San Francisco

Harry Fritzius

Bruce Velick Gallery

For the past decade or so, Harry Fritzius’ paintings and collages have been a well-kept Bay Area secret, more talked and written about than seen. He had his first show last April, a little retrospective at the Nelson Gallery of the University of California, Davis. His pictures are deep and dark and dexterous. They have a lot of nerve. A motto for them could be drawn from the W. H. Auden poem that begins, “About suffering they were never wrong/The old masters,” except that for Fritzius the “human position” is lugubrious and less succinct than the one in Auden’s poem. He does old master quotations, mostly, ripped and recombined, and variations on some of the weightier, time-honored themes—birth, death, sex, and transfiguration—with flourishes of private symbols occurring like runes. He espouses a fragmentary humanism, chimerical and overwrought, like a doomsday discourse by one of those stray characters on the curb at midnight, utterly sincere and to the point, though displaced and inexorably bleary. It’s the personal spectacle in the work that makes it count, that has exact weight and spirit. Fritzius seems to want to participate in brighter image times—those “edge” moments (High Renaissance, say, or 1907) when for certain artists the materials were prepared, inside and out, for sensations decidedly exquisite and whole—and to do so spiritually rather than as a stylist. Retrieving meaning for images otherwise sunk in the trivia heap of culture, he gives them the vitality of present-day dramatic fact. His dramas may seem exotic, and his procedures cumulatively flailing and affected, but he is not just another appropriative ironist.

This show included eleven new paintings on unstretched sailcloth along with some woodcuts and collage studies. There were two Crucifixions, an expulsion from paradise, a couple of Michelangelo vignettes from the Last Judgment, cut-up and recombinant turnings of Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and Guernica (the former become a horizontal, the latter redone in bright colors and called Hiroshima, 1985), and an airy, scaled-up cubist still life. Most of Fritzius’ works are untitled; because the imagery is elusive anyway, the circumstances of the private mysteries being played out are left undeclared. Even the occasional title can seem intended to perplex. For a painting with three figures astride three distantly related planes, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with his Mother in a Room by the Sea, 1985, is an enigmatic title. The figures’ roles are likewise shifty. The “artist” sports a garter belt, a panpipe between his legs, and his outer torso peels back to show the heart. One female is green-tinged with a halo, and the other is a faceless frame topped with a garland of roses and, above that, a thin, dark crescent moon. The “planes” are actual sheets of raggedy linen bonded to overlap. There are a lot of glazings (Damar) and monstrous toffee tones and blacks. The contours tend to look sliced, with impasses of wash, smudge, stitching, and scratches in between. The Last Judgment excerpts have a ’30s ultramoderne waviness, like the Rockefeller Center reliefs. Their Cubist/Renaissance mannerisms also recall the Mexican muralists. As copies, they are more sure than the originals, their attitudes more loudly pronounced. They are gruesome and elegant like throwaway screams. But the singularly bright and clearest work in the show was the “expulsion,” with its sumptuous primal nudes pressed together, Adam to Eve’s rear, on their trek from innocence—a faint, milky wash spilling over their limbs, the milk of human lust perhaps.

Bill Berkson