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Figuratively speaking: Wilfred Zogbaum’s Windward Light.

Abstract Expansion
By David Brickman

New York School: Another View
Opalka Gallery, through March 20

Abstract expressionism is a post-WWII movement in painting characterized by emphasis on the artist’s spontaneous and self-expressive application of paint in creating a nonrepresentational composition.

That’s what Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, has to say about the art movement that has astonished and alienated so many, and that continues to inspire admiration and debate among artists and art lovers 60 years after it was spawned. The latest addition to the discussion is a terrific collection of work now on view at the Opalka Gallery of the Sage Colleges (at which I teach).

Curated by Opalka director Jim Richard Wilson, New York School: Another View is the result of a conversation between Wilson and the painter James Brooks that took place more than 25 years ago. Wilson felt that the representation of artists associated with the abstract expressionist movement was too narrow, and wanted to delve into the broader diversity of its proponents and their creations; his exhibition, accompanied by a catalogue with several scholarly essays by Wilson and others, makes a very compelling argument for his thesis.

Another View features 39 works of art, one each by as many makers; there are 15 large paintings, nine smaller paintings, seven works on paper, seven sculptures and one photograph. To the casual art viewer, a lot of the artists’ names will be unfamiliar, but there are also a number of stars, particularly among the women. Because of the show’s intention, the really big stars of this movement—Rothko, Motherwell, Pollock and so on—are absent. But the presence of such greats as Joan Mitchell, Louise Nevelson, Helen Frankenthaler and Dorothy Dehner, along with Jack Tworkov, John Ferren and the aforementioned Brooks removes any feeling of being shortchanged.

On the contrary, the joy of discovering so many wonderful works by people perhaps previously unknown to the viewer is the payoff, and a big part of the point of the show. For me, these discoveries were many and quite pleasant. Additionally, by including sculpture and photography, as well as the smaller works on paper, Wilson expands the definition given by Webster; it should also be noted that these artists are all American, by birth or by choice, and that the movement is, too.

Overall, the show is, naturally, dominated by painting. However, though the sculptures are few, they are strong, particularly a large, gracefully gestural wooden piece by Raoul Hague titled Woodland Valley Poplar, apparently after the tree it came from; Nevelson’s Untitled assemblage in green-painted wood that, though smaller than you’d expect from its picture on the show’s publicity materials, uses all the dimensions to take over the space around it; and Peter Agostini’s Saracen, an aggressive, studded bronze figure clearly suggestive of the warrior it’s named for.

Other outstanding sculptures include Dehner’s totemic Egyptian King (though it has trouble holding the large space it’s placed in), Herbert Ferber’s claustrophobic Calligraph with Sloping Roof One Wall, and Wilfred Zogbaum’s scalar Windward Light. About half of these sculptors have created works that are pretty plainly figurative—a reference that is present as well in a number of the paintings, most obviously Tworkov’s graceful, energetic orange nude (reminiscent of early de Kooning).

Quite a few pieces reference landscape, including Buffie Johnson’s celestial Astor Mural, Lawrence Calcagno’s Blue Land #2, Judith Rothschild’s sweet, summery Southwest, and Nell Blaine’s Night Bouquet. This last is among the show’s best paintings, with its cool blues and greens in complex brushwork evoking great mystery, and different sensations at different distances. Also among the best in similar ways: Mitchell’s big, brash festival of markmaking titled No. 5, and Ferren’s JF #6, with its peachy pink center among other hot colors and shiny, juicy paint that seems as fresh as if it were painted yesterday—rather than in 1962.

As with these last two paintings, pure form remains the core of this representation of the abstract era, including Brooks’ flowing, quite large Acanda and a small but fury-packed untitled canvas by Michael Goldberg from 1954 (most of the work in the show is from the ’50s and early ’60s). Minimalism, a significant subset of the movement that became a movement of its own, is represented by geometric examples by Nassos Daphnis and Ilya Bolotowski, as well as by an indigo mood piece by Norman Lewis that has a whiff of O’Keeffe about it.

A few oddballs do pop up—Matsumi Kanemitsu’s untitled ink drawing is soulfully Japanese, and Conrad Marca-Relli’s collaged piece is more funky (and fun) than anything else here. Particularly out of place is the lone photograph, a shot from 1942 by Helen Levitt of kids playing in a concrete ruin. Levitt is a wonderful photographer—but something by Aaron Siskind would have made a lot more sense here.

Otherwise, the show has few missteps and is expertly arrayed throughout the spacious gallery. It’s hard to believe that, after looking at such a group of pieces, any art lover could persist in the opinion that abstract art has nothing to offer that compares with representational art. I’ll admit, I once thought that way, too. But the strength and quality of work like this in a show like this one provides the sort of experience that ought to expel such notions, replacing them instead with the pleasure and sense of wonder that the best art so often expresses and evokes.

A panel presentation moderated by Jim Richard Wilson and public reception for New York School: Another View will be held from 1 to 4 PM on Sunday, Feb. 27. A Tuesday film series on the artists in the show continues at 6:10 PM on Feb. 22 and March 1 in Kahl Campus Center 224.


Laura Frare: Tiles Project, 10.10.02-present

Yates Gallery, Siena College, through March 3

As proof that abstract expressionism is still alive and well in the new millenium, Saratoga County artist Laura Frare has mounted a fine, spare show in the tough-to-find-but-worth-the-trouble Yates Gallery at Siena. As much about process as product, the show has just seven pieces in it—but each consists of at least two panels, and one is a frieze of 15 square or rectangular panels run together.

One gets plenty of soft, gray wall space within which to contemplate Frare’s effort to chronicle her life in active marks and colorful smears, with the occasional readable (but not necessarily intelligible) word or recognizable shape thrown in. Her method of layering and, at times, peeling away leaves traces that the attentive viewer can follow and interpret.

Frare recently earned an MFA from the University at Albany; this exhibition represents her work since then, which reveals significant growth, if not success (in the artist’s own interpretation). I’m inclined to disagree—the two major pieces here, a four-panel set 2-feet-by-8-feet and the aforementioned Frieze, which is about 12-feet long, work beautifully as records of change in the rarified atmosphere of a painter’s interior world.

If you admire painting, you’ll want to see this show.

—David Brickman

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