Thursday, May 15th, 2003

Helen Frankenthaler, Joel Shapiro, 20th-Century Sculpture

“Frankenthaler: New Paintings”
Knoedler & Company until July 18
19 East 70th Street

“Joel Shapiro: Recent Sculpture”
PaceWildenstein until July 31
534 West 25th Street

“20th-Century Sculpture”
Acquavella Galleries until May 22
18 East 79 Street, at Madison,

Someday it will have to be explained why the most vaunted exponents of modernism in the 1960s spent their senior years chasing a romantic muse. Jules Olitski, Anthony Caro, and Helen Frankenthaler have all noticeably gone this route.

Ms. Frankenthaler, whose show of 10 new paintings opened last week at Knoedler & Company, began her career at the cutting edge of abstraction. She was a crucial transitional figure between Jackson Pollock and the “post-painterly” generation. Just as Caro and Olitski, who were famous for cool, sparse abstraction, traded their hallmark styles, respectively, for expressive figures and sublime landscapes, so Frankenthaler, in her new work, succumbs to an urge to depict.

Helen Frankenthaler, Yoruba, 2002 acrylic on paper, 40½ x 60½ inches courtesy Knoedler & Company

These paintings, on paper and canvas, are sumptuous, absorbing, and masterful, but you have to pinch yourself to remember that she was once an artist pushing the boundaries of the language of painting. If these pictures were a tenth of their size and admitted fractionally more narrative incident they could be taken for the work of a Victorian. Her “Yoruba” could sit besides a William Trost Richards of the 1870s.

Ms. Frankenthaler actually came out of landscape. Her poured and stained gestural paintings of the mid- to late-1950s – the seminal “Mountain and Sea,” for instance – often took landscape as their starting point. But now the references to nature are literal and overt, with horizons and promontories. “Bacchus” (2002) is almost a Caspar David Friedrich redone in a funkier palette. What a palette, mind you: The purples of this moody nocturne glow and brood simultaneously. She achieves extraordinary effects of depth and airiness through audacious layering of her acrylic paint.

It is somehow touching that this veteran abstractionist should reverse historic due process, turning “inscapes” back into landscapes. By so doing she reconnects with Old Master painting, and emphatically disconnects with minimalism. But it is telling that the most beautiful painting in the show, “Warming Trend,” is also the least legible (more Turner than Whistler). The painting fluctuates at different distances from blues and violets to turquoise, purple, and mauve. In more than one sense, it is phenonemal.


Joel Shapiro Untitled, 2002 wood, 10-1/12 x 64¾ x 25 inches courtesy PaceWildenstein
Joel Shapiro, Untitled, 2002 wood, 10-1/12 x 64¾ x 25 inches courtesy PaceWildenstein

In many ways an old-fashioned constructivist, Joel Shapiro’s career reveals a sly ability to run with Modernist hares while hunting with Minimalist hounds. By adopting motifs like little houses, chairs, and stick figures, he tweaked life back into Minimalism’s ponderous forms. Mr. Shapiro is not Minimal art “lite” as such, but nonetheless he animated an austere movement with welcome humor.

Scale has always been a lively element in his work, a means to startle, as well as to address representation. Diminutive has more typically been his thing, with Monopoly-board houses and dollshouse chairs. Now, in a show of five new sculptures, Lilliput has conceded to Gargantua. The 21-foot ceiling of PaceWildenstein’s Chelsea gallery struggles to contain the largest piece. As if to add insult to injury, the sculpture’s components – bronze-cast wooden beams – rhyme inadvertently with the building’s exposed I-beams.

The pieces that work best are the ones that are the least figural. And yet, ironically, “working” means conveying bodily movement and animation. This is sculpture that has internalized a sense of the body without needing to depict the body. The largest sculpture, a bronze from 2001-03, is actually not the strongest. Most of it reads literally as a stick figure, throwing back its torso and kicking out a leg, but it has a huge protuberance that doesn’t reconcile to a figural interpretation. Suspiciouslynecessaryfrom a structural perspective, its comes across like the absurd crutches of a Dalí figure.

Far more sensual and satisfying is a nearby piece in wood and metal from 2002-03. Individual components can’t be reduced to this limb or that, but there is an exuberant downward spring- as in a fencer’s thrust or a certain kind of jive. The shiny metal hinges, and a flamboyant diversity of grains and stains in the cool wood ensure that the surface of the piece keeps pace with the liveliness of its structure.

This is an important exhibition, for Mr. Shapiro and for sculpture. Not only are there big sculptures but a big conception of what sculpture can be.


And just what conceptions there have been is recalled in a stupendous display of 20th-century sculpture at Acquavella. On two floors of his princely Upper Eastside premises, William Acquavella has brought together nearly 40 pieces, many borrowed from private collectors. Matisse is royally represented. There is a rare chance to study the five progressively (or, equally, “regressively”) pared-down portraits of “Jeanette” from 1910-13, which start with a relatively benign, convincingly modelled head and culminate in a dynamic representation where the forehead and nose virtually stand out as an autonomous form.

These inevitably draw comparison with the extraordinary 1931 “Head of a Woman” by Picasso (even here, there is a mini Matisse-Picasso dialogue) where the hair and nose form themselves into a coiling limp phallus. The later sculptures downstairs feel somewhat cramped and rushed through, but upstairs there is a joyous technicolor contest between Miró and Calder, and an oxymoronic lead “Air” by Maillol.

This article first appeared in The Sun, May 15, 2003.