New York

Jean Dubuffet,  Le strabique, 1953, butterfly wings and gouache on paperboard, 9 3⁄4 × 7". From “Intimate Infinite: Imagine a Journey.”

Jean Dubuffet, Le strabique, 1953, butterfly wings and gouache on paperboard, 9 3⁄4 × 7". From “Intimate Infinite: Imagine a Journey.”

“Intimate Infinite: Imagine a Journey”

Featuring scores of small works spread across three floors, “Intimate Infinite: Imagine a Journey” wasn’t your typical survey of exquisite works by historically significant makers and thinkers. Lévy Gorvy mounted a museum-quality exhibition that few art institutions would have had the courage or means to organize. It was packed with idiosyncratic and rarely seen paintings, constructions, and works on paper. As the title suggests, the exhibition was utterly transporting, designed to submerge the viewer in “the work of artists who collapse the vastness of infinity into tangible dimensions.” You had to rewire yourself before entering each of the gallery’s three levels, which were full of astounding surprises.

Brett Gorvy, the show’s curator as well as one of the gallery’s co-founders, presented refreshing takes on abstraction, systemic painting, and Surrealism. His engaging interpretations were predicated on our drawing close to the mostly small-scale objects on view—a subtle act of curatorial mesmerism. The walls facing west were lined with panels by Robert Ryman and Cy Twombly. Almost all of the Ryman paintings featured moments of green peeking through layers of white. Instead of being sidetracked by a more calorie-packed palette, the viewer could easily notice the various ways the small surfaces had been activated by the use of just a couple of hues. Since two of the three Twomblys (the third was from his suite of blackboard paintings) were also predominantly white, looking at both artists’ images didn’t feel like comparing apples to oranges. Never having associated the two painters with one another, I was startled to realize that they occupied both sides of the same coin in terms of formal discipline and painterly sensitivity. As always, Twombly’s assertive marks were a visual feast. And Twombly’s magic was palpable even on modestly scaled surfaces, as evidenced by Untitled, 1961, a piece measuring about twelve by sixteen inches.

Obsessiveness expressed in the form of repetitive gestures and patterns dominated the works on the second floor. There were examples of unusual offerings by artists such as Günther Uecker, Piero Manzoni, and Alberto Burri, who are still rarely seen in US galleries and museums. The stars and stripes of two encaustic flag paintings by Jasper Johns—a red, white, and blue version featuring a portrait of the artist and art historian Suzi Gablik (Flag, 1965) and a gray one hung vertically (Flag, 1971)—along with his White Target, a creamy-white encaustic target from 1958, set the tone for the art surrounding them. Nevertheless, when you’re taking in works comprised of countless nails (Uecker) kaolin pleats (Manzoni), and kneaded erasers (Hannah Wilke’s work was also on view), Johns seems a tad conservative. Wondrous wall reliefs from John Chamberlain (Untitled, 1961) and Lee Bontecou (Untitled, 1960, and Untitled, 1959) added to the astonishment permeating these groupings of art. Multiple times, I came away feeling as if I was seeing work by these artists anew. Certainly, I had never associated these particular Europeans with these particular Americans.

On the top floor, Surrealism had never felt fresher. I found I was “reading” the many intimate works—by the likes of Hans Bellmer, Claude Cahun, Bruce Conner, Jean Dubuffet, Max Ernst, and Henri Michaux—as if they were texts. In order to appreciate the fine (and in some instances, gut-wrenching) imagery, you had to look closely. It was hard to believe that the figures and landscapes in a handful of collages by Dubuffet were comprised of butterfly wings—scores of them. Time seemed to stand still as boxes by Joseph Cornell and Lucas Samaras enraptured and enchanted. Czech artist Maria Bartuszová’s impressive plaster sculpture Untitled, ca. 1966, called to mind related works by Alberto Giacometti and Isamu Noguchi. Other paintings and works on paper by Vija Celmins, Brice Marden, Joan Miró, and Yves Tanguy were more familiar. Nevertheless, these enigmatic objects underscored the theme of adventure Gorvy skillfully wrought here—marvelously so.

Phyllis Tuchman