New York

Stefan Hirsch

Rosa Esman Gallery

In the first painting, Self Portrait, a prim, dour man in a brown jacket stares out warily through round glasses. Behind him hangs an overcoat. This painting, like all of Stefan Hirsch’s, concerns the elimination and correction of detail. The jacket’s diagonal lapel is “missing”; it has disappeared to give the lapel shape and body underneath it a subtle ambiguity. The hanging coat’s similar lapel edge looks as if it had been painted “correctly,” in the proper perspective, and then adjusted little by little until it formed a deliberate horizontal line. As the eye moves back and forth between these two details—elimination which makes the human form flatter, and formal correction of the inanimate coat as surrogate—a curious, slow intimacy between actual and pictorial vision is discreetly underlined.

The earlier paintings admit their debt to Cézannesque vision, but the landscape does not fare well under Hirsch’s hand. It was the urban, not the natural, landscape which provided Hirsch with a subject matter equal to his critical content. Although he worked with the Precisionists, one sees in his best paintings how close in emotional terms he is to German Expressionism in the strange and dark divergence from visible reality. Sheeler and Demuth were American optimists; their embrace of the sleek, streamlined machine esthetic, of photographic objectivity, has little to do with Hirsch’s idea about the industrial world. His city, a destructive manmade creation, an evisceration of the natural world, a correction of organic form, feels desolate, ghostly. After 1928, no people show up in Hirsch’s paintings.

The focus of attention in this show was the large work Excavation, and a slightly smaller version. We have here no joy taken in the style and objects of modern life, in machines, in efficiency, in skyscrapers and geometric cylinders and cubes. This is his named image of the radical alteration of the living earth—not a building upward, a construction, as much as a tearing away and “correction” of the land for human purposes. Color in Excavation is not shiny, metallic, liquid or bright, but opaque, flat, dense, vile—dark, manganese blue, hot brownish red, black—colors for objects never exposed to natural light.

I remember the sensation of color best. Hirsch looked hard at his world and produced a startlingly accurate mental portrait of a closed, impenetrable, solemn, alien environment. Hirsch gives us an advanced case of water and air pollution. Midtown Range, 1931, the title a pun on “urban landscape,” on Manhattan as a field, has a sky resembling a dark. moody, feathery Clyfford Still. New York, Lower Manhattan, 1930, has boats stagnant in black, now cracked water and an ochre sky. Even in paintings such as Winter Night, 1928, where gray, brick and muffled yellow-white of artificial light create a snow-at-night image of silent beauty, it is the car overcome by the force of nature that becomes the central theme. When nature triumphs in Hirsch’s paintings, color becomes much less dreary and deliberate.

The best painting, Night Terminal, 1928, shows barren cement blocks, rails without trains, an empty building, and a ray of light shooting into a chocolate brown sky. The building holds up a starkly illuminated billboard, a toothpaste ad: “It’s best because it’s better” it tells no one. Such morbid humor strikes a chord, defines and criticizes a typically American attitude from manifest destiny to the faith of the ’20s in the booming, disposable consumer society. Hirsch’s pessimism looks like a premonition.

Jeff Perrone