New York

Wallace Putnam

Lerner-Heller Gallery

Admittedly, the human problem of the veteran painter is painful, and paradoxically oddly redemptive. Assuming that my theoretical position were even remotely true, how then does one perceive with generosity the continued elaboration of a long devotion to a set of manual and mechanical principles thrown awry and subverted by the epistemic concerns of the late ’60s and ’70s? The answer, I believe, lies not in the works produced by these artists, but in the moral examples the artists provide in terms of a devotion to morphologies whose anachronism they could scarcely have anticipated. Wallace Putnam, in his seventies, elicited this curious sympathy from me—not so much as a painter, but as a survivor. The artist’s curriculum vitae includes such tantalizing facts as, for example, his inclusion in the 1926 Société Anonyme International Exhibition of Modern Art, and Alfred Barr’s watershed exhibition of 1936, “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism.” Similarly, Putnam’s exhibition career is marked by those dates and iconographies—The She-Wolf or Moby Dick—which mark as well the exhibition histories in, say, Milton Avery and Pollock and others of the proto or first generation of Abstract Expressionism. 

And, yet, we know nothing of Putnam. The present exhibition deals with work largely of the last few years. Putnam’s absorption of automatic principles from Surrealism was to be anticipated along with its synthesis of direct response painting in front of the landscape motif. In this, Kandinsky and Marsden Hartley precede him. Granting the known aspects of his position, Putnam’s fusions—especially in the landscape genre—remain admirably fresh and unapologetic. In this case, and that too of Lawrence Vail as we shall see, to view Putnam’s painting in a historical vacuum—to exempt it from a history which it, in its way, nourishes—is not to see the work at all, since these paintings reveal so clearly the absorption of the most salient issues of American modernist options. The resolution then of the veteran’s dilemma becomes not that of abandoning convention, but in persisting in it against all reason, so that at length what is imposed is less about painting itself and more about the moral impressiveness of the commitment. 

Robert Pincus-Witten