New York

“Three Generations of American Painting”

Gruenebaum and Gimpel and Weitzenhoffer Galleries

There is another more common way of aggrandizing a younger artist’s work—connecting it to older, established art so it appears to be the heir to a great tradition. The younger artist gets the residue of accomplishment from the older artists, and is from then on identified with them. This kind of thing is so easy to spot, it is difficult to understand why anyone would even try to do it. Such a lineage is attempted in the double-gallery exhibition Three Generations of American Painting, but the inclusion of a young member is the least of its problems.

Considering that the first two generations in this show are represented by Motherwell and Diebenkorn (born respectively in 1915 and 1922 and hardly constituting separate generations) the historical and artistic connections are fairly tenuous from the outset. At their most successful, I don’t think they have much in common. Motherwell’s best work derives its power from bold color: either black and white or a very strong field of color with a minimal amount of drawing. (Even in this show, the collages work when the composition is grounded in a good color, as in The Photographer, which is backed up with a wonderful, deep blue.) On the other hand, Diebenkorn excels in subtle, more elusive color. The Ocean Park series is distinguished for its layered, pearly blue or greyed-yellow colors neither pastel nor pure. Diebenkorn has always used a very traditional non-holistic composition—planes with diagonal divisions which are balanced and locked together. When Motherwell does compose, as in the collages, it is usually done in a random, subjective way; otherwise, he uses a very defined, predetermined formal scheme.

It is hardly fitting that Diebenkorn be likened to Frank Stella in the catalogue essay. He is supposed to have liberated West Coast artists from the Abstract-Expressionist loose handling and composition and reintroduced a constructed, tight “made evident” kind of space. This “new” composition (really composing by parts and having little to do with Stella) is given historical importance—but Diebenkorn has never been anything if not an Expressionist, and the younger painters haven’t been known for their propensity for loose handling. Although Diebenkorn’s style is still widely imitated on the West Coast, it is identified with the casual and not the serious painter.

What this has to do with Motherwell is uncertain. Although he too had a change of “image” in the ’60s, which can be seen as a response to Minimal or color field painting, neither artist has ever repudiated his expressionist and surrealist roots. More questionable is the inclusion of Paul Edlich as the youngest member of the club. His reputation will certainly benefit from the association; yet his best work is not up to the relatively weak Motherwells and Diebenkorns included here. The most the catalogue has to offer is that all three work in series. Motherwell has a few from each (the “Opens,” the collages, the zen-washes) in assorted colors (that blue, the autumn orange, a great chocolate brown in Opening). The “Ocean Park” series predominates in the choices for Diebenkorn, but they are not the best I’ve ever seen. And, on the whole, the early landscapes possess a freshness that the figurative paintings have lost, so it is unfortunate that Diebenkorn’s early work is represented by a mediocre figure painting. Edlich is represented by only one series, the Chord Suite. His color is right out of Braque, the composition is Mondrian, and the materials are extremely conservative collage (acrylic, charcoal, jute). In fact, Edlich’s work looks as if it’s from the early 1920s. Thus it is even more ironic that he is presented as the “youngest” member of this trio, unless we are being subtly lectured on the current conservative trend in the arts today. In that case, what would be more fitting than to affirm the safety of traditionalism in making the youngest the most reactionary?

Jeff Perrone