Art: Story of Painting in 3 Installments
Featuring What It Was, Its Compromise andů
By John Canaday
Visiting three new gallery shows this week - the very conservative Wyethesque water-colors of Philip Jamison at the Hirschl & Adler Galleries, 21 East 67th Street, the extremely proficient water-colors on the safe side of abstraction by Albert Christ-Janer at Krasner's, 1061 Madison Avenue at 80th Street, and some things by Ronald Mallory involving mercury and chemicals and plastic and electric motors at the Stable Gallery, 33 East 74th Street - visiting these shows, of which my favorite was the last named, I wished that they could have been dovetailed into a single gallery. They would have made and excellent educational exhibition that could have been called "What Painting Used to be All about, How It Compromised With Fate Recently, and Where It Has Disappeared To." It is really extraordinary that these three artists, representing at least three or arguably six generations of esthetic revolution, are all alive and exhibiting at the same time.
Mr. Jamison paints landscapes and homely interiors of the kind inhabited in Bucks County, Pa., by people who can afford to maintain themselves in the simple manner to which the original settlers were accustomed, plus central heating and private helicopters. He is an absolutely assured technician. You are never certain whether you should admire first the lovely honesty of his subject matter or the consummate skill with which he renders it. But the number of red dots on the picture frames indicates that most people have solved the dilemma by purchasing one of these combinations of technical expertise and high-class folksiness.
Mr. Christ-Janer belongs to the generation that decided, with such good reason, that figurative painting was washed up. (His own decision is a recent one, arrived at since his last year's exhibition.) He believes that the painter's job is to concentrate on the abstractions of form and color that (the argument goes) are the heart of painting anyway. Nature is still somewhat recalled in his deft compositions - if not the actual look of nature, then the forces of nature, such as gravity that makes paint run downward and osmosis that can make it run upward.
Mr. Christ-Janer shares with Mr. Jamison, however, this fascination with what paint will do just as paint. Mr. Jamison is always disguising his fascination, but anyone can see that much of the joy he takes in his painting, and much of the observer's pleasure, too comes from the artist's ability to make his brush do just what he wants it to. The revealed textures of paper, the controlled yet always emphasized wateriness of the water-color - these are pure joys to him. But at the same time, the quick touch of the brush that is pure painting must also be, he insists, a part of the literal description of an object. This is not, but should be, known as the Siamese Twin Esthetic.
Mr. Christ-Janer has successfully separated the twins and has thrown away the descriptive one. As a result, he has been free to indulge in one hell of a good time with his brush, manipulating the pigment in whatever way he wants and holding, of course, to the principle that this is really more difficult to do than to use descriptive reference as a crutch. Whether or not he is right, is what people have been arguing about ever since abstract art was born.
But Mr. Mallory has taken, as it were, a look at Mr. Christ-Janer's exercises and has decided that since the action of pigment, and its nondescriptive forms, are the essence of art, then there is no use in painting at all, and one should go directly to sources instead of dealing with half-measures. And so he has caged a certain amount of mercury between two planes of transparent plastic, has introduced an obstruction or two, has added some other chemical liquid to flow into and around and about the mercury, and has mounted the whole thing on a motor that revolves very slowly to create flow, and has let the patterns take care of themselves.
They are fascinating stuff, these patterns, and are the complete answer to a question, purely rhetorical, that Mr. Mallory asks: "When I've got this, why should I paint?"
Although the proposition is reduced to unfairly simple terms with these three shows as examples, there is no rebuttal to Mr. Mallory's question. The situation comes down to this: descriptive realism is hopelessly outmoded, even though it may be performed with infinite skill and taste today (Jamison). Abstraction with its insistence upon the purities of form and color is only a compromise, painting's last gasp (Christ-Janer). Mr. Mallory's return to form as something determined by natural forces (with, of course, a slight collaboration from the artist) is a return to a basic realism that completes the circle. Nothing is much realer than mercury or the laws of dynamics that determine its flow. And when you can have basic realism and total abstraction at the same time, you've got something.
Therein a Ph.D. thesis lies.