Friday, June 6th, 2008

Nicolas Carone: Recent Paintings

Washburn Gallery
20 W 57th Street
New York City. 212 397 6780
April 24 to June 13, 2008

Nicolas Carone Not to be Touched 2006, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 75 inches. Cover, JUNE 2008: In Orbit 2007, acrylic on canvas, 84 x 60 inches Courtesy Washburn Gallery
Nicolas Carone Not to be Touched 2006, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 75 inches. Courtesy Washburn Gallery

A visitor to Nicolas Carone’s show  may feel momentary confusion over whether this is a typical Washburn Gallery exhibition featuring some master of Abstract Expressionism as in previous shows like the prints of Jackson Pollock or the work of Leon Polk Smith. A quick glance at the labels, however, reveals that these big paintings date from 2006- 08.

But actually, the visitor’s first impression was not so wrong.  These works, by a skilled and energetic 90 year old, recall that Carone was a fully-fledged participant in the 1950s scene, was a friend and neighbor of Jackson Pollock’s and exhibited successfully (notably at the legendary Stable Gallery), if intermittently, during that time.

Though Carone has always enjoyed professional respect among his peers, his work has long been difficult to see. He had long been a popular teacher of drawing at the New York Studio School where he was also a bit of an enigma.

An enigma, because though the classroom corrections and thumbnails were obviously practiced and masterful, and his knowledge and passion for painting and drawing were undeniable, curious students (full disclosure- I was one! ) saw only small but intriguing tidbits of his work.

Things have changed recently, as Carone has been very productive and showing frequently, notably at Lohin Geduld and David Findlay Jr. In fact, due to his vigorous rate of production, the show is overhung, the huge paintings triumphantly covering into every available wallspace, an evident surplus of work.

The paintings resemble the sort of automatic abstractions Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning practiced in the 1940s, such as the latter’s “Attic” (1949), in which the beautiful shapes suggest fragmentary glimpses of the figure. In Carone, too, an underlying classicism combines with a freewheeling painterly cubism.

In fact, this show approaches orthodox Abstract Expressionism more than is normal for Carone and perhaps the splattery free use of acrylic, the black mixed to resemble glossy household enamels, is intended as an hommage to de Kooning’s work of the mid 1940s.  In the austere paintings “In Orbit” (2007) and “Psychic Blackout” (2007-08) the forms are closely cropped within the rectangle, the looping muscular lines standing out as white on a black field.

Even closer to de Kooning are “Over the Threshhold” (2007) and “Not to Be Touched” (2006), with black lines on white, the largeness of the cropped forms reading more abstractly, with negative and positive shapes trading priority, and erasures and drippings emphasizing process and physicality.This “automatic writing” approach also resembles the methods of bebop jazz:, Gershwin’s “I Got Rythm,” for instance, is stripped of the cues that make the tune recognizable to point up the pure abstract musicality.

The large “Lost Tribe” and “Shadow Dance” both from 2007 seem to resemble groups of dancing figures in the classical style of Ingres, the ‘legs’ lost in the cascades of black drips against the white background. On extended viewing, surprisingly precise glimpses figure parts appear, jostling negative shapes in the elegantly free calligraphies derived from his lifelong practice of life drawing in the context of the classical tradition.In other recent shows by Carone, there were a number of works on paper incorporating subtle pencil and red chalk notations that make this connection even more personal and explicit.

This classicism seems to be particularly natural baseline for Nicholas Carone, encouraged as it was by the cultured Italian American family he was born into.  Local artists, writers and musicians were constant visitors to his childhood home, encouraged by his extraordinary mother, who also enrolled him at the Da Vinci art school on Eighth Street in the village and allowed him to quit school at 14 to pursue an artistic career.  During World War II he studied at the Hans Hoffman School, a seminal experience, and after the end of the war lived in Italy (where he still maintains a residence) where in the postwar period he astonished the Italians with their first glimpse of the American Abstract- Expressionist style.

This American treasure, born June 4, 1917, continues to astonish us today.