The pickings are pretty slim. And of course while it’s clear that having to organize an exhibition such as A New Look from works a museum already owns can’t be much fun for curators in the first place, it also doesn’t help that 1) the Art Gallery of Ontario doesn’t own very much good abstract stuff from the 1960s and 1970s, nor does it help that 2), it doesn’t seem very greatly interested in what it does have on hand. I don’t recall when I’ve seen such a lacklustre installation at the AGO.
“All of the artists on display – Frank Stella, Jack Bush, Gene Davis, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Campbell Lochead and Kenneth Clifton Noland – were exhibited, at the AGO,” the gallery wall-essay tells us, “in a groundbreaking show curated by the influential American art critic Clement Greenberg in 1964 entitled Post-Painterly Abstraction.” Maybe the stuff looked better then. Maybe it simply featured better works by these same artists.
Because there’s far too much second-rate stuff here right now. Second rate and worse. There are two Kenneth Nolands. One is insufferably cute (Harvest, 1961) while the other, one of his chevron paintings (C, 1964) – in this one the chevrons are “pointing” to the right – now seems far less fresh than it may have seemed during its moment in the sun in the mid-1960s (formal asperity needs a lot more rigour than Noland could provide if it’s going to transcend the buffeting, boom-and-bust aesthetic benedictions or withdrawals visited upon a work in the course of time’s passing).
The inclusion of Helen Frankenthaler’s billowing, watery-grey Chalk Separates also feels like nothing to be very proud of. It’s absorbing to ponder now the ways in which a gigantic essay in supposedly fervid sensitivity such as this one (all that Asian-derived ink-wash delicacy now blown up, in clouds of diluted acrylic, into an earnest overcast-ness) can be diminished, in couple of decades, into a big dollop of banality.
The three Jack Bushs – which is three too many if you ask me – are so mediocre it’s hard to understand the holy hush that followed him around for awhile. On a Green Ground (1960) is passable (it’s clean, it’s solid, a little on the obvious and therefore dull side), while the later April Blue (1970) is a wryly wonky composition, barely rescued by some offbeat colour choices. The Family from 1959 (it’s clearly a dysfunctional family), however, is completely awful. Not only is it one of the worst Bushs I’ve ever seen, but it’s one of the worst abstract paintings I’ve ever encountered anywhere. Good thing Greenburg walked into Bush’s life when he did.
If this sad, limping exhibition can be looked upon as redeemable at all, it would be Morris Louis, Gene Davis and Frank Stella who’d be doing the redeeming. Frankly, I was surprised by how crackling sharp and alive Davis’s Black Panther seemed (1970); it’s like a bristling, panoramic barcode, its thin, vertical black stripes humming like hydro wires on a wet night. Morris Louis’s limply pastoral (indeed bedroomy) Delta Tan (1960) still pleases in purely compositional – and sentimental – terms (I was always a sucker for the “Unfurleds”), while his much smaller, stricter and more decisive ML-I98 (1962) still holds its own quite strongly.
For me, the great painting here – it’s really worth the trip to the show – is Frank Stella’s impeccably devised and authoritatively accomplished Ossipee II from 1965. The gallery used to hang it a lot, but I haven’t seen it now for years and it’s a pleasurable shock to encounter it again. Ossipee II is one of Stella’s most restrained shaped canvases – following hard upon his famous, reputation-making pinstripe works. I like everything about it: its cunning shape (fresh and inventive and yet as familiar, somehow, as a store’s awning), its wonderfully down-at-the heels, hospital-corridor colours: light yellow, beige, front-porch-green, industrial grey. I like the way the wide bandings of colour follow and reinforce the picture’s shape. I like how obvious, how inevitable the work feels. How solid it is. How profoundly, immovably there.
A NEW LOOK: 1960s AND 70s ABSTRACT PAINTING. Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto). December 19, 2015 – March 27, 2016.