possibilities: Miles’ The Sound of Children’s Laughter
Parsons & the Women
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).
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
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-
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
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.
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
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.