New York

Ione Saldanha, Cidades (Cities), 1964, gouache on cardboard, 7 7⁄8 × 9 3⁄4".

Ione Saldanha, Cidades (Cities), 1964, gouache on cardboard, 7 7⁄8 × 9 3⁄4".

Etel Adnan, Ione Saldanha, and Carolee Schneemann

Beauty is a difficult thing to grapple with in a moment of political cataclysm. Is it an indulgence, a retreat, a surrender? Is finding pleasure in a gorgeous artwork the equivalent of pulling the covers over your head? It would be easy to say yes, and then to dismiss a show such as Galerie Lelong & Co.’s “Of the Self and of the Other.” The exhibition was clearly organized to capitalize on current tastes in the market, as it brought together three older female artists: Etel Adnan, the late Ione Saldanha (who died in 2001 at the age of eighty), and Carolee Schneemann. The works on view were abstract, bewitching palliatives for anxious viewers and devoid of explicitly political content. Yet experiencing the show in this fraught period was indeed complicated, troubling easy assumptions about what art is supposed to do in difficult times.

The works come from wildly disparate contexts, each marked by its own historical trauma. Schneemann’s paintings dated from the 1950s, when the US was dealing with the wounds of the postwar period; Saldanha’s geometric abstractions and totemic objects were made between 1964 and 1987, during Brazil’s military dictatorship; and most of Adnan’s small canvases (and one artist’s book) were from 2015: They were built out of the tender geometric language she developed in the wake of Lebanon’s catastrophic civil war. Yet the gallery didn’t address these contexts and instead focused on certain formal affinities among the works.

Small rectangular canvases lined the main room: Adnan’s on one side, Saldanha’s on the other. Though the artists’ approaches to picture making seem similar, they are not. Adnan’s palette (lemon yellow and petal pink, sky blue and grass green) is lighter, airier. Her small blocks of color, which she shapes using a palette knife, are thickly piled up on top of each other with cheerful imprecision. Saldanha uses a brush, and her squares and circles are constructed out of tight, obsessive marks. Her palette is darker, too, full of bruised purples, dirty browns, and the occasional chunk of black or gray. In one of Adnan’s paintings, Untitled, 2016, the artist uses five flat fields of breezy color to suggest a peaceful mountain range, while Saldanha’s Cidades (Cities), 1964, has the detail and tension of a busy metropolis (the works on display here grew out of her early paintings of colonial towns).

Schneemann’s canvases, large and violently gestural, were cloistered off in their own room—as if the gallery had thrown up its hands, flummoxed by how to integrate them into the show. One can understand the decision: They pale alongside Adnan’s and Saldanha’s quieter and more sophisticated compositions. For instance, in Early Landscape, 1959, her aggressively sweeping brushstrokes seem like generic, expressionistic posturing. The paintings looked dated and were interesting mainly as rarely seen curiosities. Of course, unlike Adnan and Saldanha, Schneemann was at the beginning of her career when she made them. She eventually amplified her extraordinary vision to great acclaim through other media, such as performance and film.

So why show these disparate bodies of work together? In its promotional materials, the gallery makes a vague case for studying relationships between landscape and the body. But I think the value lay elsewhere, as the artists worked to develop unique visual languages in response to their surroundings. Seeking joy and invention in a world that does everything it can to demolish such kinds of progress is an act of resistance. In her book In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country (2005), Adnan lists a torrential stream of nervous activities undertaken during a time of war (watch the clock, eat, visit the bathroom). But she also describes going to the ocean, luxuriating in its loveliness. And briefly, she feels happy, advancing into the waves.