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Surface possibilities: Miles’ The Sound of Children’s Laughter (1954).

Overlooked Expressionists
By Jeanette Fintz

Betty Parsons & the Women

Opalka Gallery, through Oct. 16

This fall’s art season provides a unique opportunity for renewed acquaintance with the era of the Great American Painting—that of 1950s abstract expressionism—in Betty Parsons & the Women, now installed at the Opalka Gallery. As it follows so closely after last spring’s New York School show at the same venue, it seems Jim Richard Wilson, the Opalka’s director, is on a mission.

This new exhibition gives viewers privileged access to an insider’s point of view on that era via the work of an underexposed pool of practitioners, namely women. There is an unusual intimacy at work here due to the direct chain of connection between Betty Parsons, the art dealer, and her artists: Judith Godwin, Buffy Johnson, Jeanne P. Miles, Jeanne Reynal and Ethel Schwabacher. The chain continues through Anita Shapolsky, who has known and shown these artists, and in whose New York City gallery the show originated.

The powerful Parsons apparently was the only gallerist to blast open the boy’s club of the ’50s New York art world, and to exhibit and foster the careers of women. That Parsons is herself an accomplished painter and makes a respectable contribution to this show seems reason enough for her decision.

Aside from the lively diversity of the work, the show is interesting for its rarity. These painters are not household names, but had successful careers and have substantial representation in museum collections such as the Metropolitan and the Whitney. In a nutshell, they are the kind of artists important to connoisseurs of the period. And, in a sense, the exhibition gives the viewer a chance to become a connoisseur; that is, to use his/her informed aesthetic eye to pick out the best bits from this assembly, and therefore not to be presold on a “brand name,” as much of the current viewing public tends to be.

But how well can one judge without familiarity with the language and syntax of abstraction? To paraphrase Wilson, it is essential, particularly for younger viewers, to get to know this art form, if only for the sake of cultural continuity. Abstract expressionism is problematic because as a movement it is overly familiar to some viewers and has no frame of reference for others. Aside from paying homage to masterworks of the period, how does one enter into a dialogue with an unfamiliar abstract painting? It helps to know what the prevailing concerns were: jazz improvisation, automatic writing, psychoanalysis, the primal gesture and the anxious self-contained life of the surface. The gathered works amply elucidate abstraction’s means and methods, with a few welcome surprises in store.

Ethel Schwabacher is the colorist in the group. Her brilliantly acidic hues, reminiscent of Monet and Bonnard, evoke keyed-up references to nature. One draws an immediate association between her and Joan Mitchell, the unsurpassed queen of this territory. Her consistently airy work, best exemplified in Return & Departure (1956), is made of lively, open, arcing gestures. A later work, perhaps her strongest piece, The Bride Returns (1960), is composed of fewer condensed shapes in which the number of colors are reduced to limes and yellows that emanate light but have a contradictory weightiness. Schwabacher was a friend and biographer of Gorky and practiced his method of automatic writing to gain access to the unconscious mind, as did many artists of this period.

Diametrically opposed in her palette and in her emotional tone, but equally consistent, is Judith Godwin, among the strongest artists in this show. Her confident, powerful diagonal planes of rich velvety black , blue-reds and creamy whites, in the vertical painting Longing (1958), hold tightly to each other and sit right on the picture plane. It is a compelling and bold painting with a deceptively shallow space that nearly escapes a landscape reference that is more evident in the German expressionist-inspired Ochreforest (1957).

On balance from these two artists is Parsons herself, whose work displays a refined visual intelligence. There is subtlety and restraint in her palette and in the number of shapes she needs to get something to happen. Like Matisse, she plays neutral grays against more saturated colors to achieve an interactive glow from a rather dry noningratiating acrylic surface. In The Swan #7 (1967), floating electric primaries dancing in a field of black are visual jazz in perfect equilibrium of chance.

Jeanne P. Miles, another artist whose work is characterized by musical metaphors, is the odd woman out in this brushy, direct group. Her rhythms are sublimated into grids, squares and circles in a geometric language reminiscent of Paul Klee and constructivist forbears. Her small-scale, red-on-red painting on wood, Musical Squares (1953), retains an undated freshness, delighting the eye with subtle layers and off-kilter positioning. Her formats, typified by the symmetry of The Sound of Children’s Laughter (1954), are often based on mandalas, and tantric diagrams, and reveal a search for transcendence in keeping with the zeitgeist of the period.

Miles and Jeanne Reynal both opened up the surface possibilities for traditional painting; Miles, by her use of Byzantine inspired gold-and-platinum leaf in her geometry, and Reynal by her fascination with techniques involving mosaic tiles. As exemplified in the varied works by Reynal, she employed the medium in several styles before finding an expressive voice. Her two strongest pieces are totally different. A small, highly detailed biomorphic mosaic with still life references from 1967 is most impressive. In Sphere (1950), a freestanding piece, she breaks fully with pictorial conventions creating a primal form with ritual implications. Some interesting insights might have been gleaned from pairing one of Miles’ hermetic grids with this piece.

Parsons too jumped off the rectangle in her later pieces, The Garrote and Whaling, both from the ’80s. These painted found-wood reliefs hold up very well, but appear out of step with the direction of the exhibition. The same refined color-structure sensibility is at work, and it would have been fascinating to see one of these hung with a painting, Looking Out (1957), for example, to see the cross- referencing.

The most enigmatic artist in the show, as represented by the work displayed, is Buffie Johnson, whose preeminent accomplishment was the completion of a 9,000-square-foot mural for the New Astor Theater. The diversity of styles is perhaps due to the broad timeline that her work here spans, from 1949-61. The early pieces are small blue-and-black, batik-inspired dense abstractions. Her later work, in airy yellows and whites, is quite a departure. Johnson’s strongest piece from 1958 is the remarkably eloquent Pent ecost in which bold repetitive gestures of deep purple black attend a red cyclic gesture, all balanced by a splotch of yellow on nearly un touched canvas. It is a moment of raw unpremeditated action in which each stroke is also a symbol, and it communicates utterly.

This large and inclusive exhibition perhaps would have benefited from some editing to let the more powerful pieces expand and the smaller works have room to shine. But the power of expressionist abstraction still resonates when the direct and improvisational process can access a moment of affecting freshness. If it is at all possible to experience this work without first seeing a scrim of date between you and it, it begins to happen here, when the unexpected clarity of Johnson’s Pentecost or Miles’ The Laughter of Children breaks through.


Peter Acheson: Paintings

A.D.D. Gallery, through Sept. 11

In an impressive display of the power of painting for its own sake, Ghent-based Peter Acheson presents 31 very small works at A.D.D. Gallery in Hudson that intrigue, confound and delight the senses. His deep involvement with the language of color and quirky personal vocabulary of shapes and marks is readily apparent in these mostly unframed oils on board.

What is not apparent is just what drives and directs such a pursuit—a mystery that I found more and more gripping the more I looked. How does a painter create a 6-by-10-inch quartet of gestures that somehow grabs your attention from a shop window and holds it as you stand gaping on the sidewalk? What process guides the decisions that lead to a certain composition and set of color relationships?

Acheson’s style of abstract quasi-minimalism is not unique, but it is not often seen so concentrated; even more rarely is it so totally convincing. See it if you can.

—David Brickman

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