"Greater Love and Other Visions" Art review by Geoffrey Jacques

 

It is always uncomfortable, and often considered extremely impolite, to speak about aesthetics and money in the same breath. However, several recent exhibitions in Manhattan, and the recurring news from the auction houses, can serve to recall how important is the relationship between the two for those in power in the art world.

 

A recent article in the New York Times brought this up forcefully. It's not such an unusual article. It's about a painting by Jasper Johns, "0 Through 9," which was about to go on auction at Sotheby's. The article says the painting is worth as much as $8 million. It's not even a one-of-a-kind. It's part of a series. The Whitney Museum of American Art bought one earlier this year "for a reported $15 million," says the Times.

 

Perhaps the way decisions about worth are made is not such a mystery to those in the know. But if you're somebody who looks at art for the fun of it, the relationship between aesthetic and market value remains a puzzle, one in which the search for a solution can prompt one to delve into some of those murky realms where the relationship between value, history, and money become the source of impolitic, and, as I've hinted earlier, impolite, conversation.

 

Beauford Delaney brought all this up for me last summer as I looked at an intriguing exhibition of his paintings at the Studio Museum. Delaney made abstract paintings, dream-like interiors and scenarios of Greenwich Village, and portraits in a heavily layered, painterly style which, while owing something to abstract expressionism, seemed more involved with light, color and texture than with gesture and movement. He was not, strictly speaking, an "action" painter, but a painter of light.

 

This is what perhaps inspired historian and curator Richard Powell to title his recent survey of Delaney's work "The Color Yellow." It was, in some ways, a spectacular exhibit. It is rare that this painter, who worked as both a figurative and as an abstract artist, receives a museum scale exhibition of this sort. The show ranged among several of Delaney's most significant works, from his Marian Anderson, Greenwich Village (1951), to his enigmatic Ella Fitzgerald (1968), and included his completely abstract, untitled paintings of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Delaney was interested in the texture of paint and how that texture itself generated a purely visual experience. This is what seems to unite the various genres in which he worked. In this sense, too, he seems to have approached the task of art making as an artist who was on the edge of the central narratives of contemporary art history. This may account for his relative obscurity, but it also might account for his solid, and very impressive, reputation among New York painters. For Delaney was a kind of legendary figure, and he was so as much for his personal qualities (he is widely remembered as a humorous and generous man) as for his personal artistic vision.

 

This sense of being both at the edge, and somewhat above, the discourses of art history also came to mind recently on visiting, in September, the "No Greater Love: Abstraction" exhibition at the Jack Tilton gallery. In this exhibition, several abstract painters who are African Americans, including Delaney, were shown together with several white American painters, some of whom, like Agnes Martin, Ad Reinhardt, Willem De Kooning, and Hans Hoffman, are names virtually soaking in mainstream art historical discourse.

 

It was hard to know what to make of this show. On the one hand, there was a tendency to attempt to historicize, either by calling attention to the artists "racial" origin, or by calling attention to their age (several "younger" painters, including Daniel Simmons, Nanette Carter, and Rebecca Pardum, were also on view here), but such categorizations seemed to facile. There seemed to be an attempt, in this show, at hammering home the point that there exist in the world African Americans who are also abstract painters. It is not a small point. As recently as last summer I had a conversation with a 30-something African American artist who told me of an Ivy League professor who, during her student days, thought he was encouraging her by saying that she would be the first abstract painter of African descent! The story brought a chuckle, but it also speaks to the relative silence about black artists and their role in modern art history.

 

On the other hand, an exhibition like "No Greater Love" shows how hard it is to address this lack, because one is often left with more questions than answers. Among the most powerful paintings in this show was a stark canvas consisting of two dramatic arcs of color by Ed Clark, and a bright, glowing and almost blinding canvas by Stanley Whitney. In the back room, a color field-like geometric abstraction by James Little almost crowded out a space that included a felicitous construction by Al Loving, and a dark and playful work by Danny Simmons.

 

But besides the pure enjoyment generated by the work, besides the joy of seeing the well-wrought paintings of Pardum and Martin, or a work by the too-little-known (even in African American art circles) Haywood Bill Rivers, whose universe of (anti) symbols has deep, and too-little explored roots in black culture, there is another aspect at work here, which perhaps erupted in the consciousness of the viewer when looking at the checklist of the exhibition. And that eruption is the caused by the disruption, the chasm, that opens up when one is confronted by the relationship between the art history we receive and aesthetic engagement we're being asked to take part in this exhibition.

 

In a sense, to fully appreciate "No Greater Love" required that the viewer cancel all he or she knows about art history, because there is a sense in which this exhibition canceled that received history and revealed an "alternate" one for us to contemplate. This is not simply to speak of "exclusion," but to consider something perhaps a little more radical. It is to ask the question of what is the meaning of an art history in which a well known (to artists and connoisseurs, at least) artist like Delaney is at the same time an obscure figure? The German philosopher Hegel considered Africa and Africans to exist in some space that was outside of history, believed historical narratives based on myths and folktales was inferior to that written in books. There is a sense in which western culture, including art history, is fundamentally structured on this set of fallacies, which privilege figures in power who construct and approve "official" history rather than the communities of people who live such history.

 

Perhaps the most difficult thing to do, when looking at this exhibition, was to figure out how to value more highly those paintings made by the art historical canonical figures here, rather than the rest, without resorting to the comforts of the historical narrative. That is, how to like the de Kooning painting here better than the Clark canvas without first saying "Oh, that's a de Kooning!" It was a challenge that ultimately defeated some critics, who left the gallery with cries of "exclusion" on their lips, cries which came out in phrases like "why don't we see more such shows?" Well, we probably should see more shows like "No Greater Love," both at the museum and at the gallery level. But the larger, and more important point, it seems to me, is: What are we going to do about the fact that we still understand our culture in ways that are, ultimately, deficient? It seems impossible to understand the transformation that happened to American art in the mid twentieth century unless we interrogate the central role of black culture in that transformation. And not just at the level of "influence," where we have a glimpse, for example, of Franz Kline's record collection. The questions suggested by "No Greater Love," about cultural interaction, translation, cultural value, identity, and sources, can't begin to be addressed if the inquiry is left at the level of influence.

 

As "No Greater Love" was finishing its run in mid-September, another exhibition in Soho raised these questions from another angle, one which might challenge our Hegelian hold on historical understanding, but which might, for all that, still get too little attention. Rosie Lee Tomkins is a quiltmaker, one of whose asymmetrical creations was one of the most striking works in last spring's Whitney Biennial. It went almost unnoticed. But her work, now on view until November 23 at the Peter Blum gallery, should be seen.

 

The subtle and seemingly random arrangement of color in these quilts should remind us that the tradition of black women quiltmakers in the United States has a place in the history of our serious - and not just our "folk" - art. Painter Haywood Bill Rivers, for one, freely acknowledged the place of this tradition, along with the history and practice of abstract art making generally, in his own background. Perhaps we can find affinities elsewhere in our history between these two strands of art making in our country and culture. But to do so, we have to ask ourselves to look at art, not through the lens of the history we are given by the makers of the art market, but through the lens of the history we can see with our own eyes, and through the eyes of the artists themselves.

Steve CannonTribes