Friday, July 1st, 2005

The Nathalie and Irving Forman Collection

The Nathalie and Irving Forman Collection

The Albright-Knox Art Gallery
1285 Elmwood Ave.
Buffalo, NY 14222

May 6 – July 3, 2005

installation shot of the Forman Collection exhibit at the Albright-Knox by the authors showing (from left) two paintings by Alan Ebnother, a diptych by John Meyer, and three paintings and a diptych by Roy Thurston

Carter Ratcliff , in his introductory essay to Michael Wall’s 1979 pioneering exhibition “In the Realm of the Monochrome”, characterized the act of painting a monochrome as an act of defiance. Equally defiant is Natalie and Irving Forman’s decision to largely limit their collection for over a decade to this realm. Although motivated first and foremost by their joint passion for such reductive works, we would argue that this collecting strategy, which flies in the face of Post-Modernism is both courageous and canny. The term canny, in this context, refers to their ability to see in monochromatic painting what some so-called expert critics often miss—a tutorial on learning how to see, where seeing is freed from the constraints of premature labeling and categorical thinking.

These works encourage, as perhaps no other type of abstract painting does, both a fine-tuning of the perceptual apparatus and a deeper penetration into the self as we learn how to be still. What these diverse works share in common is an opportunity for appreciating the complexity in the simplest of experiences. Indeed, this complexity begins with the fact that monochrome is a misnomer. Most of the paintings here are virtual monochromes. That is, despite offering the aura of a single color, as a perceptual gestalt, most of the paintings are built up of many layers of different colored paints. Such works may also evoke a kind of visual hunger that drives us to explore the potential complexity of a painting’s shape, surface, and materials, as well as making us more sensitive to the surrounding environment such as the walls or other paintings in close proximity. But all of this would be largely academic if it were not for one overriding impression—the Formans have given the Albright Knox Museum a high quality collection of reductive works of art.

Peter Tollens 218 1996-97 egg tempera and oil on wood, 33-1/2 x 31 inches Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY Gift of Natalie and Irving Forman, 2003

Unlike collectors who buy with their ears, the Formans bought with their educated eyes and cultivated taste. In many cases, the works selected from an artist were among his or her strongest works. Another admirable and unusual feature of their collection is that it has no geographic bias, possibly because the Formans started their collecting in Chicago and therefore looked to both coasts. But, for whatever reason, it is refreshing to see a collection of reductive painting and sculpture that draws as heavily from California as it does from New York, and as heavily from Europe as from New Mexico where they live.

The collection is far more than geographically diverse. The styles of painting represented also demonstrate the complexity within the realm of the monochrome. Rudolph de Crignis’smooth and impenetrable surface invites the viewer to strain to see the underpainting of yellow or green beneath. Joseph Marioni creates a dominant curtain of paint and pulls the curtain apart just enough for us to see the play of underlying colors that engage in a kind of dialogue with the dominant color. Marcia Hafif’s sensual brushstrokes combine to create blends of color that approximate the subtlety of skin color, evoking the fleshy eroticism of Fragonard. Phil Sims produces a dry, clay-like surface, like an Indian pueblo or a baked roof in an Italian countryside. Dieter Villinger and Peter Tollens offer us expressive surfaces that have an organic feeling — Villinger’s horizontal strokes are like the flow of lava; Tollens mottled surface is like raku pottery.

Rachel Lachowicz Untitled 1992-2003 lipstick on canvas, 26 x 20 inches Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY Gift of Natalie and Irving Forman, 2003

These paintings also mediate different relationships with the viewer—some paintings, like those of Joe Barnes, invite the viewer into the void while others offer surfaces as hard as the baked-on coating of an automobile. Roy Thurston, for example, often works within the light and space tradition of Los Angeles art, but offers a personal sensitivity often missing in this art. Thurston’s work appears cold at first, but ends up evoking a strong emotional response because his evocative surfaces interact with color and light. Although from Santa Fe, Florence Pierce’s radiant resin paintings have the feel of the “light and space” work circa 1965-1975 in California but are more contemplative (Untitled #346, 1999, resin on mirrored Plexiglas, 24” x 24”). Other examples, despite their seeming simplicity, have an aura of mystery. These include Alan Wayne’s brooding black painting, Alan Ebnother’s gestural, yet subtle variations on the theme of green, and John Meyer’s rich and exquisitely crafted egg tempera diptychs. And if this all seems very serious there is also a funky side to this collection. John Beech, for example, gives us sculptural objects made from wheels and bumpers, some paintings that rotate and others made with glue, Robert Tiemann creates a criss-crossed surface made of cotton twine, and Rachel Lachowicz paints a dazzling red monochrome with lipstick.

It is always tempting to suggest that a collection has left out artists who deserved to be included. It would not be difficult to list several artists who deserve to be included in a major survey of reductive monochromatic painting. However, this strikes us as somewhat unfair. This is a personal collection, not an attempt to be all-inclusive. Indeed, the Formans should be congratulated for their lack of predictability. This exhibition offered many surprises such as the catalogue’s cover image by Rodney Carswell, an early black painting by Doug Ohlson, and Mark Cole’s blue-black symphony of color. And so, the collection should be accepted for what it is, not what it might have been with a different set of collectors.

Florence Pierce Untitled #346 1999 resin on mirrored plexiglass, 24 x 24 inches  Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY Gift of Natalie and Irving Forman, 2003
Florence Pierce Untitled #346 1999 resin on mirrored plexiglass, 24 x 24 inches Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY Gift of Natalie and Irving Forman, 2003

Kudos to the Albright Knox at two levels.  First, it was an act of defiance for the museum to accept the gift of this currently unfashionable collection.  Second, the museum made some very good choices in the installation of the show.  Where possible, they showed several works by an artist so that one could appreciate the range of that artist’s work.  They also used a “less is more” philosophy, hanging only some of the works available.   So much of reductive art is intended to slow the viewer down and this has been made possible by the generous amount of space and light afforded to each work.  The grey suites of James Howell, for example,  greatly profit from this installation.    Indeed, the environment is such that an open-minded and patient viewer can appreciate both the complexity and beauty of these reductive works.  But be warned that this is not art for those seeking cheap visual thrills.

One beneficiary of the Formans’ persistent dedication to reductive painting and sculpture is theAlbright Knox Museum which arguably, thanks to this generous gift and promised gift of more than 160 paintings and sculptures and more than 200 works on paper, may have the most comprehensive collection of such art in this country.  But, the real beneficiaries are the viewers who have had a unique opportunity to see these works displayed together.  And for those unable to see the show, the comprehensive catalogue with an informative essay by Lilly Wei, will provide a useful map of this little traveled realm.