New York

Charles Biederman

Borgenicht Gallery

This retrospective is the first one-person show which American artist Charles Biederman has had in New York in a number of years. Although Biederman spent some time here in the ’30s, he has preferred to live in a place called Red Wing, Minnesota, since 1942. Still, he has never been isolated, having acquired a considerable European following over the years. In England, he is regarded by artists like Victor Pasmore, Kenneth and Mary Martin, Gillian Wise, and Anthony Hill as a primary influence on them, and they share the important Constructivist tendency in post-World War II British art. In 1969, a major exhibition of his work was held at London’s Hayward Gallery. And in other European countries, both East and West I’m told, Biederman is no less highly esteemed by younger artists who admire his rigorously rational viewpoint and unwavering confidence in his own vision. These, however, are qualities which go against the grain of American art, where the individualistic interpretation is honored, from Abstract Expressionism to Pop to Conceptual to New Image.

Biederman’s quest for a universal essence in modern art and his fiercely self-righteous attitude recalls early 20th-century abstract idealists like Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian. This is out of step with today’s pluralistic approaches.

Biederman’s idea that the course of modern art goes from Monet and Cézanne to himself—with no really acceptable stops in between—is what this retrospective is about. Dating from the late 1930s to 1980, his paintings and three-dimensional constructions are articulate statements of his systemic development. The earliest examples are paintings and sculptural reliefs showing detailed examinations of other artists, and marking the development from his first years at the Art Institute of Chicago (he attended classes there in the late ’20s) up to the first expression of his mature style in the early ’40s. Everyone, including Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, Léger, Mondrian, and Gabo, is subject to his scrutiny. In this show, there are rare examples of Léger’s and Mondrian’s influence. Biederman’s Paris, 1936 and Paris, Jan 14, 1937 (yes, he was in Paris at the time) find inspiration in Léger’s spatially ambiguous compositions of biomorphic/geometrical forms of the early ’30s; while #5 Paris, 1937, a painted abstract wood relief, and New York, 1938 (yes, he was in New York then), a small abstract plastic and painted relief, are based on the rectangular structure and barlike elements in Mondrian’s paintings of the ’20s and ’30s. By the early ’40s, Biederman arrived at the principles of what he has called in publications issued since 1948 “the new art.” And for almost 40 years, his art has developed only in complexity. #15, MacM/1977–78 is typical of his mature style and, like other works in the show from the early ’50s, it is composed solely of painted aluminum. Against a bright red base, barlike elements, each 1/8 inch thick and of different dimensions, are structured—and structure is the important concept here—in order to provide, according to Biederman, a spatio-optical experience, amounting to what he called a new and non-mimetic art of creation. The bars are variously colored in orange, purple-blues, yellows, and greens, and the composition contains horizontal/vertical/oblique relations. Earlier painted aluminum works, like #36, Ornans 1952–73—conceived in 1952 but executed some 20 years later—contain simpler compositions and color schemes. But, the compositions and color schemes proceed directly out of Cézanne and Monet, respectively. In addition, Biederman has stated that he shares with them a respect and liking for nature, an attitude which, in the brochure accompanying the exhibition, he implies distinguishes the three of them from other major figures in modern art. And, in earlier writing, he’s been especially negative towards Picasso, whom he rates as Cézanne’s corrupter.

Biederman’s highly polemical interpretation of modern art and his place in it will delight the revisionists. His publications include Art as the Evolution of Visual Knowledge (1948), Letters on The New Art (1952) and The New Cézanne (1952). Words and arguments aside, his painted aluminum structures look surprisingly contemporary; their vibrant colored surfaces changing under light, and clearly rendered forms changing in relation to one another from different vantage points, take their place among the most perceptually immediate examples seen in New York this season.

Ronny H. Cohen