New York

Fernand Léger

Lerner-Heller Gallery

On the other hand, “An Intimate View of F. Léger” is an exhibition of works on paper which adds little to our understanding or appreciation of an important artist, although it reveals a certain diversity of activity. Posters, studies for costumes, book-cover designs contribute to the suspicion that the intimate view of someone like Léger is not necessarily the best. In any event, this exhibition would have improved had it been smaller and more carefully installed. As it is, over 50 prints are interspersed with roughly half as many pencil and ink drawings, and gouaches, as well as a couple of pieces of correspondence, two terrible ceramics and the items mentioned above. That Léger’s prints sometimes look like posters, other times like drawings, only adds to the confusion. Léger’s continuing preoccupation with a monumental popular art which often combines figuration with large-scaled abstraction is alluded to here but it remains his most prominent characteristic. In other words, you end up liking Léger for the same reasons as before, and most of the show just becomes hard to remember.

The high point is one early Cubist work, a wash drawing for Contraste de Formes from 1913. A profusion of overlapping, mostly cylindrical shapes drawn in truncated perspective are bluntly “shaded” by unblended blacks and whites on brown paper. It is rough, abstract and dynamic, mediating a point between the hermetic, varnished quality of Paris Cubism and the tight, overdesigned illustrations of Futurism. Obviously, Léger also wanted his art out in the street, but in terms of its own esthetic energy. Other interesting insights are provided by a gouache from 1938 in which Léger’s vigorous drawing and simple shapes are transferred, quite successfully, to Surrealism. Another gouache from the early ’50s titled Les Buches has thick soft forms which later appear in the sculpture of Oldenburg. Too often, however, Léger seems cramped in these smaller prints and drawings, particularly toward the end of his life. And when cramped, the work becomes either too busy and full, or too messy.

A few gouaches from the ’40s and ’50s where figures in thick black lines are overlapped by relatively big shapes of primary colors are quite interesting. Unlike the 1913 study, they merely reflect power which was better expressed on a larger scale. But these drawings do assert, if only by suggestion, that Léger placed the Neoclassical figure in a context which was formally, not just representationally, modern and that he improved on this right up to the end of his life. Léger is somewhat detached from the people he portrays, although he continually grants them dignity. Similarly, in the end, he occasionally detaches his figures from their classical weight, just as he floats color across the space they occupy. The different weight in some of the late Léger suggests more recent American art, as does the scale of the pieces of color. The main point is not American versus European, but the power that Léger maintained. It is a point which this exhibition does not clarify, although, luckily, it cannot be totally avoided. Aside from its few fabulous bits and pieces, the most this exhibition does is stress the need to do more, to have another selected and thorough view, intimate or otherwise.

Roberta Smith