A show of abstract thought

Paintings: Mitchell Gallery exhibit features a diverse and colorful range of styles.

Howard Live

March 21, 2002|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At the Mitchell Gallery, they don't believe in falling into ruts.

In January and February, art lovers came to the intimate museum on the campus of St. John's College to view the elegant, meticulously crafted handiwork of James McNeill Whistler.

Now, through April 20, the gallery is playing host to 21 works of modern art in an exhibit titled The New York School and Beyond.

Abstract expressionism is the name of the game, and as one views the brash, hyperkinetic slabs of color pushed and pulled onto the canvas by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Hans Hoffman and the rest, the restrained harmony of Whistler seems far off, indeed.

"That diversity of styles exemplifies what this museum is all about," says Mitchell Gallery director Hydee Schaller.

Technically, the paintings, which are all taken from the Arts Enterprise Limited Collection, a privately owned collection of 800 works by modern American artists, represent multiple styles. Most are studies in texture, as colorful blobs of paint practically jump off the surfaces in the spirit of the iconoclasts who prodded their pigments across the canvas with such elan half a century ago.

Some abstract expressionists favored flat surfaces and understated hues, as did Jules Olitski, the Russian-born American painter and sculptor whose Mushroom Perfume (1962) is so atmospheric in its use of color that even I, no great fan of the avant-garde, can appreciate it.

To my eye, the 21 works coalesce into three levels of intelligibility.

Most affecting are the paintings that seem to be angling toward a particular image or mood.

Leonard Nelson's Untitled #17 contains in the way of shapes, but its turbulent, yet clear and crisp melange of whites, blacks and blues suggests a wintry mixture of sun and ice. It's a stunner.

Also striking is Robert Goodenough's Boat Figures, a set of cutout-style bodies placed on a white boat and surrounded by a sea of reds, blues and brilliant yellow.

A second group I found fun to look at, though clearly, the artists and I weren't connecting emotionally. An untitled work by Joan Mitchell, for example, contains handsome blotches of reds, rusts and golds, but when the written commentary suggested that the work was inspired by a natural landscape, all I could do was scratch my head.

Finally, there are the pieces that leave one wondering why they're hanging on a museum wall in the first place. Jim Dine's red axe handle and Sam Francis' all-white canvas bordered by nothing but a square of uneventful colors may wind up confirming one's negative stereotype of the modernist impulse.

But most of the exhibit, I daresay, will not.

On Wednesday, art educator Lucinda Edinberg will lead a lunchtime tour of the exhibit from 12:15 p.m. to 12:45 p.m. She will offer a gallery tour April 14 at 3 p.m. On April 2 at 4 p.m., Annapolis artist Cassandra Kabler will give a gallery talk titled "The New York School: Inside/Out."

Information: 410-626-2556. All events are free and open to the public. Registration is suggested.

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