THE NEW CRITERION, October 2019
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.
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.
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.
“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 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 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 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.
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.