New York

Robert Greene

Robert Miller Gallery

Diana Vreeland and the postwar glory-days of Bazaar and Vogue are to Robert Greene roughly what the court and the commedia dell’arte have become since Watteau—a paradis perdu. Greene’s fêtes galantes are usually full of nimble, affectionate portraits of fashion icons, fellow artists, and friends. In these melancholic romances, a white standard poodle always plays the part of Scapino, while a shifting cast of characters makes cameo appearances, and sets of faintly incestuous twins or even triplets of both sexes stroll about, narcissistically, in supporting roles. Gamine protagonists who suggest Audrey Hepburn or Brigitte Bardot, sometimes modeled on the artists’ aunt and mother, enhance this air of ingenuous decadence. Greene’s louche and winsome little theater owes something to Federico Fellini, as well as to Billy Wilder, whose films, such as the Hepburn duo—Sabrina, 1954, and Love in the Afternoon, 1957—set many a housewife weeping.

Greene’s sense of the tragic—his many interpretations, for example, of the Pierrot motif—further denotes the mores of some earlier, distinctly maternal age d’or. Far from mythic, Greene’s emotional depths are perhaps best reflected by the song “The Party’s Over.” Greene is indeed blessed, and cursed as well, with a magpie’s taste for glamour of the unmaternal kind, and with a decidedly unencumbering education.

Like Jack Pierson, Greene has the canny instincts of a born stylist to rely on for spice, and he has gravitated to such relevant predecessors as Jean Cocteau, Florine Stettheimer, and Christian (“Bébé”) Bérard. And happily enough, these illustrious figures could be taken in on Greene’s own terms—by leafing through ’40s fashion pages, and by attending screenings in present-day revival houses. Greene lives in a world of fast takes, but he’s no mere pasticheur. Everything is put through a Greene-ing as precise as the poodles’ modified-topiary cuts.

Actually, the artist seems to be experiencing some interesting new growing pains. A stormier and more Romantic scale, for instance, determines the outcome of several of his recent efforts. In the uncharacteristically unpopulous He Showed Me, 1990, a detached and implicitly paternal figure sits on a boardwalk bench, on the coast of what appears to be Holland. With him is Greene’s first poodle, long deceased. Ghostlier doubles of the dog are figured loitering on a contiguous area of a sandy-colored field. Deep blue waves inspired by Albert Pinkham Ryder crash against the fortified shore.

In another large painting, entitled Whirling an Echo, 1991, Greene addresses postindustrial landscape genres of the 19th and early 20th centuries, before they were overwhelmed by an avalanche of painterly urbanisms. In this well-aerated, celery-and-unripe-tomato-colored scene, a Gigi–-esque girl walks her Belle Époque bicycle across some railroad tracks, while le chien Scapin tugs at the hem of her blue dress. Other poodle sprites and wee winsome figures are scattered in the foreground. A giant factory with pharaonic smokestacks looms from behind. At midsection, a meadowy, English-looking expanse fades out into the distance, and the rest is cloud-streaked sky. The look, of course, is Constable.

In Full Cry, 1991, a “cameo” line-up of fellow artists, set along the edge of a forest allée, creates a group portrait of some of the Robert Miller gallery stable that is only slightly diluted by the usual Greene retinue of heartthrobs and friends. But transparent flattery, too, is part of an honorable tradition that predates Versailles, has survived countless wars and revolutions, and will no doubt outlive Fifth Avenue.

Lisa Liebmann