Somewhere in Clement Greenberg's last book, "Homemade Aesthetics," the famous critic and champion of abstract art remarked that while the very best modern American painting of his era was certainly abstract, the next best painting was figurative and representational.
Greenberg was at pains to avoid the implication that abstract art was in principle "better" than other kinds of art: It was just that in New York in the 1950s and early 1960s, the very best art happened to be abstract. That did not alter the fact that figurative painting could be very good - much better, indeed, than second-rate abstract art, which Greenberg thought was about as bad as you could get.
FOR THE RECORD - An article in Tuesday's Today section incorrectly identified the sale of works by late Baltimore artist Reuben Kramer as an auction. The sale will be held at the Kramer House, 121 Mosher St., from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.
The Sun regrets the error.
A couple of local shows seem to bear out the idea that the era produced many artists whose works remain touching and true despite their traditional style.
Lionel S. Reiss, whose watercolors, etchings and oil paintings are on view in the Gallery Unicorn at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church, was a successful commercial artist in New York and Hollywood before dedicating his talent to a poignant portrait of Eastern European Jewish life produced on the eve of the Holocaust.
Reiss' family immigrated to America from Poland at the turn of the century. He became a commercial artist in the 1920s and eventually went to Hollywood to work for MGM (where he is said to have created the company's famous lion logo) and as art director for Paramount Pictures. His 1933 etching of scientist Albert Einstein is now in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery.
Reiss also made several trips to Eastern Europe in the interwar years, during one of which he witnessed an early speech by Hitler on the "the Jewish Problem." Prompted by a sense of foreboding, he began to devote himself to recording the everyday life of Jewish communities in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, documenting his observations in sketch pads and on canvas.
Like the Russian-born physician-photographer Roman Vishniac, who began compiling his own photographic record of Eastern European Jewry around the same time, Reiss' goal was to produce a comprehensive, detailed pictorial record of a way of life that would soon cease to exist.
In "Gates to the Lublin Ghetto," for example, Reiss depicts the bustling activity at the entrance to the city's Jewish quarter framed by a massive stone arch and the silhouettes of buildings. His delicate etching of this colossal structure has a spectral quality that evokes both the grim architecture of a prison and the fearsome portal of Dante's "Inferno."
Reiss, who died in 1988 at the age of 94, published three books of artwork on the subject, beginning with "My Models Were Jews," which appeared in 1938. His last book, "A World at Twilight," documented Eastern Europe's Jews just before the Holocaust, with a text by Isaac Bashevis Singer.
The Gallery Unicorn show features about a dozen of Reiss' Eastern European pictures as well as two dozen of his early pictures of New York City and its people. This show is interesting on many levels, not the least of which is Reiss' sure command of traditional techniques of realistic drawing and painting. It's a reminder that powerful works were created by American artists of the era who were wholly outside the modernist camp.
Gallery Unicorn is in Towson Unitarian Universalist Church, 1710 Dulaney Valley Road in Lutherville. The show runs through July 25. Hours are by appointment: Call 410-377-5747.
Auction to benefit MICA
At the Maryland Institute, College of Art, sculptures and drawings by the late Baltimore artist Reuben Kramer are to be auctioned Saturday to raise money to maintain the studio he bequeathed to the school as a residence for visiting artists and scholars.
Kramer, who died in 1999 at the age of 89, was a MICA graduate and a prolific artist who produced many public sculptures.
Kramer developed a unique style that combined realistic treatment of his subject with vigorous expressive modeling and an occasionally playful sense of humor. His works are part of the permanent collections of the Walters Art Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum and MICA.
The auction will be held at MICA's Kramer House at 121 Mosher St. 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.Call 410-225-2245.
Curator bound for Denver
Adam Lerner, the young curator of the Contemporary Museum, has left to accept a post with the Denver Art Museum in Colorado.
Lerner, who recently received his doctorate in political science from the Johns Hopkins University (with a dissertation on public monument sculpture), will help interpret and install the Denver museum's modern and contemporary art collections in a new $65 million facility scheduled to open in 2005.
Lerner came to the Contemporary in December 1998. His duties there will be covered by museum director Gary Sangster and by education director Leslie Shaffer until a replacement is named.
BMA to catalog African art