New York

Gabriel Laderman

Schoelkopf Gallery

Gabriel Laderman’s recent exhibit at Schoelkopf consisted of portraits, double portraits, landscapes, portraits in landscape, and still lifes—all the genres whose validity this embattled Realist feels he must establish. It would be convenient but quite distorting to look at Laderman’s work apart from his extensive commentary on Realism. Laderman the writer is hard to place. He is somewhere between critic, historian, esthetician, and polemicist, adopting each role as it appears useful. He is an interesting writer because he has reintroduced an important topic into recent discussion: the modernist personality, not as it is guided and dominated by the modernist mainstream, but as it self-consciously defies the mainstream, as it attempts to be subversive. This has led him to consider—often in a spotty way—the development of the personality in the modernist period. He discovers the usual stages—sensibility, romanticism, and self-conscious modernism, in which the personality sets itself against “historical determinism.” Laderman’s originality is in suggesting that representationalism is the only valid kind of painting at each of these three stages. Among contemporary painters he approves only what he calls the “concentric expressionists”—expressionists because they maintain an individual stance; concentric because they draw on the conventions of past representationalism in defiance of mainstream demands for abstraction. Laderman considers that these demands have caused painting to deviate from the “normative clarity” of mimetic reference at the basis of all valid art.

Laderman’s idea of validity is a form of special pleading based on highly exceptionable definitions. And yet, as I mentioned before, he has reintroduced the suppressed topic of the modernist personality into the discussion of current art, which is enough in itself to challenge art and criticism which attempts to align itself with the mainstream—for it is precisely the experience and development of the individual (artist and viewer) that the mainstream ignores in favor of a scientific, descriptive method focused on the art work. But finally Laderman’s ideas must be turned in the direction of his painting: writer and painter must be matched up with each other.

First of all, Laderman does draw on numerous sources. This is in fine with his theory; to be specific, it is a consequence of his definition of the concentric artist. One sees in his painting a blocky, “classicizing” treatment of the figure which owes something to the late Derain; there is a surface sheen taken perhaps from American luminism; Laderman’s compressed space may share the same origins, while drawing as well on Italian Mannerist space; in the relation of sitters to each other and to objects, spatial compression is modified by references to Baroque conventions; at this point in the listing, it may be unfair to see touches of Caravaggio’s light in these works, especially since the luminist sheen has been opened to Abstract Expressionist touches in the placement of brushstrokes indicating hair, foliage, and other complex surfaces. And there is of course the intense dowdiness, the overall air of representational responsibility, which Laderman shares with such other embattled Realists as Sidney Tillim and Philip Pearlstein. And there is more: the interior portraits and still lifes especially show a gradation of tone that faintly recalls the passage—the tonal structuring—of analytical Cubism. Perhaps there is less—I mean, less in the way of borrowings or, as Laderman calls them, “reformulations.” At any rate, one can only grant a full historical val idity to these reformulated images if one accepts fully the artist’s polemical rejection of abstraction. This is impossible, because Laderman’s arguments require him to refuse the value of the abstract painting—the great works of Abstract Expressionism, for example—which the mainstream has never entirely assimilated. In other words, there are arguments against the mainstream approach, but the best ones are not Laderman’s, that is, they don’t lead to the conclusion that all serious painting must be representational.

Without the benefit of his writing, Laderman’s art is a solemn pastiche. He challenges mainstream assumptions—both in his writing and in his painting—but in neither case is the challenge successful. Yet Laderman is provocative. The value of his art must rest, finally, in the quirky, doggedly persistent individuality that survives his eclecticism. And this makes him what he is: a present-day version of the late romantic artist, a “personality type” which has been surviving in various forms since 1830.

Carter Ratcliff