New York

Walter Pach, Sunday Night (St. Patrick’s at Night), 1916, oil on canvas, 18 × 23 3/4".

Walter Pach, Sunday Night (St. Patrick’s at Night), 1916, oil on canvas, 18 × 23 3/4".

Walter Pach

Francis M. Naumann Fine Art

Walter Pach, Sunday Night (St. Patrick’s at Night), 1916, oil on canvas, 18 × 23 3/4".

During the first years of the twentieth century, Walter Pach (1883–1958)—painter and polyglot scholar—was in Paris, world center of the thrilling shifts then occurring in art. Pach, already liberated by the American Impressionist William Merritt Chase (with whom he studied), was equally responsive to the “Art Spirit” that animated Robert Henri’s students, the Ashcan School painters. This attractive, counter-academic blend of influences would inform the urban views, still lifes, and portraits that Pach would paint for a lifetime. A range of this work was on view in this presentation of fourteen oils, two pastels, and forty-three watercolors.

Pach’s Paris years lasted from 1907 to 1914, allowing for notable friendships with Matisse’s American students Michael and Sarah Stein, as well as Michael’s siblings Leo and Gertrude, the pioneer collectors of Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. Perhaps even more consequential was Pach’s close friendship with the bright young celebrities of the Puteaux Group. It is amusing to imagine the high-minded Pach discussing the mathematical precepts of Maurice Princet with the latter’s principal adepts, the brothers Duchamp—Jacques Villon, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, and, above all, Marcel. To be sure, it was a golden age of isms (Cubism, Futurism, Orphism) and Pach, in his role as talent scout (along with Arthur B. Davies and Walt Kuhn) for the newly formed Association of American Painters and Sculptors, was then occupied with organizing the Armory Show, which took place in New York City in 1913. Always on the qui vive, Pach was able to make the coolest eleventh-hour choices imaginable, negotiating the spread between the Cubo-Futurist intricacies of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912, and the Fauvist bullying of Matisse’s Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra), 1907. With the outbreak of World War I, Pach would return to New York along with several of his Puteaux friends, notably Duchamp and Albert Gleizes.

As a painter, Pach was himself caught up in the day’s siege of the isms. His competent amalgam of these new tendencies with an essentially realist reserve informs, to cite but a single work, Waterfall, 1917. Yet Pach’s absorption of Cubism is evident even earlier, as shown in a small landscape of Arezzo, Italy, Wall of the City, 1912. This painting, also included in the Armory Show, not only speaks to an awareness of the pictorial discoveries made by Picasso during his summer 1909 residence in the dry Spanish landscape of Horta de Ebro but also to the elevation of Arezzo-born Piero della Francesca to a supreme place in the history of art owing to Cubism’s reformation of public taste. Pach’s eventual but logical slide from Cubism into Futurism is manifest in Sunday Night (St. Patrick’s at Night), 1916, a work that redigests lessons drawn directly from F. T. Marinetti and his cohorts.

By 1920, Pach had given up his flirtation with radical modernism and had reverted, instead, to workaday realist painting. Still, his later paintings (some forty years’ worth), while totally typical of generic painterly ambitions, also reveal, on occasion, impressive absorptions of Cézannish hints—as are found, for example, in Pach’s splendidly mustachioed watercolor Self Portrait (Myself), 1936. Admittedly, the long realist tradition in the United States was rendered nugatory by Abstract Expressionism, and, later, by Conceptualism, a movement rooted in the anti-retinal work of Duchamp. How bitter, then, that Pach’s own prescient grasp of Duchamp’s arcane project helped to augur this profound alteration in artistic aspiration.

Robert Pincus-Witten