entirely pictorial and commendable neutrality.

My initial reaction to Bruno Civitico’s painting was negative—I even thought it poor and out of place. But, arrested by the exhibition as a whole, I was at length attracted by the many strengths of Civitico’s work—not the least of them being a curious tonal (not coloristic) scale which wavers between yellow-green and powder blue. And the intellectual play between anatomical forms which ought to project but which lie flat and those which ought to lie flat but which project, I also thought were curious, even compelling. In all of this stereometric oscillation, does one detect a strong admiration for Puvis de Chavannes? At first Civitico seemed like another malerisch painter working up landscapes in halftones, ultimately dependant on the Corot of the 1820s, and, like his master, more convincing in smaller works of an architectural character than in the doomed and ambitious figure pieces. In this light, Civitico’s figure paintings, like those of John Moore, may be considered “courageous” if only because the ambitiousness of conception appears to be beyond the formal and technical means of both artists. Which is why I most respected them: they appear to undertake projects beyond not only their scope but perhaps beyond the possibilities of representational painting at this time.

Less painterly than Civitico, and perhaps less intrepid, John Moore’s anti-coloristic still lifes and a figure piece were impressive in a solid and uncompromising way. Although Moore owes much to Philip Pearl-stein in terms of a modulation not based on color but on admixtures of black and white, he avoids Pearlstein’s studied cut-off poses and his too intensely seen distortions. Moore presents four-square compositions of small still lifes set up on tables in room corners. In his figure piece each of the elements, the nude, the director’s chair, the radiator cover, are seen frontally. All of this frontalism seems to suggest a mannerism, necessitated too by the requirement of discovering an elusive profil perdu which is able to negotiate stereometry and planometry at the same time. Such a distillation is, of course, elusive—at least in a single canvas—but I regard it as among the most elect things an artist may ever hope to find. I know of equally courageous failures by de Kooning, Balthus and Carlo Carrà. The reference to Carrà is perhaps less gratuitous than it appears. There is a heavy dosage of Scuòla Metafísica in Moore’s painting, as if Morandi had been corrected by Cézanne.

Robert Pincus-Witten