EXHIBITIONS; Between war and peace
A new show in London highlights the class of '45, and includes unknown work by some of the greats of Abstract Expressionism
is of 75 paintings and sculptures made within that year. It's still wide- ranging. Weary and ragged the artists may have been, but their post-war art suggest the great possibilities of a new world order.
In a nice gesture of co-operation, the exhibition is shared with the Galerie Denise Rene in Paris and the Galerie Hans Mayer in Dusseldorf. Annely Juda (a German refugee who came to Britain in 1937) contributes a moving note on her wartime experiences and pays tribute to her fellow dealers: "For me, peace and work with my colleagues is all important." And what a lot of work "1945" must have demanded. Here are some very rare works of art, from America as well as Europe. Indeed, three or four of the Abstract Expressionist paintings seem never to have been previously exhibited or reproduced.
First among them is an untitled painting by Mark Rothko (unfortunately reversed in the catalogue). For Rothko, 1945 was a year of experiment in watercolour. This picture is remarkably unlike his late surrealist doodles on paper. Though delicate, it is painterly. A dozen and more blocks and panels of colour are pushed and scrubbed in an atmosphere of benign contemplation. Like all Rothko's best paintings, this is a relaxed canvas. He had troubles enough in his life, but I wonder whether his art was as well equipped for tragedy as he believed. I'm interested in the painting's light. It looks almost as though it were painted before a landscape. Certainly it's unlike the pictures made beneath the bizarre studio lighting that marred Rothko's art in his later years.
Another atmospheric American painting is the work that Hans Hofmann very deliberately titled Misterious Approach. It belongs to the period when he was painting his "free creations", loosely derived from landscape and executed on board. Some of these paintings were nearly violent, for Hofmann's abstraction had an eye for nature at her most lurid. Mist is not lurid and neither is Misterious Approach. Yet it's highly energetic. The board support encouraged physicality. Hofmann's "free forms", as he called them, are almost slapped down. A lesser, or less adventurous artist might have tidied up this picture. Hofmann let it be and galloped off to his next pictorial appointment.
Hofmann's painting - like the Rothko it is unpublished, so I'm glad to show both of them on this page - helps understanding of Abstract Expressionism in its breakthrough phase, for this occurred around 1945. It also assists us to feel for Jackson Pollock. Pollock was usually wary of Hofmann, but he paid attention to him in this year and may have seen his splattered mist. If so, it would have lightened the burden that abstraction had apparently placed on his shoulders. Also at the Juda Gallery is Pollock's Moon Vessel, one of his first paintings to have been dripped and poured. None the less it has a slow, even turgid rhythm, no doubt eloquent of the artist's personal turmoil. Hofmann's picture is by contrast instantaneous. It points towards the great drip paintings, balletic and ethereal, that Pollock was soon to make in the years of his greatness.
Another rarity is concerned with speed. Barnett Newman's large brush and ink drawing is one of a number he made so rapidly that he thought they would reveal unconscious symbols. Most of this series was destroyed. The present sheet is a good one. I fancy that it is concerned with Orpheus, god of artists, the underworld and song. The Abstract Expressionist section is completed by one of Adolph Gottlieb's "pictographs", David Smith's fine sculpture Woman Music and his painting Four Musicians, Budapest String Quartet. This cannot fail to be interesting but it's unpleasant. Smith was a great artist. But it's a mystery why he had so little feeling for painting or drawing. We feel that he found two-dimensional art repugnant, yet kept on doing it out of some distant respect.
Abstract Expressionism has to be prominent in "1945" but two beautiful contributions come from Milton Avery, the most French of American artists. The hang of the show, suggestive rather than programmatic, puts Avery not far away from a Braque lithograph. I suspect that lithography influenced Avery's dry, elegant colour sense, but of course one cannot explore such matters in an exhibition like "1945". The works on the walls have been brought together by Mrs Juda and her colleagues with admirable sensitivity and expertise, but they do not venture into art history. Every work in the show is illustrated in the catalogue, but this valuable document is bare of biographies, critical discussion or any account of the art-politics of 50 years ago.
Why is this? Partly because the Juda Gallery never puts on polemical shows, partly because 1945 was a year of general relief and many personal reunions. Intellectual battles came a little later. So the tone of the show is unprogrammatic. The old masters of modern art were back in place, wearied but as yet unchallenged. I'm thinking of artists such as Picasso, Braque and Leger, Magritte too, who all contribute pieces of admirable dignity. The Leger is especially beautiful. From the German side, there's an excellent little painting by Willi Baumeister and interesting work by Max Bill, Max Beckmann and Ernst Wilhelm Nay. One of the revelations is a nude by Vladimir Tatlin.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the British artists make a rather muted appearance. They are Prunella Clough, Lucian Freud, Barbara Hepworth, Josef Herman, Ivon Hitchens and Henry Moore. Herman and Freud were of course refugees. Herman's landscape is lyrically glum. Freud's picture is one of his fanatical miniatures. Of course this is an incomplete account of British art after the war, but the very fact that it is incomplete symbolises the state of art 50 years ago. Artists were scattered all over the place, were limping home, were taking up their brushes again after military service and very often did not know of each others' existence. In 1945 there wasn't an art scene, except perhaps in distant Cornwall. The growth of the British art community in the post-war years was remarkable, but that's a different story.
! Annely Juda, 23 Dering St, W1 (0171 629 7578), to 16 Sept.
! CORRECTION: a number of errors crept into my report from Tokyo last week. I especially regret calling a Caro sculpture 'daft'. I wrote, and meant, 'deft'. Apologies to Sir Anthony and 'Independent on Sunday' readers.
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