Portico New York, Inc.

ART; More Fuel for the Debate on Abstraction

Published: February 18, 1996

IT could be a "Jeopardy" question: what was "Art of Tomorrow" in the 1930's and "Art of This Century" in the 1940's but now is "Art of Today"? The answer is abstraction, first as it was billed by Hilla Rebay, guide to the collector Solomon Guggenheim, then as his niece, Peggy, labeled it and her gallery in Manhattan and as it is presented at the Castle Gallery at the College of New Rochelle here.

None of the terms define abstraction, but each conveys the spirit in which it was coined. While the originators of the flight from representation seem to outnumber the inventors of the automobile, Kandinsky generally gets the credit with a small composition circa 1912. Still, this does not make the task of charting its course any easier.

Though its title is three words longer, "Champions of Modernism: The Art of Tomorrow/The Art of Today" is but a footnote to the current Guggenheim survey "Abstraction in the 20th Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline." Nevertheless, the purpose of the curators, Steven Lowy and Dominick Lombardi, is relatively modest, being on the one hand to spotlight Rebay as the missionary of nonobjective art and on the other to emphasize the connection between its pioneers and those at work today.

That Mr. Lowy and Mr. Lombardi do not exactly fill this tall order is in part because Rebay's image resists rehabilitation. But mostly it is a matter of a show that begins with early abstractionists, including Kandinsky, Rebay herself and her other protege, Rudolf Bauer, then, without so much as a nod to Abstract Expressionism moves directly to 15 contemporaries, all presumed Americans. Besides, a discussion of nonobjective art that does not take into account its mystical underpinnings is at best incomplete.

When Kandinsky made his breakthrough, the intellectual atmosphere was thick with Theosophy, a doctrine that the historian Peter Gay said "provided relief from what many sensitive spirits found to be the unbearable tedium and invincible vulgarity of commercial culture." Kandinsky was a Theosophist, and it is possible that, as his proselytizer, Rebay was, too. There is no doubt that when she came to the United States from Germany in 1927, it was as an elitist.

Mr. Lowy says in his introduction that her mission was to convert the savages of the New World to nonobjective art. Jimmy Ernst, a witness, goes further. In his 1984 memoir, this second-generation Surrealist said that the "self-proclaimed protectoress of Uncle Solomon's collection" was "something of an ogre and an embarrassment to the Guggenheim family firmament" who did all she could to sabotage Peggy's gallery on the grounds that it would "propagate mediocrity if not trash." Rebay's paintings, which date from the early 1940's, tell a different story. Both are harmonious arrangements of lines recalling the whiplash motif in art nouveau and shapes that are rounded but not quite biomorphic, all in muted colors easy on the eye. Their only flaw is a tinge of amateurism, which is not surprising in someone who devoted so much energy to advancing the cause of abstraction and championing the paintings of Rudolf Bauer.

Posterity has condemned Rebay for this mistake, perhaps unfairly, since what struck most critics as sweetened, neatened Kandinskys inspire in Mr. Lowy not only admiration but also a desire to take another look at this contentious time. (Revisionists, like gold miners, do not give up easily.)

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Jean Xceron speak for Cubist-inspired Abstraction, the first with a photo-montage, the second with a geometric composition in earthy tones. And then come the contemporaries, headed by the sculptor Alice Aycock, who lives up to Mr. Lombardi's billing as "engineer of the eccentric" with one of her Cuisinart-style contraptions. Moses Hoskins nudges along the tradition of collage that was established by Kurt Schwitters with two aptly named "Books of Debris," and Richard Pettibone pays tribute to Brancusi by reducing the sculptor's "Endless Column" to a candlestand carved out of maple. Meanwhile, Joan Waltemarth celebrates Peter Halley with a long, red canvas notched at the edges by black-and-yellow rectangles and titled "Why I Don't Like to Paint Like Peter Halley."

Daniel Villeneuve and Stephen Mueller acknowledge the age of biomorphism, the first with a tall image composed of overlapping disks in different colors, the second with a buxom yellow cloud floating in blue-and-green space along with a curving ribbon of red. Two drab-colored studies involving patterns composed of dots represent Ross Bleckner, while three paintings, one of which consists of shapes like tubas, plus a Madame Recamier-style chaise longue in mahogany, speak for Gary Stephan. With these and other objects, the exhibition comes to rest in the post-Modernist era, which, oddly enough, the curators do not mention in their essays.

In short, instead of clarifying anything, the show increases the complexity. Nevertheless, it has the virtue of implying three tricky questions. How come nonobjective art is still largely anathema to the general public? How will it be billed at the time of its centenary? And has it run its course anyway?

The closing date is March 29. The number to call for information is 654-5423.


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