David Smith at the Lowe Museum; Four Painters at Dorsch

by Darby Bannard



If you haven't see the David Smith show - "Two into Three Dimensions" - at the Lowe Museum go see it; it closes November 11. We don't see art of this caliber very often in Miami. It should be seen because it has good art in it, of course, but also because it puts up work by Smith we seldom see anywhere, in galleries, collections, museums or books. It may be "minor" Smith but anything by an artist of this magnitude is at least interesting and usually better than just about anything else visible. There is also an excellent (and expensive) catalog by Karen Wilkin, who organized the exhibit. Wilkin's criticism appears regularly in The New Criterion and elsewhere. She is one of the very few art people around who can write well and see well. So there is a didactic value here to supplement the esthetic one.

David Smith: Untitled Relief

Smith was the best sculptor of his generation of Abstract Expressionists and he had the reckless improvisatory intensity and proclivity for working in manic spurts of energy that marked some of the best of them. When given a commission to make sculpture in an old factory in Italy in 1962, for example, he scrounged every large piece of steel in sight and in 30 days made 27 large sculptures. Like Picasso, whose "Guitars" of the early 'teens lie behind Smith's art, he could and did work with anything anywhere and produce art of like variety. And some of his finest sculpture, like Becca at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, is very flat and frontal. Smith felt more akin to his painter contemporaries than his sculpture ones and had no regard for the defining limitations of the form. So in between sculpture-making he drew and painted and made reliefs and bronze medallions. A selection of this smaller more-or-less flat work is what we see in this show.

The different types of work here tend to gather in periodic batches - reliefs in the early 30s and late 50s, clay work in the mid-50s, bronze medallions in 1938 and 1945, oil paintings and Abstract Expressionist drawings from 1956 to 1958, spray/template paintings in 1962. This reinforces the impression that Smith would get onto an art form of some kind and work at it compulsively until he and the form itself were both exhausted. For some reason the Lowe Museum chose not to gather the various types into groups of similarity for the sake of comparison but hung the show so that adjacent pieces have as little visual relationship as possible. Why? Go figure. Maybe they thought it would help the art be more "interesting". I called Ms. Wilkin to ask if this was the way she planned it and she said no, that hanging it this way would probably compromise the show to some extent, but they hadn't asked her anyway.

Aside from the small sculptures and the few spray paintings (the big White Egg with Pink 1958 and especially Untitled 1962 are dynamite pictures) the best and most interesting work is the pieced and painted relief. Like most of the work in the show these are small - 9"x12", 10"x14", 11"x15" - very rough and unpolished and often covered with what looks like commercial enamel. Smith was not a refiner; he seems to have worked doggedly but impatiently with no interest in finish. Although trained as a painter and very close to many painters his drawing and painting skills were not great, and much of the flat work gives the impression he really didn't care, as if he was more interested in the making than the thing made (always a sign of real seriousness in an artist, as explained below). It seems not to have mattered. Everything he touched is energized. A piece will be clunky but it will never lack nerve and vigor. Like Pollock, Smith exemplifies the Abstract Expressionist triumph of spiritual vitality over technical refinement. This work is full of life, and that's all it needs to be art. Don't miss it.

A lot of fuss has been made lately about so-called Postmodernist art here in Miami and some of it has gotten national attention. I want to point out that not all the art in Miami is artists living in tents or photographed with plants up their rear ends or rooms full of things that clank and wheeze. There are, in fact, plenty of younger artists in this town making good or at least interesting paintings, figurative, abstract and in between. I can quickly think of several who were in our program at UM who are talented, working, producing painters: Claudia Krueschel, Sarah Dolitzki, Nelson Santiago, Kathleen Staples, Anne Storement, Zaydee Martinez, Ramon Fernandez-Bofill, Mary Malm, Blanche Noonoo...and so on. There are dozens more and most of them are getting very little attention. Now that she has put the Postmodernists on the map Bonnie Clearwater might think about a "Miami paints" show at MoCA. If well selected it could be a winner.

Four graduates of the MFA program at UM are showing at the Dorsch gallery ("4 Painters", Oct 20 - Dec 1): Kerry Ware, George Bethea, Jordon Massengale and Franklin Einspruch (that's the order in which I looked at the show). They are all to some degree realist painters who temper the realism severely, each in his own way.

Ware makes small (12 1/2" x 24" verticals), radically subdued paintings on sanded plaster surfaces which gently suggest landscape and sky. The first two are vaguely reminiscent of Yves Tanguey's surrealist landscapes and have a touch of definition - a suggestion of horizon or hard edge - which is just enough to focus the characteristic soft, greyish cloudiness. They are the best of the group of five, compellingly good, original paintings despite (or maybe because of) their determined and purposeful modesty. Ware has also posted an artist's statement which is unusual for it's literacy (and unfortunately so designed as to be barely readable) referring to unfashionable concepts like "nature" and "beauty". In these Postmodernist times you've got to love it.

Bethea, a very gifted and serious painter who has in the past made abstract paintings of stunning originality (and sometimes stunning size), has, in recent years, been painting small landscapes. These are occasionally bold and sketchy and occasionally, as these are, reminiscent of the artist who haunts him the most, Cezanne. Bethea has thought intelligently and well about Cezanne and understands him as a painter better than anyone I know. Here he utilizes the floating stroke and the close-valued blues and greens we remember from Cezanne's landscapes but makes it clear that he is not looking into nature like Cezanne but is using nature and Cezannian devices to make paintings which are virtually abstract. His color and his touch are very sure. Like Ware, the best pictures are those which are less symmetrical and insinuate a modicum of definition, so that from the fluttering touches of green and blue we see a tree or a window emerge just enough to "establish" the picture. I think Bethea's ambition as an artist eventually will take him back to large, fully abstract work, but that is no criticism of these pictures. A couple of them are very good indeed, certainly better than anything else like it in this town.

Jordon Massengale showed a while ago at Dorsch and in my review of that show I remarked on his extravagant talent and also took him to task for a lack of "seriousness", which I don't think I explained very well at the time. I can remember Clem Greenberg telling me I had to "bear down" more in my painting, and when I objected that I was painting until I was blue in the face and trying everything, he said that has nothing to do with it, you just have to "get more serious". This puzzled and angered me at the time, because, typically, he was not forthcoming with any kind of detailed explanation, and I thought I was too "serious" already. But as time went on it started to sink in. Seriousness, as he meant it, and as I now mean it, has to do with taking your art more seriously than you take yourself and doing whatever it takes. It means more than just agonizing and flailing about and working hard. I recall another time with Greenberg, up in Syracuse, I think, when he suggested to an artist that his picture might be better upside down, and the artist responded testily that it was painted that way and that's the way it would stay. He was taking himself seriously, not his art. When you are serious you take yourself out of the picture (so to speak) and try anything whether you like it or not. I think Massengale, like me those many years ago, has to "bear down", and, also like me back then, already thinks he is doing everything he can.

Kerry Ware said to me - as an observation, not as a criticism - that Massengale's work was like a punch in the face and his was like a caress. That was accurate, I think, and indicative too. Massengale seems too attached to a kind of wild man approach, an ingrained attitude that his art must adhere to a reckless process of all-out and far-out, fast and furious. Of the three pictures in the show, the darker, more thoroughly painted one was most like the paintings I saw before and it was the best one. The other two have the same raucous, cartoonish pornographic subject matter but are much more open, like large colored drawing, and the openness isn't helping. One had a distinct de Kooning flavor to it, and it reminded me of how de Kooning's art went off when he started that "woman" series in the early 50s. (There is also a ferocious very Picassoid "Mother and Child" elsewhere in the gallery). I am not saying Massengale should turn around and get sensitive and subtle, but that he should try to come to a better understanding of his talent and what has to be done to make it work. These are pretty good paintings (again, try and find anything half as good around Miami) but nothing like what he will do when he gets it together. He is so talented he is really obliged to get better, in a way, talented in a different way from Ware and Bethea, more of a graphic, pure picture-making talent, and one certainly capable of producing terrific paintings.

Franklin Einspruch's pictures can be said to be the most realistic of the four but they are very painterly and abstracted, mostly figures in interiors. They remind me of a species of figurative painting I used to see in New York years ago, the best practitioner of which might have been Fairfield Porter. I have always liked this kind of painting and I miss seeing it. I don't know if Einspruch has been looking at Porter and the others or not, but it wouldn't hurt. I recall paintings he has done in which he knifed slabs of paint on to define planes of shading. I think I liked those better than these. The best picture was the last in the series, a smaller, very abstracted portrait of a woman in a chair, and there was a very sweet small portrait in the office I liked better than any in the gallery. There is a dearth of good, painterly figurative painting these days and it is refreshing to see it turn up here. I look forward to see where Einspruch takes it.

Brook Dorsch should be commended for putting up straightforward painting of quality and variety, painting without a lot of tricks and gimmicks and heavy-handed, self-conscious affectations. Painting in Miami is generally quite retrograde and often pointlessly freakish and painfully deficient in simple technical skill. These are talented artists who are taking the time and making the effort to work things out. Like David Smith, and unlike so many younger artists around here, they are more preoccupied with making art than with "being artists". I want to see more of their work, and more of the many very good paintings being made here which are, unfortunately, so seldom shown.

Posted November 7, 2001

© Darby Bannard, 2001-2002



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