If the center will not hold, then what hope is there for the margins? Just about everybody now agrees that the core of the contemporary art world has been reduced to little more than a money pit by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Matthew Barney, Takashi Murakami, and their various sidekicks, patrons, and enablers. That’s bad enough. But too little has been written about the collateral damage. The effrontery of the art stars can end up coarsening even the most honorable opposition. The collapse of the center has left the art world’s margins horribly frayed. Too many good people are fighting for the few scraps that are left.
These dark thoughts are provoked by “See It Loud: Seven Post-War American Painters,” an exhibition at the National Academy Museum in New York. The show—which contains some beautiful paintings, especially by Leland Bell, Paul Georges, Stanley Lewis, and Paul Resika—is a heartbreaker, because a terrific opportunity has been missed. For years now our museums and galleries have been presenting a ridiculously oversimplified history of painting in New York in the decades after World War II. A lockstep procession of styles—Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism—has been stuffed down our throats. And the stirring heterogeneity of the postwar scene, which embraced everything from painterly representation to hard-edged geometry, has all too often been overlooked. Now the National Academy Museum has stepped up to the plate with what purports to be a corrective, focusing on some representational painters who flourished in the decades after the war. “See It Loud”—which includes, in addition to the four painters already mentioned, Peter Heinemann, Albert Kresch, and Neil Welliver—certainly does not present a cast of characters you’re likely to see at the Museum of Modern Art or the Whitney Museum of American Art. That’s all to the good. But instead of offering the expansive alternative history so many of us hoped for, the National Academy has showcased the collection of an organization called the Center for Figurative Painting, the brainchild of a man of means by the name of Henry Justin, whose taste is a Rocky Balboa blitz of swagger, flash, and bravado.
Even those who admire much of the painting in “See It Loud” should be gobsmacked by a show that overlooks Nell Blaine, Lois Dodd, Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan, Mercedes Matter, and Louisa Matthiasdottir. With “See It Loud,” the National Academy has performed the rather extraordinary feat of turning a postwar movement in which women were every bit as prominent as men into a boys' club with not a single girl in sight. This is not only politically incorrect; it’s historically incorrect. Women were leaders in postwar painterly realism—certainly Blaine, Freilicher, Hartigan, and Matthiasdottir were much more prominent than some of the men in this show—so how can the story be told without them? Of course “See It Loud” overlooks lots of guys as well, beginning with Fairfield Porter and Robert De Niro, the father of the actor. (And Stanley Lewis, although a significant artist, is out of place here, being a generation younger than the rest of the artists—and if he’s included, then why not a lot of other younger painters, including a number of significant women?)
“See It Loud”—the title is apt—has a brazen, blunt-force impact that leaves no room for the intricacy and lyricism of which many of these artists are capable. My favorite paintings by Paul Resika, an artist with a taste for wild, voluptuous color, have generally been smaller and more closely tied to direct observation than the works included here. The show isn’t about affinities and alliances so much as it’s about big egos butting up against one another. That may be appealing at a time when rivalries are seen as driving political and social history, and art history as well. Clearly, Henry Justin is pleased with all the testosterone that’s on display, but it is unclear why on earth the National Academy Museum went along with this Macho Man routine. Let me be serious. The inclusiveness of postwar art is insufficiently emphasized in this show. “See It Loud” does not begin to do justice to the period’s high-minded pluralism, to the mix-up of representational and abstract, hard-edged and painterly, mystical and matter-of-fact, female and male—and, yes, gay and straight.
Frankly, I have been reluctant to write about “See It Loud.” For decades I’ve followed the work of nearly all of these artists, and I’ve written about some of them repeatedly. Almost a decade ago, when I published a six-hundred-page book, New Art City, about mid-century art in New York, I was castigated by some reviewers for devoting a few pages to Leland Bell, Nell Blaine, Earl Kerkam, and a number of other artists the critics regarded as insignificant. Some reviewers of New Art City accused me of playing favorites, writing about my friends. They didn’t know what they were talking about. In any event, I am hesitant to step into the hornet’s nest of emotions that is “See It Loud,” an exhibition that for the three living artists included is a hard-won victory, and for the ones no longer alive is a recognition they surely craved. To write the history of one’s own time is never easy. But an exhibition that purports to reflect the representational impulse in postwar painting and excludes the extraordinary work of Louisa Matthiasdottir while including the gimmicky work of Peter Heinemann is nothing short of a scandal. That is not a matter of personal preference. During the decades she exhibited regularly in New York, Matthiasdottir was written about with great enthusiasm by critics of the stature of John Ashbery and Hilton Kramer. Apparently Henry Justin doesn’t care for her work or doesn’t care to pay what it costs—so she is erased from the history.
A truly expansive account of postwar American art forces us to see everything in a new light. What has been described as a return to reality in the work of some artists in this show was in fact a continuation of concerns that preoccupied key figures among the Abstract Expressionists, including Hans Hofmann and Willem de Kooning; at the end of his life Hofmann spoke of once again painting from nature, and de Kooning upset many admirers of his abstract paintings of the late 1940s by switching to figure painting for a time in the early 1950s. A great show about this period would be extraordinarily moving, revealing a heterodox New York School that is hardly even whispered about, except in writings on websites like Painters’ Table, The Silo, and artcritical. The School of New York always delighted in reimagining reality after the experience of abstraction—and vice versa. The clearest expressions of this emboldened double vision included in “See It Loud” are Leland Bell’s daringly simplified, ecstatically colored canvases of two figures in a bedroom, which would be unimaginable without the geometries of Mondrian and Arp, abstract artists revered by many in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. (By the way, I suspect that the later—and greater—of the two Bell bedroom scenes in the show is misdated by as much as a decade. So much for scholarship.)
An exhibition that did justice to the representational painting of the postwar period and its contrapuntal relationship with abstract art would include at least two- or three-dozen artists. I am well aware that it would be difficult to design such a show. But it would be worlds away from the artistic grandstanding that dominates “See It Loud,” an ego-driven event in which sense, sensibility, and inwardness are in short supply. Here bigger is almost invariably assumed to be better. Have the jumbo-sized canvases at the National Academy Museum been marshaled as a counterattack, a riposte to the swaggering strategies we know from Warhol, Koons, and Hirst? When marginalized artists dream of taking on mainstream artists we’re in big trouble. No matter how loud the men at the National Academy Museum may be shouting this fall, they are never going to be heard above the noise of the art stars. Anyway, loud isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It certainly isn’t what art is about.
Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Magicians and Charlatans (Eakins Press Foundation).