Chelsea, Vermeer, and More Upper East Side

I headed back into New York City on Thursday for an afternoon full of art that included a brisk tour through Chelsea, a (too) quick visit to the Met to finally see that Vermeer show, and an opening reception for a former teacher of mine on the upper east side.

After debarking from NJ Transit at Penn Station, I made a quick stop over at B&H Photo for some supplies and then walked down to 26th Street.  The first gallery on my list today was Galerie Lelong where Sean Scully has a show of his large grid-based abstractions.  The works in this show are immediately recognizable as Scully.  These new paintings are perhaps a little more chromatic in the red oxide and blue shades than I remember from his last show (in 2005), but otherwise are similarly constructed with horizontal and vertical blocks of color.  In one four-part painting he exposes an aluminum panel that looked like it had been brushed to provide some variations in reflectivity.  Some of the paintings have a nice, blended-on-canvas look of brushy flesh colors; some, though, used brush strokes in apparently random directions (not aligned with the grid) reflecting ceiling lights to produce unevenly glossy highlights, an effect that I found distracting from the otherwise meditative works.

Sean Scully @ Galerie Lelong

Sean Scully @ Galerie Lelong

A couple doors down was a peculiar but compelling show by Teresita Fernandez at Lehmann Maupin.  The works here are made entirely of graphite:  sculptural, chunky, blocks of graphite.  In some pieces, the graphite has been carved and polished into a kind of relief sculpture hung on the wall.  In another, graphite has been somehow machined into a large sculpture of a waterfall with nuggets of graphite on the floor as the foam.  Most interesting, though, was the piece “Epic”, where hundreds or thousands of small nuggets of graphite are affixed to the gallery wall.  Under each nugget is a small streak of graphite drawn onto the wall which can be read as a shadow, but also to me looked like tears or comet tails.

On 25th Street, there are some more David Hockney paitnings at Pace Wildenstein and I think they show even better here than they do uptown; though I love that gallery on 57th Street, these very large works seemed to fit the space better here.  I overheard two people in the gallery mentioning (to someone from the gallery, I think) that they knew Mr. Hockney and were occasional recipients of his “iPhone drawings“, which they were showing off on their iPhone.  I didn’t get a good look at the drawings, however, and didn’t have it in me to butt in, give them my cell phone, and ask if they’d send a few my way.

The most exciting show for me was one that was a surprise — I hadn’t known it was coming and the show hadn’t popped up on one of my standard gallery planning resources.  At Betty Cunningham gallery, there’s a great 2-person show comparing five decades worth of paintings by two artists whose work I always admire:  Philip Pearlstein and Al Held.  As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Pearlstein at a Carnegie Mellon alumni event earlier this year and I always find looking at his paintings to be worthy endeavors.  Here, you see samples of his work starting from expressionist beginnings in the 1950s progressing through to his signature clear-eyed representational style.  (His latest piece was from 2009, a work that I had seen in progress in his studio; so very cool to now see it finished and on display at the gallery.)

Philip Pearlestein and Al Held @ Betty Cunningham

Philip Pearlestein and Al Held @ Betty Cunningham

The first time I learned of the late Al Held’s work was at a show at PS1 back in 2002 where I was blown away by the humongous geometric compositions (probably the largest paintings I’ve ever seen except perhaps for Guernica).  For me, his paintings are like reverse puzzles; I enjoy spending time with them trying to figure out how they “work”. Here at Betty Cunningham, there are only two of his full color “volumetric configurations”, but they’re wonderful to behold.

The gallery has printed a brief essay by Irving Sandler explaining why the juxtaposition of these two very different artists makes sense.  Both started making art around 1950, hung out at The Cedar Tavern, exhibited at co-op galleries around 10th Street, and eventually became life-long friends.  They both rejected action painting early on and both eventually ended up with “hard-edged” styles (Pearlstein, hard-edged realism; Held, hard-edged abstraction).  I would have loved to take some photos of this show, but I made the mistake of asking at the front desk, where an apologetic gallery worker told me that photos weren’t allowed because of the varied ownership of the paintings (another gallery visitor, just moments before, hadn’t asked and had used her iPhone to photograph the whole show in detail.  Sigh.)  Anyway, this is a can’t miss show if you’re going to be in Chelsea before February 13, 2010.

Just down the block at Lohin Geduld Gallery is a nice show of small representational paintings by Joseph Santore.  Like Pearlstein, Santore’s paintings are at least in part about perception:  looking hard, seeing, painting.  The textures on some of pieces have a pleasing “stippled” quality.  A few of the paintings are self portraits, many more of them are complex still life arrangements with an overall abstract quality.  A few charcoal drawings of still lifes take on an almost cubist appearance through their arrangements of lights and darks.

Still on 25th Street, Gallery Henoch has a show of wonderful representational paintings by Kim Cogan.  Some of the pieces are straightforward rooftop cityscapes, painted with Cogan’s brushy style.  More exciting, though, are the high contrast scenes of specific city locales at night, such as Grocery at Dusk.  Here, Cogan’s painterly style excels at capturing the temperature of the light and its reflection and makes you want to keep looking at the painting.  In a few of the pieces, the same figure makes multiple appearances.  Several paintings show scenes from within what appear to be small New York apartments and one, Passengers Manhattan Bound, offers a fisheye perspective of three subway riders directly opposite the artist.

Kim Cogan @ Gallery Henoch

Kim Cogan @ Gallery Henoch

Just upstairs from Henoch in what was formerly Von Lintel is the new incarnation of George Billis Gallery and the gallery is using the new space to its advantage.  The larger walls allow for larger work; there’s more floor space so you can step back a bit (the old space was sort of shoe-horned into an awkward floorplan); and, the extra room that Von Lintel had used for flat files is now additional exhibition space.  Further, by being directly above Gallery Henoch, you now have two reliable galleries that feature representational painting in the same building.  Presently, George Billis has several shows going in the various rooms.  In the front, Enrique Santana has some highly detailed (i.e., every window is painted in the skyscraper) cityscapes full of reflected light.  In one of the back rooms are some charming three dimensional watercolor-on-paper-on-panel landscape-based painting/sculptures by Russ Havard.

I thought I’d give the Caroll Dunham show a chance at Barbara Gladstone, but I couldn’t make it past the image you see upon first entering the gallery.  Ugh.

I’ll mention one last show from Chelsea:  Richard Serra at Gagosian‘s 21st Street location.  Two of Serra’s signature massive cor-ten steel sculptures fill the gallery and as usual, they don’t fail to impress.  I entered the first piece, “Open Ended”, and actually felt a sense of dizziness as the twisted walls reshape your impression of up and down.  The lighting was dark in the gallery and so on this piece I didn’t notice as much variation in the surface of the steel as you often find in Serra’s work.  After a few long “hallways” and a few twists that seem to spiral towards a “center”, you find yourself in the middle of the sculpture.  Strangely, though, you can keep going in the same direction and you’ll eventually find yourself exiting on the other side of the piece.  It’s not that great a trick when you look at the work in a photo from above, but it is a surprise as you’re walking through it that you can keep “spiraling” and yet still make your way out of the sculpture (hence, “Open Ended”).  The second work, “Blind Spot”, leads you towards a dead end and you’ll have to turn around and retrace your steps.  I love reaching the center of these Serra sculptures, especially if there’s nobody else around — you feel like you’re in a world of your own, protected by a massive steel shield (though perhaps at least a little conscious that you’re hoping there’s no way this thing can tip over).  Blind Spot seemed to have more interesting variations of rusty red and oxidized green/blue color.  Unlike in some past exhibitions, however, a security guard (who followed me closely for some reason — I couldn’t have looked suspicious!) said that no touching of the work was allowed.  It’s a shame, as the rough texture and massive size just call out for a brush of the hand.

Richard Serra @ Gagosian 21st St

Richard Serra @ Gagosian 21st St

Finally, I was finished with Chelsea and I realized that the Met closes at 5:15 on Thursdays and so I had better hustle to the Upper East Side.  Fortunately I found a cabbie on his last drive of the day who took a good route and was at the Met in no time.  Still, I realized that I would have to zoom through the Robert Frank “The Americans” show if I wanted to see Vermeer (I’ll have to get the book, I suppose, to spend more time with that historic collection of photos from fifty years ago).

You never know if seeing a famous painting in person will live up to your expectations.  Some of the Vermeers at the Met don’t (I’ve never been a fan of “Study of a Young Woman”, for instance).  But “The Milkmaid” does.  It’s a beautifully painted piece with exquisite handling of light and shadow.  The woman has a real physical presence.  The wicker basket in the shadow is amazingly painted and the pebbly bread actually looks crusty.  Hockney would make a case that Vermeer used a camera obscura or other lens device.  It’s no big deal to me if he did or he didn’t; either way, this is one of those paintings that are even better in person than they are in reproductions and I’m glad I got to see it while it was in town.

Vermeer's The Milkmaid @ The Met

Vermeer's The Milkmaid @ The Met

After “closing” the Met down, I grabbed a relaxing dinner at a reliable Italian restaurant just a few steps away, Giovanni’s.  I’ve been there perhaps a half-dozen times over the years and the food always ranges from quite good to excellent; the servers are attentive even if I’m by myself and under-dressed; and the panna cotta is amazing!  Alas, the place is very expensive to my New Jersey acclimated wallet — well, it’s expensive even to a New Yorker’s wallet, but it happens to be in a great location for where I needed to be and served the kind of food I was in the mood for.

My final art-related stop of the night was to the opening reception at James Graham & Sons Gallery on East 67th Street for John Zinsser’s new show, “Art Dealer Archipelagos”.  I took Zinsser’s (highly recommended) class at The New School some 8 or 9 times starting in September 2001 and he’s largely responsible for my interest in visiting New York galleries so often.  This show is very different formally from anything else I’ve seen of his.  Most of his past work (that I’ve seen, anyway) has explored the interaction of (typically) two colors of paint, either in large alkyd enamel abstractions on canvas that evoke a specific lineage in art history or in smaller works on paper such as his Bible Studies paintings with titles drawn from biblical passages as a way to explore how titles link the content with the meaning of abstract paintings.

Here, Zinsser turns to drawing in two separate sets of work.  The first, and the focus of the exhibition, are the “archipelagos”, some two dozen works on paper, each depicting a fictional island named after a historically important New York Gallery.  “Towns” on these maps are labeled with the names of artists who have had solo shows at the gallery at some time in the past.  The shapes of the land masses are made up but are informed by the atlases the artist consulted in researching this project.  The hand-drawn “typography” is meant to mimic that found on a typical real-world map.  The galleries included are ones that would have either had personal significance to Zinsser in his 25 years of New York City gallery-going or are ones that were historically important in shaping the post-war New York art world.  Since my own experience with the galleries of Manhattan goes back only to 2001, it was interesting to note how many of the galleries represented are no longer in existence and how those that are have changed significantly, either in terms of ownership or in terms of the kind of art they show.  I’m more familiar with Sonnabend gallery, for instance, as a place that puts on top tier photography exhibitions (Hofer, Becher, which are on the map) than as one that would show Winters, McCracken, or Dunham (I like the fact that Koons is an island unto himself).

John Zinsser @ James Graham and Sons

John Zinsser @ James Graham and Sons

The other set of pieces in this show are the Auction Lot drawings, hand-drawn replications of pages from various art auction catalogs.  One of these works that I particularly enjoyed was Zinsser’s “Al Held” page, which echoed nicely a painting I had seen earlier at Betty Cunningham.

I asked John which of the two kinds of drawings in this show were more fun to work on and he hesitated — probably more from the banality of my question than its profundity — and then ditched, saying that the catalog works were fun but that the focus of the show is the archipeligo with the catalog drawings there to round things out.  I suppose it’s like asking a parent which child they like better at the eldest’s graduation — you can’t expect a good answer.

Feeling guilty about my earlier panna cotta and also refreshed after descending from the hot and steamy third floor gallery (perhaps appropriate for a show about an island archipelago?), I decided to walk back to Penn Station.  Progress was swift except for my flawed decision to “see what Times Square looks like tonight”.  The city is getting ready for Christmas.  It was one of those nights that make you miss being in the city with people out and about but not *too* many people, a comfortable outdoor temperature and a lot going on… until I almost stepped on a rat.  OK, it was actually a mouse.  We have them in Jersey, too.

I walked past MoMA on the way back to Penn Station.

I walked past MoMA on the way back to Penn Station.

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