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Two If by Sea

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Two If by Sea

THE NEW CRITERION, November 2019

Two If by Sea

On “J. M. W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate” at the Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, Connecticut.

Sailing to Mystic Seaport is one of those prehistoric memories of my childhood that still inspires limbic delight. How primitive it all now seems: no cell phones or GPS, my father and I dead reckoning on our small cutter-rig Cape Dory. Down in the cabin, I measured the paper charts with a plexiglass navigational plotter. I turned the directional dials on the LORAN radio. Finally we reached the mouth of the Mystic River. We circled and honked our airhorn until the railroad and highway bridges rotated and lifted to let us through. When we tied up at the historic Seaport, a maritime town of preserved boats and buildings, the facility was just closing for the day. That was the best part about it. As transients staying overnight at the marina, we alone could still wander the Seaport village at all hours, past the cooperage, the ropewalk, the church, the tiny school, and the George H. Stone & Co. General Store, like Ishmael on his way to the Spouter-Inn. On my Walkman, I played a cassette tape of sea shanties. Here was the Age of Sail. We were living it.

From the Age of Sail—or at least its recreational variant—to the Age of Screen, the subsequent decades have not been altogether kind to Mystic Seaport. History has gone out of fashion, if you haven’t already heard. So has the sort of immersive history offered by institutions like the Seaport, founded in 1929, where reenactors forge iron, craft barrels, and caulk hulls in its historic structures. In our virtual present, real experience itself has grown suspect, foreign, even dangerous. As a teacher recently explained to me, many children today do not know what to do when their feet get wet. They really don’t know what to do when close-hauled in wine-dark seas. The sport of sailing has suffered. A large outdoor institution dedicated to our seafaring past has suffered especially.

Enter the “reimagined” Seaport. Since the turn of the millennium, the historic institution has proclaimed at least two “Strategic Plans.” The Seaport must be “repositioned.” It must “appeal to new audiences.” It must be “evolving and embracing contemporary culture.” It must be “rebranded.” It must be “relevant.” It all sounded, to me at least, quite alarming.

The  Charles W. Morgan  (middle), the last remaining American wooden whaling vessel, on the docks of Mystic Seaport. Photo: Mystic Seaport Museum.

The Charles W. Morgan (middle), the last remaining American wooden whaling vessel, on the docks of Mystic Seaport. Photo: Mystic Seaport Museum.

Yet the distress calls have been a boon to the consultants, architects, and planners who now school around foundering institutions. One consequence has been the renaming of the Seaport, as it seems every “library” and “collection” and “institute” must be renamed these days, into a “museum.” And so we now have the “Mystic Seaport Museum.” Another consequence has been the construction of a new gallery, the Thompson Exhibition Building, to serve as a Kunsthalle for traveling shows and commissioned installations.

The proliferation of white-box galleries has largely become a blight on our cultural landscape. I suspect we will one day regret most of them, much like the benighted highways that slice through our urban centers, which are similarly designed for maximum throughput but have only invited further congestion. Contemporary art puts greater and greater impositions on its housing and display. Bigger galleries are built to contain it. Then new forms of art develop to overfill these gargantuan spaces.

Often this new art comes in the form of commissions designed to provoke commentary and commotion around some aspect of contemporaneity. At the Seaport we might soon see installations about swirling gyres, or modern-day pirates, or the rising seas. Or what about the history of the salt trade through large salt sculptures? That’s coming next year. You can almost figure it out yourself. The Seaport even brought in the impresario Nicholas R. Bell as its new curatorial director to crank up the institution’s popular reach, as he did at the Renwick in Washington, D.C., with immersive shows where “photography is encouraged.”

Museum leaders rarely lament these modern intrusions on their historic missions, buildings, and collections. Far from it—the “need” turns their hamster wheels. New buildings spur new fundraising that pays for more buildings and so on. What results are new brick-and-mortar (and glass-and-steel) billboards of perpetual presentness. I will never forget the director of one famous collection who proclaimed that her new Renzo Piano addition would finally let people know her institution was a museum. Of course, several generations of patrons managed to find their way there without Renzo. And of course, they still go there for the historic institution, not its mock-industrial appurtenance.

The Thompson Exhibition Building at the Mystic Seaport Museum. Photo: Mystic Seaport Museum.

The Thompson Exhibition Building at the Mystic Seaport Museum. Photo: Mystic Seaport Museum.

Back at Mystic Seaport, maybe it’s the case of a stopped clock being right twice a day. Or maybe a favorable wind still blows over my beloved institution. Despite my dire predictions, through storm-tossed seas the Seaport has remarkably reached safe harbor. With a major exhibition of Turner watercolors on loan from the Tate, which opened here last month and remains on view through February, I might even say the institution has discovered a triumphant new world.1

Designed by Centerbrook Architects and Planners, the 14,000-square-foot Thompson Exhibition Building, which opened in 2016, is better than feared, even as it nevertheless presents a “distinct departure from the Museum’s traditional architecture.” Wood-framed in the shape of a hollow wave, the building references the Seaport’s collection of ship hulls in its fittings—although with its oversized patio and cavernous interior, the structure most resembles a mountaintop ski lodge. Stephen C. White, the Seaport’s president, says he wanted a building that would say, “Something’s happening here. Things are moving forward.” Such pathetic pleas aside, the museum sought a building that would be “good enough for Turner.” And here is Turner. There are also plans afoot to open up the Seaport’s extensive watercraft collection, with some eighty-seven boat designs, to public view. If this building boom ultimately leads to more open storage and more Turner, the results would be welcome indeed.

There is nothing quite like seeing a Turner, such as A Shipwreck in a Stormy Sea (ca. 1823–26), after just witnessing a reenactment of a nautical rescue by “breeches buoy,” as I did on my recent visit to the Seaport. The former United States Life-Saving Service, one of our government’s smartest creations, patrolled beaches day and night to rescue shipwrecked sailors. The breeches buoy was an ingenious system of ropes and pulleys that could be fired from a small cannon hauled down the beach from the lifesaving stations (which were themselves beautifully designed). Attached to the mast of a ship run aground, the buoy had a pair of shorts sewn to it that held passengers in place as they were hoisted ashore. Tens of thousands of lives were saved this way.

J. M. W. Turner,  Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves , 1846, Oil on canvas, Tate.

J. M. W. Turner, Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves, 1846, Oil on canvas, Tate.

Through its artifacts and displays, the Seaport reveals the true challenges and terror of life at sea. Whaling ships like the Seaport’s prized Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining American wooden whaling vessel, were closer in experience to today’s floating oil rigs than to the romantic visions they might now inspire. They were factories at sea. American ships like the Morgan were the first to be able to harvest, process, and store whale oil, all without touching land, due to their set of shipboard try pots, which could render blubber while underway. “Voyaging in the Wake of the Whalers,” an ongoing and must-see exhibition at the Seaport, explains it all while matching a historic film of whaling with passages from Moby-DickWhalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flow Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves (1846), a stunning Turner painting at the center of this exhibition of watercolors, likewise shows those boilers firing away even as their ships sit stranded. Like a real-world Ahab, the American whaler was always determined.

While the watercolor exhibition is centered around a selection of maritime images, this is more than a “Turner and the Sea” show. The exhibition brings to America close to one hundred works from the Tate’s 1856 Turner Bequest, which ended up conveying just about everything the artist left behind, hook, line, and sinker, into Britain’s public trust. Selected out of some thirty thousand watercolors and sketches by the Tate’s David Blayney Brown, the exhibition presents the full arc of Turner’s astonishing fecundity. The artist began as a precise draftsman in such works as View of the Avon Gorge (1791), Durham Cathedral: The Interior, Looking East along the South Aisle (1797–98), and Holy Island Cathedral (ca. 1806–07). He ended up the atmospheric dreamer we famously know in such meditations as Venice: Looking across the Lagoon at Sunset (1840), Rain Falling over the Sea near Boulogne (1845), and Stormy Sea with Dolphins (ca. 1835–40).

J. M. W. Turner,  Venice: Looking across the Lagoon at Sunset , 1840, Watercolor on paper, Tate.

J. M. W. Turner, Venice: Looking across the Lagoon at Sunset, 1840, Watercolor on paper, Tate.

The exhibition makes the compelling case that watercolor was the medium in which Turner developed and tested these stylistic innovations. An accompanying catalogue of revealing essays and interviews assembled by Bell (who will soon be leaving the Seaport) looks at how Turner began his career as a painter-like watercolorist and ended up a watercolorist-like painter. In resplendent works such as Venice: San Giorgio Maggiore—Early Morning (1819), we can see how Turner’s uncanny sense for luminosity on canvas first developed in the white ground of watercolor, as did his gauzy building-up of scrims and layers.

Water gives and it takes. In his 1950 book The Enchafèd Flood: or, The Romantic Iconography of the Sea, W. H. Auden writes that the sea represents “that state of barbaric vagueness and disorder out of which civilization has emerged and into which, unless saved by the effort of gods and men, it is always liable to relapse.” In his watercolors, Turner likewise mixed the waters of content and medium for his own deep dive into compositional disorder.

J. M. W. Turner,  Arundel Castle, on the River Arun ,  ca . 1824, Watercolor on paper, Tate.

J. M. W. Turner, Arundel Castle, on the River Arun, ca. 1824, Watercolor on paper, Tate.

But Turner was not a pure abstractionist, despite the claims made by “Turner: Imagination and Reality,” Lawrence Gowing’s 1966 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that has long left us with an unfair retrospective view of Turner’s achievements. Nor was Turner a proto-Impressionist, an ultra-Romanticist, an anti-Industrialist, or whatever other school or cause he has been attached to. Turner began as an empiricist. As his compositions dissolved into formless shapes and blinding light, he became even more so, capturing a fuller vision of nineteenth-century life at the outer reaches of experience.

Born into the lower classes, through his own hard-driving career Turner maintained a respect for industry and the experiences of those who build, forge, sail, and render. His sense for awe reflected the real lives of hardworking people of the kind we still see at Mystic Seaport, which you can still reach by land or by sea.

1 “J. M. W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate” opened at Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, Connecticut, on October 5, 2019, and remains on view through February 23, 2020.

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Secrets of the Maestro

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Secrets of the Maestro

THE SPECTATOR, October 2019

Secrets of the Maestro

On Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Finally, some justice for the ‘teacher of Leonardo da Vinci’. Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence, now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., reveals that this master was more than a mere footnote to his famous apprentice. Born around 1435 into the artistic boomtown that was Florence under the Medici, Andrea del Verrocchio may, in fact, have been the original Renaissance man. The greatest artists of the Florentine Renaissance took root in his studio and grew out of his mentorship: not just Leonardo, who stayed with him for over a decade, but also Pietro Perugino, Lorenzo di Credi and, most probably, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Sandro Botticelli too. ‘Of the three main founders of the High Renaissance — Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael,’ says exhibition curator Andrew Butterfield, ‘Verrocchio taught one and trained artists who taught the other two.’

The first ever monographic exhibition of Verrocchio in the United States, the show makes the case for the maestro's own artistic achievements and helps explain why everyone else came to follow him. From carving in marble to casting in bronze, molding in terracotta to painting in oil, Verrocchio worked with sumptuous precision across artistic media. A goldsmith by training, he learnt to paint from Filippo Lippi, and created art ‘cross platform’. Something extraordinary happened as Verrocchio crossed those platforms, for a spark of inspiration leapt from one to the other.

Somehow, from his experience modeling sculptural form in space, Verrocchio found new ways to render sculptural form in paint, using a new mode of smoky shading called sfumato. Verrocchio’s innovation, first explored in his own drawings and paintings and subsequently brought to perfection by his apprentice Leonardo, changed the course of Renaissance art, and opened the window to the dramatic plays of light and dark in the chiaroscuro of the Baroque. With some fifty sculptures, paintings, and drawings on loan from nearly two dozen institutions — including some, but not all, of Verrocchio’s masterworks — this exhibition tempts us to explain just how Verrocchio did it. 

Andrea del Verrocchio, David with he Head of Goliath, c. 1465

Andrea del Verrocchio, David with he Head of Goliath, c. 1465

In his own time, Verrocchio was best known as a sculptor. He could be as equally adept in the vastly divergent practices of carving in stone as casting in bronze. Although his most famous sculpture and the one that made his reputation, his ‘Christ and Saint Thomas’ (1467-1483), remains in the Orsanmichele in Florence, there is at least one bronze here that alone requires a visit to Washington: ‘David with the Head of Goliath’ (c. 1465), on loan from the Bargello. This is arguably the third most famous ‘David’ in Florence — which is still saying something in a town whose artistic Goliaths cast and carved a tribe of Davids. 

Verrocchio’s ‘David’, created after Donatello’s ‘David’ and before Michelangelo’s, connects the other two, enlivening the ephebic forms of Donatello while hinting at the muscular power of Michelangelo to come. Verrocchio’s might be the most human of these three Davids. His body is strong but slight, and genuinely adolescent. Unlike the other two, he wears body armor, and here the one-time goldsmith produces an amazing play of surfaces between David’s exposed shoulders and his finely hammered and detailed cuirass –– all miraculously rendered, we must remember, in the same ball of wax. And this David, unlike the other, rather gazey ones, seems to know just what he has done. You can see it in his face. There he is, standing over the severed head of Goliath, beneath a thick halo of curls, betraying the most human of smirks.

This particular human quality, a shared sense of earthly recognition, continues through Verrocchio’s works in marble. ‘Bust of a Young Woman’ (c. 1470) on loan from the Frick Collection, and ‘Lady with Flowers’ (c. 1475/1480) from the Bargello in Florence, may be less dynamic than his contrapposto ‘David’, but again the faces and necklines, framed by finely tooled hair and exquisitely rendered clothing, seem to describe figures that are living, breathing, and thinking. They cock their heads. They curl their lips. While the ‘Young Woman’ raises her eyebrows and pulls back her head in skepticism, the ‘Lady with Flowers’ looks forward with glassy, affectionate eyes as she flutters her fingers in anticipation. The expressions are subtle, but the results are present and felt. 

Andrea del Verrocchio, Head of a Woman with Braided Hair, late 1470s

Andrea del Verrocchio, Head of a Woman with Braided Hair, late 1470s

It helps that one of Verrocchio’s innovations was to conceive of his sculptures in the round. His ‘Putto with a Dolphin’ (c. 1465-80), from the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, may not be as uncanny and ‘real’ as his portraits. But this crowd favorite, his bambino di bronzo, twists and balances on one foot so that there is no obvious front, side, and back. Rather, the sculpture draws the eyes up and around in much the same way that the pudgy-winged baby twirls up, bearing his tiny dolphin.       

These works are complemented by several additional sculptural pieces, in the round and in relief, ranging from silver to unbaked clay, or terra crudo. Yet if we are to isolate Verrocchio’s most innovative achievements, we must turn to his works on paper. Verrocchio’s new abilities in shading are revealed by ‘Head of a Woman with Braided Hair’, a drawing from the late 1470s in black chalk or charcoal, lead white gouache, and pen and brown ink, loaned from the British Museum. Verrocchio developed a way to blend his shadows, most significantly around the mouth and cheekbones, into an infinite gradation of light to dark, giving effects quite unlike the staccato marks of parallel hatching and crosshatching, or the rough variation of different pigments. 

Andrea del Verrocchio, Madonna and Child with Two Angels, c. 1470-1474

Andrea del Verrocchio, Madonna and Child with Two Angels, c. 1470-1474

Where did this all come from? There was clearly something extraordinary in Verrocchio’s appreciation of sculptural space that informed his innovations in two dimensions. I like to think that his feel for modeling in bronze gave him a new sense for pictorial touch. After casting in wax, Verrocchio worked his bronzes over to polish them to life. The resulting ‘human’ surfaces, with their subtle reflections of emotion in the brow lines, cheekbones and lips, emerged from this inhuman and laborious process. Similarly, in two dimensions Verrocchio developed a method of smoothing the shadows of dark pigments by hand. His drawn features take on the same rubbed expression as his sculptures, depicting gradations of shadow in the exaggerated way that light reflects off of polished metal. These developments were unlike anything that preceded it, and they went on to revolutionize painted form. Calling him a ‘fountain’, his contemporary Giovanni Santi claimed that, ‘whatever painters have that is good, they drank from Verrocchio’s spring’.

Unfortunately, just which of Verrocchio’s paintings were actually painted by Verrocchio — or rather by his assistants, some famous, some not — remains a matter of speculation. Perhaps more unfortunately, ambitious attribution has encouraged some seriously irresponsible connoisseurship, as otherwise sensible art historians have undertaken vision quests to find Leonardo’s fingerprints in this or that corner of the compositions to come out of Verrocchio's studio. You could spend a lifetime poring over ‘Madonna and Child with Two Angels’ (c. 1470/74), a loan from the National Gallery in London, and still not know for sure which parts were painted by Verrocchio, and which by Perugino, the dutiful Lorenzo di Credi, or some other studio schlub, and not pure Leon. Fortunately, this exhibition avoids such frenzied speculation, and there is one Leonardo painting here, ‘Ginevra de' Benci’ (c. 1474/78), from the National Gallery’s own collection, that helps reveal the pupil's debt to his teacher — while also satisfying the crowds.

It is thanks to Leonardo, of course, that we can now see Verrocchio in Washington at all. Along with major exhibitions at Buckingham Palace and the Louvre, this is but one more exhibition occasioned, albeit indirectly, by the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. The genius cult that now surrounds Leonardo is one of those mystery religions of our postmodern age, as millions now make pilgrimage to worship at the rope lines surrounding the ‘Mona Lisa’. But my, with that smirk, doesn't she look just like a Verrocchio?

Andrea del Verrocchio’s ‘Lady With Flowers, c. 1475/1480

Andrea del Verrocchio’s ‘Lady With Flowers, c. 1475/1480

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Gallery Chronicle (October 2019)

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Gallery Chronicle (October 2019)

THE NEW CRITERION, October 2019

Gallery Chronicle

On William Bailey at the Yale University Art Gallery, Bruce Gagnier at the New York Studio School and Thomas Park Gallery, Graham Nickson at Betty Cuningham Gallery, Gary Petersen at McKenzie Fine Art, William T. Williams at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, and Joe Zucker at Marlborough Gallery.

Paintings of the nude can still be shocking, just not in the way you might think. The real nudity of “William Bailey: Looking Through Time,” now on view at the Yale University Art Gallery, is painting denuded of contemporary pretense.1 That’s the shock of the career survey of this living master and longtime Yale professor: a love for painting, past and present, without modern adornment. Bailey’s nudes, still lifes, and landscapes reach back to Piero della Francesca and the early Italian Renaissance to draw out compositions of consummate craft and uncanny tranquility. Pairing those with examples of his drawings and prints, this must-see exhibition, remarkably Bailey’s first museum survey, makes us grateful for a painter who looks through time and shares his distant vision.

Born in 1930, Bailey trained under the modernist Josef Albers at Yale, where he earned his bfa and mfa before joining its faculty, teaching there until his retirement in 1995. Bailey was one of the key artists to break with mid-century abstraction and lead a resurgence in representation, mentoring a generation of students along the way. When his Portrait of S (1979–80) appeared on the cover of Newsweek, the magazine’s critic Mark Stevens wrote that Bailey “helped restore representational art to a position of consequence in modern painting.” That painting, here on loan from the University of Virginia, proved to be a sensation for Newsweek due to the portrait’s partial nudity. When the issue appeared in 1982, some newsstands even censored the breasts and removed the magazine to their “adult” section.

William Bailey,  Portrait of S , 1979–80, Oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery.

William Bailey, Portrait of S, 1979–80, Oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery.

I cannot quite decide which part of that story seems most removed from us today: that there was a painting of a nude on the cover of Newsweek, that Newsweek put a painting on its cover at all, or that there was once a magazine called Newsweek. Today the painting remains startling for its skill and suppleness, but not for the nudity of the otherworldly figure glowing at its center.

Nevertheless, when I went to see this exhibition with my daughter, a gallery guard kindly flagged me down to warn me of its nude contents. Even today Bailey can elicit an unusual reaction. Plenty of paintings past and present feature the nude, of course, but I doubt works by Titian or Raphael would spark the same concern. There is something uniquely present in Bailey’s paintings, something fresh and exposed. It is not the figures themselves, which emerge from Bailey’s own painting-filled imagination. I rather think it is the way he brings his painted surfaces forward into our own space.

The paint itself is sensuous. Bailey’s touch can be as appealing across the creamy walls and shadow lines of Empty Stage II(2012) as along the shelved vessels in Horizon (1991) and the outstretched leg of N (ca. 1965), his astonishing nod to Ingres’ Grande Odalisque. There is much still life here, perhaps too much at the expense of a broader survey that might have included Bailey’s early transitional work. Yet while these vessels repeat, the treatment of their overall surfaces conveys a broad range of response. Perhaps due to his modernist training, Bailey focuses his paintings all-over, with no one part of the composition commanding more attention than another. Walls and other “background” surfaces share equal billing. This is why one wants to linger over the grass of Afternoon in Umbria (2010) and the reflected window light of Turning (2003). The same goes for the hatch marks of his lithographs and etchings and the stunning draftsmanship of his silverpoint, pen, crayon, and graphite on paper. The abstract passages can be just as compelling as the more “realist” depictions of vases, vessels, nudes, and eggs.

William Bailey,  Eggs , 1974, Oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery.

William Bailey, Eggs, 1974, Oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery.

And there is something mesmerizing in the repetition, in seeing these forms repurposed in ever-changing ways. The compositions become increasingly familiar and, yet, all the more strange. Curated by Mark D. Mitchell, “Looking Through Time” flattens the distinctions between now and then by mixing work from different periods, just as Bailey seems to paint in a time out of time. Instead, the subtly shifting forms of color and light tell their own story. I was particularly struck by Eggs (1974), with Bailey’s wonderful ova, on loan from the Whitney Museum, here alone on a table without their usual crockery companions. This painting is the first in the exhibition, or the last, all depending on how you look at it.

“Bruce Gagnier: Stance” at the New York Studio School, installation view.

“Bruce Gagnier: Stance” at the New York Studio School, installation view.

“Bilious” is the word that comes to mind whenever I see the sculptures of Bruce Gagnier. His distended figures all look as if they swallowed something disagreeable. Their humors are off, sometimes way off, as they sway along and toddle about. Gagnier comes out of a classical and Renaissance sculptural tradition. His nude figures and portrait busts are created in plaster and clay and cast in bronze. But with their misshapen heads and out-of-proportion limbs, these are the opposite of Vitruvian men and women. Unusually small in stature, they are not ideal forms but all-too-real creatures of our downtrodden world, nearly verging on caricature but comforting us in their shared burdens and imperfect body image.

Now at the gallery of the New York Studio School, where he is on faculty, “Bruce Gagnier: Stance” brings together ten of these figures in bronze. “Life-size” but seemingly smaller, these sculptures shlump and shuffle through the gallery rooms as projected and exaggerated versions of ourselves, craning and bending and trying to ignore everyone else around. We look at them as they glance at us, putting into question the seeing and the seen, and just who is better off and who is the worse for wear.2

Somewhat concurrent to the Studio School run, “Good Figure, Bruce Gagnier: Plaster Works from 2019 and 1983” was on view last month at Thomas Park gallery on the Lower East Side.3 Compressed into a tiny upstairs room, these small figures were arranged in rows facing the door like a terracotta army, along with a few of his paintings and portrait busts arrayed on a table beyond. Gagnier’s art straddles that fine line between subjects and objects. As both figures and sculptures, his works seem equally worn down, in a way that becomes even more apparent in plaster. Whether as bodies or statues or something in-between, these men and women appear to have been dug up from some contingent state, as though at one time drowned in a peat bog or buried in Vesuvian ash. The wear and tear that Gagnier builds into his work reminds me of Elie Nadelman, the modernist sculptor who also understood that objects need to have a past, even if you must invent it. What results is an unearthing of form and an archaeology of emotion.

Graham Nickson,  A.B , 2003, Oil on canvas, Betty Cuningham Gallery.

Graham Nickson, A.B, 2003, Oil on canvas, Betty Cuningham Gallery.

Graham Nickson paints snapshots of time through a lush abundance of expression. The moments he depicts can be uncomposed portraits that are recomposed in chroma. Very often his figures are turning away or otherwise off view, but in “Graham Nickson: Eye Level,” now at Betty Cuningham Gallery, Nickson focuses on the face head-on.4 The off-moments are still here, even more apparently so. Nickson works from observation, not photographs, but his portraits have the feel of passport images—unflattering, half-blinking, non-smiling, head and shoulders squared up. The captured moments are not necessarily how we want to be remembered. They are rather how we are now identified and recorded. What gives them some life is the expression Nickson puts into them in paint. Nickson balances the awkwardness of these images, which feel like studies, with the richness of his compositions. In the mix here are also some of his paintings of bathers—faces partially obscured.

Gary Petersen,  Wonder Lust , 2019, Acrylic and oil on canvas, McKenzie Fine Art.

Gary Petersen, Wonder Lust, 2019, Acrylic and oil on canvas, McKenzie Fine Art.

Gary Petersen combines the histories of hard-edge abstraction and mid-century design to arrive at compositions that razzle and dazzle like flickering signage and televised animation. I cannot help but hear that old drumroll of “a cbs special presentation” whenever I see his acrylics flash and spin into view. His second exhibition at McKenzie Fine Art, “Gary Petersen: Just Hold On,” presents the artist’s increasingly dense compositions, where bursts of color press in rather than spin out.5

There is a lot of electricity here, a neon jungle that is barely contained in the edges and layers that Petersen builds into his work. In addition to featuring rectangles on top of rectangles with not quite squared-off edges, paintings such as Wonder Lust (2019) and Nowhere Near (2019) introduce curvilinear forms and shapes in oil that add to the dynamic snap. A favorite is Asbury Park (2019), a smaller painting where a free-form line of ink adds an extra layer of whimsy to this roller coaster of abstract expression.

William T. Williams,  Blues Labyrinth , 1991, Acrylic on canvas, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

William T. Williams, Blues Labyrinth, 1991, Acrylic on canvas, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

William T. Williams is having a moment, deservedly so. His bold geometric compositions of interlocked shapes and swirling lines are hard to miss. As black artists are being written into the canon of American abstraction, Williams’s contributions from the 1960s and ’70s mark out an important chapter. Abstraction is abstraction, of course, but artists such as Williams faced specific circumstances in their reception in American art. Primary among them was an expectation that black artists should be engaged in social content.

Instead, Williams asserted his own place in the abstract sublime. Trained at Pratt and Yale, he moved away from realism towards the freedom of abstract space. “My demographic is the human arena,” he once said. “I hope my work is about celebration, about an affirmation of life in the face of adversity; to reaffirm that we’re human, that we’re alive, that we can celebrate existence.”

Over time Williams looked beyond hard edges for paintings of tiled designs in heavy impasto. An exhibition at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery now features these more recent works.6 Williams’s craquelure surfaces have the quality of drying earth and aging skin. Their patterns recall the quilts of Gee’s Bend and other folkways. Williams gives his surfaces the suppleness of pottery glaze, working color back into the pits and grooves. The effect is more subtle than earlier work, but the result feels raw and exhumed.

Joe Zucker,  100-Foot-Long Piece , 1968–69, mixed media, Marlborough. Photo: Pierre Le Hors.

Joe Zucker, 100-Foot-Long Piece, 1968–69, mixed media, Marlborough. Photo: Pierre Le Hors.

Fifty years ago, in the age of minimalism, Joe Zucker went maximal. He imposed his own grids and limits and then overran those boundaries of artistic decorum, exploding pictorial space with narrative, history, and humor. Now at Marlborough, an exhibition of his 100-Foot-Long Piece (1968–69) feels like a retrospective seen through a single work.7 Zucker looked through the black hole of formalism to detect not just the surface of materials but also the shadow of history. Cotton and race were early factors in this investigation of art and form, with the warp and weft patterns of canvas making recurring appearances. His 100-Foot-Long Piece looked forward as much as back into the wilds of his image-making to come. Timed to the release of Zucker’s major monograph by Thames & Hudson, this focused exhibition also includes drawings and studio ephemera—as well as new examples of the “cotton ball” paintings, gridded reliefs of cotton and acrylic that first made his reputation by surveying the history of art and soaking it all in.

1 “William Bailey: Looking Through Time” opened at the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, on September 6, 2019 and remains on view through January 5, 2020.

2 “Bruce Gagnier: Stance” opened at the New York Studio School on September 9 and remains on view through October 13, 2019.

3 “Good Figure, Bruce Gagnier: Plaster Works from 2019 and 1983” was on view at Thomas Park, New York, from August 21 through September 22, 2019.

4 “Graham Nickson: Eye Level” opened at Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York, on September 4 and remains on view through October 13, 2019.

5 “Gary Petersen: Just Hold On” opened at McKenzie Fine Art, New York, on September 4 and remains on view through October 20, 2019.

6 “William T. Williams: Recent Paintings” opened at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, on September 5 and remains on view through November 9, 2019.

7 “Joe Zucker: 100-Foot-Long Piece, 1968–1969” opened at Marlborough, New York, on September 6 and remains on view through October 5, 2019.

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