Sunday, February 1st, 2004

Rosemarie Beck: Paintings 1965 – 2001

New York Studio School
8 West 8th Street, New York
Tel. 212.673.6466

Rosemarie Beck Antigone Before Creon 1991 oil on linen, 60 x 52 inches Courtesy the Estate of Rosemarie Beck
Rosemarie Beck Antigone Before Creon 1991 oil on linen, 60 x 52 inches Courtesy the Estate of Rosemarie Beck

Rosemarie Beck died in New York in July, 2003. This posthumous exhibition is the final stop on a tour that originated at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, in 2002. It is her first in Manhattan in fifteen years. Since the closing of the Ingber Gallery in 1989, Beck’s work has been difficult to find. She seems to have made little effort to exhibit outside the academic circuit. Gratitude is due the Studio School for hosting this original and long overdue show.

Beck’s early history as a painter is askance of today’s norm, with its emphasis on university art departments. A graduate of Oberlin college with a B.A. in art history, Beck’s formal training was idiosyncratic. Her primary shaping influences were life-drawing sessions at the Art Students’ League and commentaries from Robert Motherwell, in whose studio she worked as a young mother and fledgling painter. Add to this friendship with Philip Guston and Bradley Walker Tomlin, her neighbors in Woodstock. It was an auspicious, liberating beginning,

I fell in love with her painting when I first saw it. Such beautiful crystalline color! That hearty, confident brush stroke that never fussed, never second-guessed or sweetened itself. She drew with the brush, putting paint down and leaving it there, as if in celebration of William Morris Hunt’s dictum: “Draw firm and be jolly!” She worked her way around her forms with vibrant, delicately modulated color notes–a lesson learned from Cezanne. Her dynamic, buttery touch was a conscious bow to the shimmering abstractions of Philip Guston in the 50’s. Ultimately, it became a signature mark that brought a dancing, syncopated quality to her surfaces that continues to enchant.

Rosemarie Beck Studio with Lovers 1965-66 oil on linen, 50 x 60 inches
Rosemarie Beck, Studio with Lovers 1965-66 oil on linen, 50 x 60 inches

Seeing her paintings again, after a long lapse of years, my first response was precisely what it had been when I was a young painter. In sheer physical terms, her work is as ravishing as ever. On other levels, I find myself-quite to my own surprise-ambivalent. Yes, of course, you can go home again. But when you get there, things are different.

Her many references to other paintings distracted me this time. Sorting out the quotations became a task in itself that siphoned attention away from what the paintings achieve on their own. Artifice ought to be transparent, directing focus away from itself in order to emphasize a larger purpose. But many of Beck’s referents seemed less like aids to invention than substitutes for it. For example, which dead Christ-we have a choice-provided the model for “Eurydice Mourned,” (1971)? A Christ figure with female breasts leaves the impression of a chunk of art history swallowed whole, undigested. And what are we to make of that discreet loincloth on a female whose breasts are left exposed? Models have to be chosen carefully to avoid a clash of meaning and tone between the antecedent and its inheritor.

Beck used classical subjects as pretexts for the act of painting. She employed ancient narratives in much the same way a composer makes use of musical staves. Each serves primarily as a support for notation, musical in one, painterly in the other. My favorite painting in this exhibition is “Antigone Before Creon,” (1991). The lively tempo of paint marks, tonal subtleties, and faceted white dresses played against brooding blue-greens and blue-blacks of the middle distance are deeply satisfying. But satisfaction on the retina exists in inverse proportion to satisfaction with the theme. The painting gives little hint of the gravity of its own subject.

Rosemarie Beck Euyridice Mourned 1971 oil on linen, 50 x 60 inches
Rosemarie Beck, Euyridice Mourned 1971 oil on linen, 50 x 60 inches

The story of Antigone is one of the great founding myths of Western culture. Our own faith in “inalienable rights” is rooted in the Sophoclean understanding of transcendent standards of justice to which the state is accountable. What we believe about the dignity of the human person finds expression in the tale of Antigone.The profundity and civilizing grace of the myth is not easy to convey pictorially. Certainly not for modern painters who inhabit a cultural moment unmoored from the deepest currents of its own history. The temptation is to turn ancient myth into a simple narrative (most commonly, of individual rebellion) or costume drama. Beck’s classical references are ornamental, all flourish and arabesque. HerĀ dramatis personae are as radiant and cheerfully colored as guests at a mid-summer garden party. Not quite the troupe to evoke a tragic sense.

In a certain respect, Beck’s small free-wheeling gouaches are the most successful pieces in the show. I particularly liked the pastel-toned ones, in which line and color join in free, fluid movement. These are brief cantatas of great charm. At heart, Beck was a musician, not a tragedian. And charm occupies a world apart from tragedy.

In the 50’s and 60’s, when figuration was on the defensive, Beck’s painting was rightly considered gutsy, against the prevailing rush to abstraction. But those days are past. Now, we can look at the work without reference to a looming polemic. Viewed without that external enhancement, Beck’s figures seem less vital than they once did. The finest figure on display is her own self-portrait. She depicts herself as a physically imposing, even imperious, presence. There is a veracity and power here that is lacking in other, psychologically thinner, figures. In her own mirror was a fine model for Creon, if she had wanted it.