Monday, December 1st, 2008

Max Weber: Paintings from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s at Gerald Peters Gallery

November 13 to December 19, 2008
24 East 78th Street, between Madison and Fifth avenues
New York City, 212-628-9760

Max Weber Sign Carriers 1938. Oil on canvas, 13-1/4 x 17-1/8 inches.
Max Weber Sign Carriers 1938. Oil on canvas, 13-1/4 x 17-1/8 inches © 2008 Estate of Max Weber, courtesy of Gerald Peters Gallery

Think of the first stirrings of American modernism, and certain images leap to mind: John Marin’s flamboyantly fractured skyscrapers, or Marsden Hartley’s obtuse, mystical landscapes. If Max Weber (1881-1961) has not worn quite as well, it is not for lack of an impressive resumé. In 1905-09, he was in the very thick of things as a young painter in Paris. He fell in with Gertrude Stein’s circle, helped organize Matisse’s school, and introduced Henri Rousseau to Picasso. By 1912, back in the States, he was producing the America’s first truly cubist paintings. He was the first American modernist to be granted a museum show (at the Newark Museum in 1913), as well as the first to be awarded a retrospective at MOMA (1930). As is the case with any groundbreaking artist, his work at first offended conservative critics, while inspiring his colleagues. He was appointed director of the Society of Independent Artists in 1918, and in the late 30s served as national chairman of the American Artists’ Congress.

Currently on view at Gerald Peters is a selection of more than 40 paintings and works on paper from the Weber estate. The exhibition concentrates not on his early, inventive forays into Cubism, Fauvism and Futurism, but on the lyrical work from his last three decades that secured his widespread popularity. These still lifes, landscapes and figure paintings show the artist having settled into his mature style, with arabesques of spry, tripping lines set upon multi-hued backgrounds. Many express sentiments about working class struggles, family life, and his Jewish heritage. Cézanne may have been artist’s greatest influence, but the paintings more often suggest Picasso, once-removed (or, with their draped, veiled colors and knots of details, a cubist version of the younger painter Arshile Gorky.) Overall, the selection makes a good case for Weber’s steadfastness, knowledge and capability as a painter, but also confirms that his most intense inventions date from earlier decades.

Woman Holding Tablet (1946) Leaning Woman 1949.  Oil on board, 8-3/4 x 6-1/2 inches. All images © 2008 Estate of Max Weber, courtesy of Gerald Peters Gallery.
Woman Holding Tablet (1946) Oil on board, 8-3/4 x 6-1/2 inches. All images © 2008 Estate of Max Weber, courtesy of Gerald Peters Gallery.

Woman Holding Tablet (1946) pleasingly and convincingly locates a seated figure within a geometric environment, with ochre tints and warm blacks set deftly against notes of bright coral and medium blue. The rather strenuous engineering of the pose and surroundings, however, give the impression of an exercise – a demonstration of the plastic re-creation of a generic event. Similarly, the tumbling, teetering characters of Acrobats (1946) evoke not so much freewheeling investigation as rote playfulness. In such paintings, Weber’s colorful, angular planes are adequate to forging a style and a sentiment, but don’t seem compelled by unique perceptions; by contrast, when a Picasso figure holds aloft a mirror, one feels the visual urgency of the suspended facet of a reflected world. (Weber’s lack of urgency becomes even more apparent as one comes repeatedly across Picasso-esque elements in various paintings: the face viewed simultaneously from two angles, the beak-like facial profiles, the musicians with tapering horns, the statuesque legs and uplifted, clenching hands.)

The exhibition nevertheless offers substantial rewards, especially among the smaller, simpler works like Farm House (1944). Here the nuances of notes of gray and warm red briskly convey the frontal density of a cottage perched at the end of a slightly rising road. Rabbi with Hat (1953) neatly animates a skeptical countenance, with a lively play between the horizontal arches of shoulders, chair back, eyebrows, and hat brim. Sign Carriers(1938), with its pulsating row of heads – each quickly but distinctly located by black outlines – has some of the glimmering intensity of Rouault. The sole charcoal drawing here, Pensive Woman (ca. 1940s), evocatively contrasts the broad, rounding forms of a head with the fragmented paintings hanging on a wall behind. And my personal favorite is the paintingLeaning Woman (1949), which is a mere six and a half inches wide, but delivers a weighty impression with subtle means: soft, ochre-ish forms expanding across the surface – and into space – their dimensions fixed by the agile notations of face and hands above and below; the supporting table beneath, secured by a single, glowing yellow; abrupt angles of red establishing the distant containment of a window. (Or is it a door? A cabinet? One needn’t know.) The formal tensions of Weber’s paintings don’t always live up to the dynamism implied by his style, but this small work evocatively conveys the alert restfulness of the figure – and the artist’s own extraordinary alertness to visual events.