New York

Group Show

Duane Street Gallery

So many pieces of work by somany young artists are exhausting and confusing to the viewer and degrading to the artists. One is presented at Duane Street with a Sears Roebuck catalog of third generation rehash of second generation modern figuration. The incessant drawing and working through of modernist pictorial concepts, such as those of Giacometti, Rodin, Picasso, Modigliani, and recently, Balthus and Hans Hofmann, is a connecting thread in all the work. Another thread is the general post-Cezanne surface consciousness. Surface is the prime concern, after which comes subject matter, level of abstraction, and color. Last come light and space, sometimes connected with color. Even in the sculpture (there are three sculptors, two of whom are figurative in the sense that they deal with recognizable images) the problem arises of developing complete volumes with whatever surface technique and modernist approach is chosen, and confronting the physicality of color and desire for naturalness in representation.

Most of the work displayed is comparable enough to most of the other figurative shows around. A few pieces stand out from the rest because they do give a bit of real form, real light, real space.

One of these is a freestanding female figure by Alvin Sher. The near life-sized clothed figure gives a strong, solid, sculptural presence, but has a surface conflict with the naturalist addition of local color and drawing to its roughly defined plaster forms. This addition distracts from the more abstract, slightly over-volumetric treatment of the individual parts of the body, especially the head. Although acceptable in an Egyptian standing figure in which the large volumes are smooth and clear, the paint denies the technical treatment of the surface here.

Another sculpture, a portrait head by David Abelson, is the most direct and strongest piece in the show. It is slightly smaller than life and is done in buff clay. When viewed from the front or rear, the head is built as a solid volume restrained and contained close to the limits of the cylindrical volume of the neck. The side views, however, approach a natural silhouette. Where these two approaches to seeing the form converge, the limitations of one view impose too strictly on the other and the sense of the continuity of form is weakened. This is, however, a minor argument, for the integrity and strength of this piece relates it to 4th-century B.C. Greek commemorative heads. The artist’s forthright simplicity in this classical representation is both beautiful and impressive.

A poetic little’ view in oils of an uninhabited East New York street by Ed Cato makes all of the rest of his 19th-century academic studio pieces out of place and dull.

Formerly a sculptor, Robert Pittenger carries his sensitivities to surface and relationships in space to a canvas of a Nevada town in the trees, with a hill behind. His canvas of heavy texture and matte paint depicts a group of buildings jutting up from a group of schematic tree marks. Seen very simply as a group of flat, harmoniously colored planes of cube volumes in daylight, the buildings are touched at times by a linear element (a dashed or broken line, a carry over from Synthetic Cubism or Giacometti) which could be left out. This painting is a metaphysical still life related to Morandi and some of Balthus. Perhaps the fact of the original source having larger relations in space, which he has to relate to, makes this more direct than his other smaller studio still lifes.

There are two main approaches to figuration today, conceptual and perceptual. The conceptual is a direct outgrowth of the older generation of Abstract Expressionists turned figurative and the perceptual is one in which a more humanistic approach to art is reestablished. Neither is completely pure in its form. One always uses some of the other. The conceptualist imposes the form and structure of ideas on what he does whereas the perceptualist brings all his knowledge of art history and conceptualization to a real situation (i.e. nature) and reacts to what he is confronted with at the same time that he tries to find a particular way of representing forms in space. His knowledge and ideas are only tools to be used if they will aid his perceptions and needs. For the first time in history an artist may choose to evolve for himself a representation of nature which he needs to express his own personal sen- sibilities to existence, his own poetry. All forms of past representation are available to him. Thus, it is possible for any artist today to develop a form which could at first glance be called Flemish, Italian, Pompeian, Germanic, etc., which would be entirely modern in its ability to exist as a means of expression free from the historical contextual bonds of market, royal whim, patronage, or confinement. All of this freedom turns the choice the artist has to make into a larger spiritual battle. The quest for personal artistic integrity becomes of prime importance and no doubt it will take a good deal of experimentation and development on the part of every artist to find his or her own truth.

Donald Butkovich