J A C K E T  # 6
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Frank O'Hara
 
What's With Modern Art? 
 


These reviews of art shows appeared in the "Reviews and Previews" section of Art News 1953-55. The collection is published in the chapbook WHAT'S WITH MODERN ART?, compiled and edited by Bill Berkson, and you can purchase it from Dale Smith, c/- 2925 Higgins Street, Austin, TX USA 78722, Tel 1-512-44482-8277 / mikeanddales@hotmail.com / Within the USA copies are $5 plus $1.50 for postage / or email Small Press Distribution at orders@spdbooks.org, 1341 Seventh St, Berkeley, CA 94710-1490, Tel. 1-800-869-7553
 
You can read Lytle Shaw's essay on
Frank O'Hara and coteries in Jacket # 10.

 
Frank O'HaraJANUARY 1954
 
Kees van Dongen [Wildenstein] shows his latest work (1950-1953) for the first time in this country. He is now seventy-seven, and his charm and enthusiasm are purer now than they were when he became famous as the most glamorous painter of the Fauve group. He is not so ambitious as he was, but his style is still as wittily simple and his palette still as brilliant. There are landscapes of his native Holland, glowing and pure in feeling, there are exquisite pictures of horses and riders at Deauville and of the gaming tables at the Casino there; only in one picture, "Orange Vendor", does he revive the happy sinfulness of some earlier pictures: the women's eyes are stained with green make-up, their cheeks blush lividly and their bosoms rise and fall as in a revelatory chapter of Proust. If there is occasionally a feeling of datedness or sentimentality, as in Jean-Marie van Dongen, it is hardly to be noticed, for he does not indulge in attitudes or pseudo-feelings or melodrama, it is all paint.
 
Cubism to 1918 [Perls], including Picasso, Braque and Gris, opens with a study for the "Demoiselles d'Avignon", and closes with Gris' "Journal", 1918, as dry and as ripely glowing as a green apple, a full experience and fitting close for a well-selected show. Since no minor Cubists are included an almost deceptively clear development is traced by the works of Braque and Picasso, beginning in the one with the Fauvist "Estaque", 1908, and in the other with the Cézannesque "Still-life with Flowers", 1908, and proceeding toward the perfection and reticence of Braque's "Violin and Guitar", 1913, and the grandeur of Picasso's "Bottle of Anis del Mono, Fruit Dish and Pipe", 1915. Along the way one cannot fail to be impressed by Braque's "Violoncello", 1912, simply by virtue of its calligraphic looseness and freshness, or by the Picasso collage, "Pipe, Glass, Bottle of Rum", 1914, or by his "Pipes, Cup, Coffeepot, Carafe", 1911, with its withdrawn landscape quality. Yet it remains for Gris, in this limited selection, to indicate the range and the freedom of expression which an exceptionally gifted sensibility could find in the Cubist discipline. He was the great individualist of the movement and it seems that he would have painted the way he did whether there had been a movement or not. The dashing color of "The Smoking Magician", 1913, with its Chagallesque candor, the "Tumbler and Cards", 1918, as inevitable and as charming in its composition as a Jack of Diamonds, the frankly beautiful "Composition With Newspaper", 1916. Gris' is the most varied offering. And seldom may one call a work both exquisite and plain, as one must the lovely collage "The Bottled Banyuls", 1914. If Gris does not steal the show, it is because he is so good.
 
 
 
 
Frank O'Hara, NYC, 1965, photo Renate Ponsold Motherwell 
Photograph of Frank O'Hara in his office at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1965, by Renate Ponsold Motherwell, reproduced with the kind permission of the photographer.
 
Photo copyright © Renate Ponsold Motherwell 1965, 1999.
 
Photo courtesy Dale Smith.
 
 
 
 
 
 
George Hartigan* [De Nagy], in these new paintings, brings dramatic intensity to traditional subjects - still-life, self-portrait with flowers, matador - while retaining compositional openness and handling which is emphatically abstract: the values of the picture's organization are always asserted above those of subject, observation or sentiment. The largest pictures, river bathers (cool and languorous) and ocean bathers (feverish and active), show free use of the inspiration Matisse's river and Moroccans afford us all, while developing images of activity and conflict with nature quite unlike Matisse's. Her paintings seem to be a means of dealing with experience on her own terms and insisting on her own meanings. The degree of abstraction serves this purpose, it has nothing to do with objectivity; sometimes the subject is used merely as a natural organization and image for emotion of an entirely different kind. Viewed in this way "black still-life" might as well be called "dark night of the soul", for the painting is invested with as strong an emotion as the structure can bear. The freedom of emphasis has given this work a variety which is often willful but never arbitrary, and in some pictures, notably the "coffee pot and cucumber" and "river bathers", there is a richness of performance which includes the pleasures of virtuosity without verging on display.
 
[* Editor's note: "George Hartigan" was a nom de brosse of Grace Hartigan.]
 
Gandy [Urban], in his first one-man show, succeeded in taking the strongest point of view on each occasion - and his work did not degenerate into gestures, it fixed feeling roughly and directly as a child's drawing does. This accomplishment was bitter and ripe: passion resulted rather than force, but the paintings didn't try to overwhelm you. All of them were somber and loaded with meaning. The painter made it through intense simplification of feeling, and the meaning of the work (notably in a gunmetal "Crucifixion" which was overindulgently truculent) was insisted upon sometimes at the expense of its value. But always it was big, brilliant and impressive in emotion as well as performance, never just neo-romantic potboiling. "Where will we live when the world grows dark?" had no trace of sentimentality or distance about it; "Minton's" was vibrant and inclusive; the "crucifixion" with the red band was ingrown and traumatic; the large seascape, "Boats", had in its very lack of specificity a strong effect. Except for one drawing which was too rouault, the collages and drawings were equally distinguished; in particular, there was a head drawn with the incisiveness of a penknife.
 
 
 
 
 
Frank O'HaraMARCH 1954
 
Georges Braque's [Chalette] lithographs and etchings, some from the Cubist period, others done as recently as a few months ago, provide documentation of a sensitivity and distinction which is not so clear or so intimately precise in the famous works of this French artist, though one or two here have the disadvantage of looking like reproductions of larger works because of the similarity of themes. The limitations of temperament felt in some of his larger canvases is not apparent; the lithographs have a looseness of drawing and the etchings a clarity of detail which, in both cases, represents a reticence that is warm and communicative.
 
Paul Klee [Saidenberg] is fortunate in never having done a major work; each individual thought as it comes to us trembling with wit and sensibility seems to be all of him. Almost. What a show of this variety (small pictures 1915-1940 in mediums ranging from oil to ink) makes one feel is the longing for one complex work: the pictures themselves seem to have gathered together from the ends of the earth to assemble a more complete memorial to their creator's psyche, like dutiful children on an anniversary. When they go away again they will be individuals, but for now their family resemblance is very strong. Some of them are beautiful and amusing, others are phlegmatic and puerile. Despite the diversity of technique and whimsy in his work, Klee had only one expression: his most brilliant insights are never stunts, but they are the same in quality as the truism and the over-relaxed platitudes of the bad pictures - it is just that they know more and are not weakened by overstatement or restatement. His constant nagging at the attention by petty and often vapid titles is a sign of his own nervousness and of a documentation which is perhaps too thorough; he had made himself too accessible.
 
 
 
 

 
Frank O'HaraAPRIL 1954
 
John Graham [Stable] has not shown for several years. He takes a controversial position - clearly he is not interested in anything we take for granted as admirable in contemporary art. Most of these paintings are portrait busts of women, dead, alive or imaginary, done with a flat, laconic elegance and exquisite discrimination of drawing and color. The women are almost all dressed in black gowns and when they are not their garb is so enigmatic it has the same effect. They have the staring eyes of the Italian Mannerists and a horse-like tenseness of nostril; the flesh of the face, neck and shoulders is livid from being scrubbed with a stiff brush, or sickly pink as it falls off in patches, or blue and red in splotches from frostbite. They are beautiful women and Graham is a very distinguished illustrator of the predicaments he imposes upon them. Others have meticulous gashes painted into the flesh, and one even has an iron bar thrust through her neck, it seems. Executed with the cerebral detachment of a surgeon, most of the pictures are intellectually sadistic and have the cranky brilliance of a decadent like Fuseli, without Fuseli's sense of psychological and aesthetic complication. His draftsmanship and his love of the arabesque bring Graham to a point of oversophistication which is like a person who perpetually smiles.
 
Jane Freilicher [De Nagy], in her third show of paintings, has stripped her work of its former influences; she had been an excitingly individual practitioner of a style which stemmed from the American version of Expressionism, but with these new paintings her distinction appears in a light which is as radiant as it is personal. The pictures offer themselves without subterfuge or coyness. There are interiors with window views of the city which place you specifically without any great attention to realism or tightness of detail. The still-lifes are further evidence that she is one of the few contemporary painters with the gift of strong composition unhampered by overt design or pseudo-abstraction, while the flower paintings express flowerdom in all its delicacy and lack of sentiment. Two or three of the pastels shown are luminous as anything the Impressionists did, with a characteristic reticence which changes their focus. The landscapes are individualized through detailed attention to the specific nature of the mass: she is not of the persuasion that all landscapes tend to model themselves on the same drawing of Cézanne. The color in all the pictures is lit from within and may be a description of her relationship to her work. She seems not to struggle with the pictures, but to identify with them in a gentle, unassuming way - the way Matisse does.
 
Fairfield Porter [De Nagy], familiar to Art News' readers for his articles and initialed reviews, in his second one-man show has moved beyond the earlier felicity of sentiment (which linked him with certain pictures of Vuillard) to a more abstract concern for the verity of painting itself. In these landscapes, interiors and portraits, the negative space of semi-realist painting is made positive by abrupt terminations of the form in the atmosphere - of a tree in the sky, of a face in the pressure upon its surface and of the air it breathes. The composition of the paintings is pondered, it has its moods and its time of day, as if Porter were thinking about essentials. And all this happens in a mysterious way, like a grand theme when we see it appear in someone else's familiar surroundings. He has moved into an area of positive feeling for the painting where the ideas, the passions, the subjects do nothing other than identify his work, like handwriting - they have little to do with his main project which is apparently the perfect painting. And he is very close, at least, to his object.
 
Adolph Gottlieb's [Kootz] previous anthropological interests, which manifested themselves in his pictograph style, enabled him to create so natural an environment for contemporary taste that the more secretive distinction which is the property of purely aesthetic concerns tended to be underplayed. Then last year he exhibited canvases whose feeling for landscape created a darker, more personal tone. These new pictures retain elements of both developments. There is deep space due to the multiplicity of grids and events in space both between and behind these grids; there is also surface writing reminiscent of the pictograph signs: arrows, letters, profiles of a face - they are more closely integrated now in reference to pictorial values, less of a point in themselves, and there is a mastery of compositional device quite different from the former hieroglyphic assurance, more free, more dramatic. Often the thick surface strokes are not so much signs of specific meaning as signals of that speed which results from force as well as felicity. These are city paintings with the clarity, strength and correctness of man-made structures, but the process which is also apparent is one of light and of clear gestures moving to the surface out of the dark personal efforts of the canvas's interior world, and thus they have an emotional quality which is impressive because it is so self-revealing. "Labyrinth", the largest painting (7 by 16 feet), is like walking along a corridor; its pleasures of detail are scaled large enough to insure the viewer his own personal freedom, and this is an attitude toward the surface which other paintings share. Some end in an ultimate black grid on the surface ("The Cage", "Armature") and these both imprison the painting's depth of intention and protect the viewer from its natural ferocity; in others, the final statement is that of yellow or white signs which have escaped from the dark forest of grids and offer themselves openly, their meaning clear, the acceptance of it left to the eye of the beholder. This is as important a position in relation to the surface as that of Pollock, more objective, less virtuoso, and in the statement of it Gottlieb has acquired a new depth of feeling.
 
 
 
 
 
Frank O'HaraMAY 1954
 
Miles Forst [Hansa] does not believe that there is a "way" of good painting or that there can be a systematized personal projection. His work depends upon power and speed of performance, clarity and instantaneousness of perception. His second show includes oils, collages and drawings ranging from large moody paintings, which are abstract references to passion, all the way to sketches on his daily newspaper which resemble a calligraphic diary. He is more interested in experience than esthetics, and can use other people's work with freedom and confidence, since they are what he is experiencing. The large collage, "Henry VIII", for instance, starts from a brutal conception of one of Motherwell's most elegant periods, but the influence of Motherwell as one feels it in the picture is no more important than any other material of the collage; similarly, in the newspaper sketches a likeness to the telephone book sketches of Kline is immediately recognized, but one feels it to be accidental, as natural as an American poem which refers to the Chrysler Building. Forst is original in the inclusiveness of his work, which has an irony, a tang, all its own.
 
John Ferren [Stable], showed oils and watercolors, most done in California and with the freshness of the outdoors. Ferren's personal lyricism was strong, unpretentious and refined, and it represented the force which purity, when it is given its head, may bring to bear upon the sensibility. His drawing had the absorption of the Orient, but there was no Chinoiserie about it, and some of the pictures had a wild natural humor like a vase of flowers knocked over, while others were serenely introspective; several were based on tree motives and their motion in the wind, and one horizontal landscape had the panoramic sweep of a Western highway opening up before one with its few essential details. They all were immediate communications, simply and sparsely painted, and attention to stroke, texture and surface absorption (some were done on nylon) made for constant variety and brilliance of tone within the exclamation. The pictures' abstract calligraphic forms had real space around them and air in which they seemed to expand and almost breathe; small dissonant areas provided points of subtle perception like a turn in a conversation full of insights, and in the more complicated paintings the simplicity and vividness of Ferren's conception created an area of sensibility where Ferren reigns supreme - he is perhaps the only painter who works strongly in this atmosphere of overt spiritual gratification without turning it into some lesser sensual gift.
 
 
 
 
 
Frank O'HaraNOVEMBER 1954
 
Giorgio Cavallon [Egan] has not shown for three years. His new pictures, while proceeding in the Neo-Plastic direction, have widened in stylistic range and introduced a specificity and directness of emotional sensitivity unusual in a mode so often given over to general or structural statements. Organized in rectangles, the areas are painted with great variety, some colored sketchily, some with impasto, others with a clarity and tact unequalled since Mondrian and Malevich; because these areas are so decisive and so just there is the impression of drawing (the yellows in one picture assume a strength through their placement which is almost linear), but actually what is being painted is the individual mass, its velleities and shiftings and inner light, and he relates these individual masses to each other by the working out of a rare sensibility. What words fail to convey is the light, a light tremulous and opaque through which sudden clearings, like bolts from the blue, shine forth, as if the sun had been washed white by a cloudburst. It is the part of Cavallon's strength that he does not depict this, but leads our sensibilities gently to the clearing and says: "There!"
 
 
 
 
 
Frank O'HaraDECEMBER 1954
 
Helen Frankenthaler [De Nagy] refuses to abandon her sensitivity to nature or any other force external to the act of painting. Although there is a vague feeling of landscape about many of her new pictures, she goes no further towards representation than her experience leads her - the "interests" of many other young painters are obviously digressions in the light of her experience. On the other hand, she will not "make a picture" in the technical sense: she is the medium of her material, never polishing her insights into a rhetorical statement, but rather letting the truth stand forth plainly and of itself. The colors in these abstractions cover a subtle range, seldom approaching the primary or ecstatic. There is understatement in many, such as "Plateau", where the inside of the pile seems to be expounded, or "The Desert", where the busy area to the left is pushed and pulled into activity by the ponderous masses (brownish white and grey) in the center and right, as a mountainside will seem to have composed suddenly a rocky declivity out of its tensions, with resultant eye-consuming and eye-narrowing details. In "Passport" she explores the depth of her page with a violent blue chasm in the middle and writing (yellow, red and olive drab) coming up on both sides; and in a couple of the heavily painted pictures she does not hesitate to deal with her subject with a frankness approaching sordidness, for the power of their impact is that of natural violence evoked in a lofty and immaculate tone - the compacted sordidness of one of those "unspeakable" chapters in Henry James. In all the paintings there is an original use of the artistic temper, a disdain of appearances, and sometimes a private unpleasantness of tenor which is made beautiful by its unimpeded self-assertion-which is to say that then the artist disappears and we have a fact of experience.
 
 
 
 
 
Frank O'HaraJANUARY 1955
 
Cy Twombly [Stable] previously showed with Gandy and with Rauschenberg and the heavy, brooding forms which dominated his canvases were given an air of force and of experiment alien to them by their juxtaposition with quite different works. Here, in his first one-man show, the quality is clear and strong. His new paintings are drawn, scratched and crayoned over and under the surface with as much attention to esthetic tremors as to artistic excitement. Though they are all white with black and grey scoring, the range is far from a whisper, and this new development makes the painting itself the form. A bird seems to have passed through the impasto with cream-colored screams and bitter clawmarks. His admirably esoteric information, every wash or line struggling for survival, particularizes the sentiment. If drawing is as vital to painting as color, Twombly has an ever ready resource for his remarkable feelings. He also shows sculpture, witty and funereal, big white boxes with swinging cloth-covered pendulums and sticks and mirrors.
 
Bob Rauschenberg [Egan], enfant terrible of the New York School, is back again to even more brilliant effect - what he did to all-white and all-black in his last show and to nature painting with his controversial moss-dirt-and-ivy picture in the last "Stable Annual", he tops in this show of blistering and at the same time poignant collages. Some of them seem practically room-size, and have various illuminations within them apart from their technical luminosity: bulbs flicker on and off, lights cast shadows, and lifting up a bit of pink gauze you stare out of the picture into your own magnified eye. He provides a means by which you, as well as he, can get "in" the painting. Doors open to reveal clearer images, or you can turn a huge wheel to change the effect at will. Many of the pieces are extrovert, reminiscent of his structure in the Merce Cunningham ballet "Minutiae", but not all are so wildly ingenious: other pieces, including two sex organs (male and female) made from old red silk umbrellas, have a gentle and just passion for moving people. When you look back at the more ecstatic works they, too, have this quality not at all overshadowed by their brio. For all the baroque exuberance of the show, quieter pictures evidence a serious lyrical talent; simultaneously, in the big inventive pieces there is a big talent at play, creating its own occasions as a stage does.
 
Salvador Dali [Carstairs], the Marshal Rommel of Surrealism, prefaces his new show with an account of his recent "campaign" in Europe, where he finds the forces of figuration rallying everywhere against abstraction, hungry hordes presumably infuriated by the "Let them eat cake" of Riopelle. Are they turning to Surrealism? Dali himself is less of a Surrealist than before, more the metaphysical dream peddler, the cosmological dandy, the mathematical speculator whose terms are romantic ruins, wood and women. His incessant preoccupation with time as an element of space, ticking from the surface into the perspective depths and back like a pendulum, is strangely moving; the famous "limp watches" are shattering into fragments in the same landscape that gave them birth; the artist himself, nude, conducts you into a beautiful candy-dream where your faithful dog is asleep at your feet and the sea purrs at your fingertips. There are sweet vapors and the rich revelatory grain of woods and the vastly impressive passivity of megalomania, but it is not exactly a revolutionary's dream. He calls forth the minor or repressed admirations, sexual, tactile, sybaritic, technical - the subject is no longer of paranoiac importance - and makes a monument.
 
 
 
 
 
Frank O'Hara SEPTEMBER 1955
 
Joseph Cornell and Landes Lewitin [Stable] made fabulous partners in an exhibition of the former's intriguing boxes and the latter's figurative collages. Cornell's genius is apparently as unfailing as it is unique, for his work has no ups and downs; the total and well-recognized excellence of his oeuvre is complete and distinct in each individual piece one sees. The pieces shown on this occasion can be described in detail, one with little liqueur glasses filled with a marble or a piece of wood, one posing a dark Renaissance man in a zodiac, others to be handled as the layers of white, pink and blue sand, held separate by glass, will shift across the plane to reveal the objects at the bottom obscurely and with a variety of films between it and the eye. But the effect of their beauty was so singular as to defy description; they are moving, too, as evidences of so pure and so uncompromising a spirit in our midst. Lewitin uses colored papers, figures from pictures, marbleized and paper, all minutely cut to form sections of his exotic interiors and scenes in which the figures appeared in odd and ornate sensual relation to each other, like something happening in the Arabian Nights or Petronius. Small in scale, lavish in detail and subtly suggestive, they represented the world of the flesh in a special and fantastic way, giving to the Cornells near them a look of Platonic purity and wisdom.
 
 
 
 
 
Frank O'Hara NOVEMBER 1955
 
Max Beckmann [Viviano] is represented here by pictures from his estate, never before shown. Dating from 1933 to '48, they testify to the grandeur and intensity with which he looked upon occasional subjects, landscapes, portraits, equal to that of the better appreciated mythological pieces. His sensibility is seen to great advantage in the simple landscapes shown, without distraction of a literary nature and with new insight into the extraordinary plastic vitality and skill of his gift. What he revealed about certain aspects of life as an Expressionist, he matched with similar intensity in the pure pleasure of his painting. "The Dancer", a large seated figure, is a masterpiece of formality, painterliness and contained psychology; and a smaller head, "Lady in Hat", is almost its match, with a courageous anger expressed in the face, as if "dolorous, but still advancing." "The Film Studio" of 1933 explains the tragic implications of the synthetic in art, making his own sensibility the theater of the subject, while "Girl in Front of a Mirror" finds the subject in a full womanly expression, in the bland mood of self-appraisal. "Hotel l'Hambre" has a calm foreboding; "Woman in Chemise Reading", an earthy, voluptuous reality in lofty style; "Bath in August" (1937), a kind of optimistic brutality, as if to say "know thyself, and ward off the wolves!"; each picture, finally, is absorbing.
 
 
 
 
Bill Berkson and friends, NYC, 1964  
 
These reviews of art shows appeared in the "Reviews and Previews" section of ART NEWS 1953-55. The collection is published in the chapbook WHAT'S WITH MODERN ART?, compiled and edited by Bill Berkson. For ordering information, see the top of this file.
 
Photo: (left to right) John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Patsy Southgate,
Bill Berkson, Kenneth Koch, photo copyright © Mario Schifano, 1964.  
 
 
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This material is copyright © Maureen Granville-Smith, Administratrix of the Estate of Frank O'Hara, and Jacket magazine, 1999
Photo of Frank O'Hara copyright © Renate Ponsold Motherwell 1965, 1999.
Photo courtesy Dale Smith.
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