New York

William Baziotes

Blum Heiman Gallery

William Baziotes offers us 19th-century American luminist paintings modernized by quotations from the “experimental” works of the early-20th-century masters. From today’s perspective he looks like the master of the misshapen sign, the sign all too calculatedly odd, stylized in its eccentricity; eccentricity, of course, is always being reinvented, since any form of it easily becomes another “look” available for esthetic consumption.

When Baziotes first saw the work of Picasso and Joan Miró it was monstrously novel, and the biomorphic seemed profoundly destructive of the social-realist. What he didn’t understand was that the early Modernists, among other things, were trying to destroy the idea of the picture as a window, and that even the Surrealist sense of looking at strange worlds, which spilled into the work of Arshile Gorky and other proto-Abstract Expressionists, broke the glass of that window by screaming for identification with the weird creatures and events on the other side of it. Baziotes hangs on to the glass, and slips his domesticated monsters and officially strange phantoms inside it. It’s as if we’re looking at once-insidious microorganisms—microlife—now dead (or stunned by esthetic nerve gas) and mounted on a slide. These are much more quotable and collectible signs than those of Peter Bömmels. Trance, 1953, doesn’t put me in one, and Moby Dick, 1955, has lost the Gothic-horror-tale/detective-story insanity and vigor of Herman Melville’s book. This is tame stuff, light lyrics constructed of muffled contrasts of humbled forms. We don’t think of self-emasculation when we think of Abstract Expressionism, even when it becomes a matter of poetic charm.

The luminiscence is major, however, establishing continuity with a more tranquil America. But aren’t the 19th-century luminist paintings also emblematic of the kind of false peace that existed in the early ’50s, when Baziotes made this work? Just as the luminists give us the American landscape seen from the civilized side, so Baziotes gives us a superficial, outsider’s view of experimental art and the strange world explored by the Surrealists. He is not a conquistador, but the guy who stayed behind to enjoy the spoils.

Donald Kuspit