New York

“The Hansa Gallery Revisited”

Zabriskie Gallery

“The Hansa Gallery Revisited” celebrated a space founded in the early ’50s as a collaborative effort: a gallery that served not only as a launchpad for artistic talent, but also as a stage for encounters among artists, writers, and critics. The Hansa Gallery was a vital, continually evolving, and sometimes rather chaotic space that showed artists as diverse as George Segal, Jane Wilson, and Lucas Samaras. This tribute limited itself to five artists—three now deceased, two who consulted on the installation of the works.

Jan Muller’s art grew out of German Expressionism; his love of bright, vivid color was encouraged by Hans Hofmann. Muller painted mythic figurative imagery in small, fragile works that are mysterious and exhilarating—joyful, splintery relics of a simpler time. His disregard for materials may have evolved out of a dislike of art-as-object, or it may have been an aspect of the abject poverty in which he lived. The largest of his works on scrap wood, Untitled (Horse and Rider, Provence), 1956, measures a meager 10 3/4 by 16 inches; the smallest, depicting St. George and the dragon, is an unbelievable 2 7/8 by 10 1/4 inches.

Jean Follett was represented by three pieces—a painting, an assemblage, and an untitled charcoal drawing. Her work is moody and darkly whimsical, traits it shares with the sculpture of her better-known colleague Richard Stankiewicz, who is represented here by three modest pieces. Both artists seem to have struggled to absorb the form and spirit of the European Surrealists and the early moderns into a new American vocabulary. Fairfield Porter once observed that Follett’s art “goes to the limit in being uningratiating,” and this exhibit bears him out. Follett left New York in the early ’60s after a breakdown, and much of her work was destroyed by a former landlord.

The living Hansa artists need less introduction. Wolf Kahn, a cofounder of the gallery, was represented by three early, Bonnard-inspired paintings. But Allan Kaprow took pride of place in the exhibition. Kaprow’s work included a painting with collaged elements, Caged Pheasant #1, 1956, and Vital Fluids, 1997, an “environment” that reinvents a work presented at Hansa in 1957–58. In the 1997 piece, oranges, a cutting board, a knife, a manual juicer, and a number of disposable cups were placed on a table, behind which hung a mirror. Visitors were encouraged to stand before the mirror and squeeze their own juice.

Kaprow’s new installation for this show in fact recalled two previous installations, the one at Hansa (in which powerful odors were produced by chemicals daubed on strands of raffia, drawing complaints from other tenants in the gallery’s building), and another at Rubin in 1959 (which included the squeezing of orange juice). The odd stillness surrounding Vital Fluids—it was set up in a small side room of the gallery, and had not been used the day I visited—suggested the limited ability of any gallery today to evoke the grubby, bohemian ebullience of Hansa of forty-odd years ago. While the work might be reinstalled and even, with Kaprow, reinvented, the participatory energy of Hansa’s ’50s crowd—who served as artists, gallerists, and viewers at the same time—proved harder to recapture. That the art survived the transition to the high seriousness of a ’90s milieu with its scrappy, experimental spirit intact proves how shrewd and gutsy were its makers.

Justin Spring