Giverny, at Salon 94, 12 East 94th Street, between Fifth and Madison, New York NY 10128, T 646 672 9212, open Monday to Wednesday, 10 to 5 by appointment, through August 13
Jules Olitski: Spray Paintings of the 1960s, at Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art, 20 W 57, 2nd fl, between Fifth and Sixth, New York, NY 10019, phone: 212-445-0051, mon-fri 10-6, sat 10-5, thru Aug 1
Art Production Fund, brainchild of curator/improsario Yvonne Force, administers a scheme to place upcoming American artists in studios at the Fondation Claude Monet in Giverny. Protected from the tourist hordes, residents enjoy privileged access to the Impressionist master’s legendary gardens. Key fixtures like the Japanese bridge and the lily pad pop up frequently in this sprightly celebration of the program at Salon 94.
For the most part, Ms. Force has sent Giverny way 15 hot button emerging artists, including painters Augusto Arbizo, Ann Craven, Steve DiBennedetto and Rochelle Feinstein. Rumor has it that the Fondation has vetoed future photographers, which on the evidence of the alumni on view here is a shame: Miranda Lichtenstein and Susan Jennings both responded to Monet’s horticultural inspirations in ways that pay homage to his vision across the divide of medium.
Ms. Jennings, with her high-chroma, zestfully cropped, chirpy photographs of the inner workings of flowers exploits the the painterliness of photography in a masterful, one might say impressionistic fashion. Like Monet, she fuses visual intensity with high style in a way that defies any hint of their incompatability. Her photographs are artfully sealed behind extra thick plexi adding a layer of sculptural otherness to their presence. They hang nicely besides dinky plastic waist-high flowers by Rachel Urkowitz; these nursery-colored fleurs du mal are the only sculptural work in the show.
It is particularly instructive to see Alexander Ross’s not especially Monet-influenced painting in the company of the almost mocking homage to the master by Will Cotton. These two painters, though respectively abstract and realist, have close affinities with one another in terms of modus operandi (apparently there are complex arrangements involving set-ups and photography) and heightened awareness of artifice.
Mr. Cotton makes big still lifes of melting ice-creams and soft-focus puddings. His 2003 piece here is entitled “Giverny Flan Pond”. He creates abstract fields (shimmering haystacks indeed) from absurdly hyperreal observation. Mr. Ross travels in the opposite mimetic direction, but the rich dialogue between these two painters only goes to prove that the journey not the destination is what counts in art. His ambiguous forms defy pictorial interpretation, but the brushstrokes are organized with tight depictive purposiveness. In Mr. Ross, abstraction achieves the condition of representation, whereas in Mr. Cotton it is the opposite that seems attempted.
From the paradise where they were made to the Upper East Side the pictures in this exhibition continue to enjoy a pampered setting. The exquisite Salon 94 is actually the ground floor of the home of financier Nicholas Rohatyn and his wife, the dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn of Artemis Greenberg van Doren. The gallery space looks out onto a garden through a magnificent floor to ceiling bay window that directly recalls in shape and scale if not content the late murals of Monet.
Yeardley Leonard offers a painterly bridge between the cool minimalism of this classy interior and the sumptuous naturalism of Giverny. The touchstones of her dense but serene constructivism are Bridget Riley, Jesus Rafael Soto, and Theo van Doesburg, but in her painting “When the Sun Shines Through” (2003) a compositionally-centered burst of light softens her usually rigorously determined flatness almost, within her own strictly geometric terms, impressionistically.
Apropos Monet, there is a timely chance to view classic 1960s spray paintings by Jules Olitski at Ameringer Yohe. Like late Monet, these breakthrough works by the leading color field painter are at once solid and ethereal: color is embodied by paint and yet seemingly seen through it, as if – contrary to the formalist rhetoric that accompanied these pictures into the world – color constitutes an image autonomous of the means of its conveyance.
Mr. Olitski is hard to see. It is not that he isn’t visible – there are fairly frequent shows of his work, though more in commercial than public forums – so much as that he comes with baggage. Mention his name and the critic Clement Greenberg comes to mind as surely as Baudelaire’s does with that of his protégé Constantin Guys’. But the experience to be had at Ameringer Yohe may prove a revelation to a generation better acquainted with the theory and hype surrounding Mr. Olitski than the work itself.
The artist has recounted elsewhere how, in the mid 1960s, these paintings came to be. The British sculptor Anthony Caro was talking about how he used color to emphasize the density of steel. “Without thinking I said I want the opposite for my painting. If I could just have a spray of paint in the air that would just stay there, not lose its shape.” The next day he drove into town and bought a spray gun. Olitski and his peers had been striving for a “post painterly”, that’s to say anti-gestural color presence. Hitherto staining and pouring had been a preferred mean to take the hand out of painting. Spraying upped the ante; paint moved beyond saturation to become a breathy, whispering presence.
Later, in complete and studied contrast, Olitski would re-embrace impasto with aplomb, experimenting with gels and mediums to create bizzare bas reliefs out of paint (anticipated by “17th Hope” , from the end of the period represented in this show). In either extreme – flatness or thickness – Mr. Olitski is a master of unexpected color, risking saccherine sweetness in his pursuit of feeling. Despite their radically reduced means, these works are miles away from the minimalism and conceptualism beginning to take hold of the artworld of the day. They are romantic and naturalistic, almost to the point of embarrassing the viewer with illusions of cloud formations or morning mist. If abstraction is implicit in the atmospheric impressionism of Monet, the opposite holds for Mr. Olitski.
This article first appeared in the New York Sun, July 17, 2003print