Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Caught in Hitler’s Web: Canadian Expressionists Oscar Cahén and Gershon Iskowitz

Oscar Cahén and Gershon Iskowitz:  Artists Caught in Hitler’s Web at Horton Gallery (Sunday L.E.S)

July 9-September 8, 2010
237 Eldridge Street, between Stanton and East Houston streets
New York City, 212) 253-0700

Oscar Cahén, Traumoeba, 1956. Oil on masonite, 36 x 48 inches.  Courtesy of Horton Gallery
Oscar Cahén, Traumoeba, 1956. Oil on masonite, 36 x 48 inches. Courtesy of Horton Gallery

As the title of this exhibition of Canadian mid-century painters Oscar Cahén and Gershon Iskowitz makes clear, Artists Caught in Hitler’s Web brings together two European-born artists who had been persecuted by the Third Reich. Gershon Iskowitzs’ work is deceptively benign. Cloud-like tufts of white, continent-shaped masses of solid mauve and red overlaid with uniform constellations of confetti-like dots of primary hue, dance across the surface of his paintings from the late 60’s onward. Oscar Cahén’s father, Fritz Mark was a diplomat who organized a formal opposition group and published a tract titled “Men Against Hitler”.  After an arrest in Czechoslovakia, Cahén traveled to England to escape persecution but was arrested as an illegal immigrant  and deported to Quebec as a prisoner of war.  During this internment, Cahén’s artistic dash was discovered by the art director of a Canadian news journal, The Standard which began using his illustrations alongside news stories. The public interest in his work led to his early release ,beginning a prolific career as both a painter and a commercial artist.

Gershon Iskowitzs’ path toward recognition as leader in the Canadian avant garde included the most harrowing of circumstances.  After his hometown of Kielce, Poland was destroyed by the Nazis, he was imprisoned in a labor camp only to be transferred to Auschwitz and then Buchenwald.  Reportedly, Iskowitz managed to maintain something of a drawing practice while imprisoned.  After the war, with family murdered and home destroyed, Iskowitz was sent to Munich where he eventually began a study of art.  After a brief stint at the Munich Art Academy Iskowitz took up a period of study with Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka.  In the brooding Late Summer Evening (1962), Iskowitz portrays a dense and moody field of low twinkling lights appearing from veils of sap green, umber and translucent ochre.  The modulation in the brushwork foreshadows Iskowitz’s later paintings.    Iskowitz took a ride in a helicopter in 1967 and became fascinated by the appearance of the Northern Canadian landscape as seen through the patchiness of clouds.  This partially obscured aerial view format crystallized and became the framework from which he continued to work. The largest painting here is Painting in Mauve (1972) which shows a behemoth mass of towering purple encroaching upon two miniscule slivers of silvery white flanking the central form.

Slabs and chunks of teal, scarlet, fuchsia and chartreuse epitomize a fifties palette and seem optimistic despite Oscar Cahén’s dark beginning as an artist.  Cahén’s Traumoeba (1956) epitomizes the Abstract Expressionist movement in Canada.  An amalgamation of action painting, free associative drawing and dense surface, This is a spectacular example of Cahén’s mature style.  There is a central form which dominates the painting, delineated in strong black lines.  Cahén’s painting titled Candy Tree (1952) is a symphonic totem in dusty pink and warm glowing tones.  The format echoes a figure, a totem and contains crystalline segments and prismatic forms reminiscent of a kind of prehistoric cactus.  According to the Cahén Archives Candy Tree was a breakout piece and was exhibited widely earning Cahén critical success.

Gershon Iskowitz, Painting in Mauve, 1972. Oil on canvas, 90 x 78  inches.  Courtesy of Horton Gallery
Gershon Iskowitz, Painting in Mauve, 1972. Oil on canvas, 90 x 78 inches. Courtesy of Horton Gallery

Cahén moved between aggression and playfulness in his paintings.  In Austin Healey 100 Engine (1954) a tangle of scrawled black lines moves across the painting like tire tracks.  The marks are painted on top of a complex abstract mound in simplified hues of red, blue and green.  Several mushroom-shaped forms are stacked awkwardly at the right of the painting.  In the obsessive black marks there is a feeling of nonsensical mapmaking or graphing. Iskkowitz is the quiet mystic in this show where Cahén stands out as outspoken and assertive.  Having survived horrific circumstances, Iskowitz committed his artistic practice to making paintings that are both melancholy and playful.  Cahén’s early political defiance carried with him in his brash abstractions until his untimely death in a car crash in 1956 at the age of 40.  The show provides a telling glimpse in an obscure but fascinating moment in mid-century contemporary art and reiterates the profound impact World War II made upon the lives of artists.

Oscar Cahén, Austin Healey 100 Engine, 1954. Oil on masonite, 36 x 48 inches.  Courtesy of Horton Gallery
Oscar Cahén, Candy Tree, 1952. Oil on masonite, 48-1/2 x 2-1/2 inches.  Courtesy of Horton Gallery
Gershon Iskowitz, Late Summer Evening, 1962. Oil on canvas, 45 x 50  inches.  Courtesy of Horton Gallery
Gershon Iskowitz, Blue Red D, 1980. Oil on canvas, 50 x 45  inches.  Courtesy of Horton Gallery