For years the art world has worn blinders. In the 1960s, it seemed that only poet-critics bothered with artists who were not allied with Pop Art, Minimalism, or Color Field painting. Since then, each decade and its theorists have focused on a narrow band of “significant artists” almost to the exclusion of all else. There were those who were considered central, and everyone else was assigned a lower rank. But for various reasons, that kind of hierarchical thinking no longer holds as much sway as it once did. Artists who were ignored have gotten fresh consideration. With the recent shows of Flora Crockett, Carmen Herrera, Jack Whitten, Ed Clark, Peter Saul, Merrill Wagner, and others, the art world shows signs of cracking open even further. Everyone knows that major revisions are needed, but no one knows what to do about it except to kick the can down the road and act like everything is hunky-dory.
This is one reason why Aspects of Abstraction at Lisson Gallery (June 23 – August 11, 2017) is so interesting: it further upsets the apple cart without declaring that as its purpose. The exhibition’s circumspect title makes no grand or inclusive claim. It brings together four diverse artists from different generations who share similar tendencies: Leon Polk Smith (1906-1996); Paul Feeley (1910-1966); Joanna Pousette-Dart; Marina Adams. If the exhibition is about connections and affinities – which I think it is – then Smith and Feeley are the starting points.
In the art world’s currently fluid situation, it is worth remembering the way Leon Polk Smith and Paul Feeley were regarded in their lifetimes. Smith, who was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma, in 1906 (one year before it became a state), and was Cherokee, brought Native American and cattle ranching motifs into hard-edged geometric abstraction. Influenced by Piet Mondrian and Hans Arp, Smith was perpetually relegated to secondary citizenship, while the work of an artist like Ellsworth Kelly was considered central. As revealed in the recent exhibition Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight, which was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art (September 16, 2016 – January 9, 2017) when the artist was 100 years old, there was a lot more was going in the area of American hard-edged geometric abstraction than had been looked at, taken seriously, and written about for nearly half a century. Smith and Herrera, who were neighbors and friends, were ignored in different ways. Smith was considered less than Kelly, and Herrera was not even mentioned.
Paul Feeley, who was born in 1910 (two years before Jackson Pollock and Agnes Martin), taught at Bennington College for many years, where his student was the young Helen Frankenthaler. Starting in 1960 and lasting until his death in 1966, Feeley made work that was recognizably his, and had nothing to do with Color Field painting or Minimalism. Both Smith and Feeley were marginalized to some extent, either because they were seen as less significant, or because they did not fit in. This kind of ranking system, which the art world thrives on, is a disservice to art and artists. You get the feeling that many critics, curators, and collectors prefer to have guidelines than to allow themselves, as Frank O’Hara said, to “just go on your nerve.” They prefer to feel safe.
The four artists are represented in the exhibition by one painting each, complemented by works on paper. Smith and Feeley shared an interest in rounded and wavy forms. Their works on paper make it clear that drawing is central to their practice. The other connection between them is their interest in color and light, from muted hues to strong primaries. Neither developed a system for their use of color.
While Feeley works with squares and rectangles, the forms inside are rounded and often push in from the edges. He shares this approach with Marina Adams, as well as an interest in classical architecture and art. The classical influence is particularly evident in the three watercolors that Feeley did between 1958 and ’59, and the works on paper by Adams from the series, “Caryatid.”
In one of the exhibition’s two vitrines, there is an ink and graphite calendar, “Untitled (August)” (1964), which Feeley made in order to keep a visual record of the paintings he completed, along with his notes and appointments. In the other vitrine there is an ink drawing on paper, “Untitled” (1946), in which Polk has made a field of bracket-like forms facing left and right. Over it he has superimposed a large, open rectangle (or frame) with two lines extending from it, each with two right-angled bends in them. Both the bracket-like forms and the large open, rectangle are derived from the cattle brands Smith knew well from his years in Oklahoma.
The inclusion of these works on paper, along with notebook drawings by Pousette-Dart and an accordion-fold book of eight consecutive etchings by Adams opens up the focus of the exhibition, so that it is not just about looking at paintings. It also reminds us how radical an act it is to make things by hand at a time when fabrication and production – signifiers for the triumph of outsourcing and capitalism – are rampant.
Pousette-Dart’s painting, “Three Part Variation #11” (2017), consists of three curvilinear forms (they resemble canoes) stacked vertically, from the smallest at the bottom to the largest at the top. Each canvas, which has its own three-color palette, is distinct in color and shape from the other two. The curvilinear forms can also be seen as the slice of a circular shape. The proportions and curves of the left and right edges change in each form, so that they are distinct. In each of these shapes, which consists of two areas of flat color, a rounded form (or semicircle) is on the left, with its outer edge defined by the painting’s edge. Over these two forms, the artist superimposes a linear structure that echoes but does not repeat the outer edge of the curvilinear form. Once you begin noticing the echoes that connect the painting’s three dominant shapes with the forms inside the painting, you begin seeing how intricate the relationships are. The beauty of this painting is like that of a mathematical equation.
Smith’s painting “Constellation C” (1969) is made of four panels with rounded edges. Divided from corner to corner into two colors, with red or orange on the outside, and blue or green on the inside, the four panels are mounted on the wall in a diamond-like shape, with the open space at the center resembling a four-pointed star (a twinkle of light), adding a whimsical note to the painting. This use of the open center (or wall) is very different from anything Ellsworth Kelly did, and should make it clear that the two artists are not to be confused.
Frankly, I think putting together works by these four artists was a stroke of genius. One gets tired of seeing the same combinations repeatedly. It is like eating in a parody of a Chinese restaurant from the 1950s, where there is only one item in column A and one in column B. The other thing about this exhibition: there is joy in the work. For some, it might appear unseemly to express any kind of joy at this moment in American history, but not for me. It is a joy that can only be found in art, and makes no claims to be about more than that. That’s not fake news.