New York

“Action/Precision: The New Direction in New York, 1955–1960” and “Action/Precision”

Grey Art Gallery and Washburn Gallery

As more time separates us from the turbulent upheaval of the late ’50s and the swift ascension of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol, it becomes increasingly clear that a strong set of prejudices helped pave the way for what was then the new generation. The most obvious illustration is the term "Second Generation Abstract Expressionists,” which the young critics of the period, such as Barbara Rose, Robert Rosenblum, and William Rubin, employed pejoratively against an older group of painters. Eager to become an integral part of the history they felt was being made, these critics were predisposed to describe the work of such artists as Norman Bluhm and Michael Goldberg as derivative. Recent years, however, have seen a growing number of attempts to reexamine various artists of different generations to see if the opinions and attitudes of earlier critics still hold: Clearly, many reasons exist for reexamining the heady late ’50s and early ’60s. Color field painting, Minimalism, and conceptual art, when seen in the role of period style, don’t seem to have constituted the major or significant advances they once appeared. Furthermore, the view of art history as the replacement of one style by another, like tin ducks in a shooting gallery, is intensely narrow. It focuses attention on artists who adapt to the fashion of the day, leaving out those who have started elsewhere and are evolving along their own paths. During today’s “pluralist” time it is all the more evident how misguided and media-conscious this narrow view actually is.

In setting out to reexamine a neglected generation of artists, Paul Schimmel, the young curator of the Grey Art Gallery exhibition, limited his focus to the five-year period 1955–60, and to those artists born in the ’20s who were damaged by the term "Second Generation.” Six paintings by each of six artists—Bluhm, Goldberg, Grace Hartigan, AI Held, Alfred Leslie, and Joan Mitchell—formed the basis of the show. Complementing Schimmel’s choice were two gallery exhibitions. In the uptown one, small works by the six artists were complemented by paintings by Ronald Bladen, Elaine de Kooning, and Jack Youngerman. The downtown space held one recent painting by each of the six artists.

The early paintings of Bluhm, Goldberg, Held, and Mitchell were not only the strongest of all the work shown, but also best retain their freshness.Willem de Kooning’s influence is less than overwhelming in these works. In the years since 1960 Held and Leslie have both forsaken their earlier styles for something quite different. Hartigan is the weakest of the group; she was never a gestural painter, and her early works are abstracted from nature. Her recent paintings are cutesy spinoffs of Renaissance portraiture. Both Goldberg and Mitchell continue to explore the possibilities of landscape from an abstract bias. The difference is that Goldberg no longer employs an allover gestural attack, while Mitchell now works in a layered, all over mode which is far less aggressive and gestural than her earlier work. Her absorption of Impressionism, particularly late Monet, has played a decisive role in her recent work. Finally, of the recent paintings, Bluhm’s Dante’s Promenade, 1984, is most evocative. Vibrantly colored (in reds, blacks, whites, and purples), the painting suggests that by sticking to his guns the artist has continued to evolve his gestural approach on a heroic scale. He is to this group of artists what Franz Kline is to the older group: the only true “Action Painter.” Dante’s Promenade recalls Rubens and Tiepolo without failing into the kitsch to which evocations of the old masters often succumb.

These exhibitions convincingly argue that the received opinions that makeup the web of art history are in need of untangling. ’’Action/Precision’’ is just a step; these artists deserve a longer, deeper look still. Now that the love affair with Pop art and hard-edged abstraction is over, many artists no longer look fresh and compelling, while some from an earlier generation have proven their detractors wrong.

John Yau

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