Grumpy, Old Men at National Academy Museum

Had I not read about the show, this image wouldn't have enticed me to see the exhibition.

The NA chose to feature this portrait by Peter Heinemann…

Paintings by a group of grumpy, old men currently line the walls of the National Academy Museum. “See It Loud: Seven Post-War American Painters” features work that “grew out of abstract currents, but shifted toward representation.” The artists are: Leland Bell, Paul Georges, Peter Heinemann, Albert Kresch, Stanley Lewis, Paul Resika, and Neil Welliver.

The exhibition “seeks to restore a sense of historical balance to the understanding of the history of American art.” According to the curator, Bruce Weber, “[a]ll of the artists in this exhibition insisted on the significance of figuration and landscape painting, even when it seemed irretrievably out of fashion.” It’s an intriguing idea. Perhaps another show will give that theme the breadth and dimension it deserves.

“See It Loud” would have benefited from asserting a more modest intention. The works on view are all on loan from the Center for Figurative Painting in Manhattan. As a result, the scope of the exhibition is limited by its source.

We weren’t merely being glib in calling these grumpy, old men. What came through in reading the wall texts and viewing the art was an essential disquiet among the artists. The show includes men exclusively, and they all seemed to be shaking their fists; embattled by an art world captivated by abstraction.

While the artists of “See It Loud” may have nursed wounds, feeling their work unjustly ignored, they reveled in their outsider status as well. Leland Bell referred to himself as “contentious…an odd man out. And a pain in the ass.” Peter Heinemann said he “had a problem with people throughout my life because I’ve been so egotistical.” Welliver too, was “ [a] pugnacious individual…” Each nurtured a complaint with the world. Were they all just dissatisfied art world outsiders; out of vogue and resentful? Or, was there something else going on unique to their “post-war” experience?

Stanley Lewis battled the canvas itself. He literally scored and cut his drawings and paintings. He found it “amazingly hard to start [the] drawings. The first couple weeks are HELL.” Well, they look it. It’s as if a relentless physical assault on the page would produce the result he desired. His works look tortured into existence.

Struggle manifested on Paul Georges’ canvases as well. Not a single one of his paintings possessed the balance and visual ease of inevitability. His attempt to “reconcile the scale and freedom of Abstract Expressionist painting with the figurative content of the Old Masters” was clearly fought with every brush stroke.

“See It Loud” will most likely add value and cachet to the collection of the Center for Figurative Painting. So, the museum achieved that goal. While the abstract vs. representational theme was probably the most obvious way to package these artists as a group, for us it didn’t really hit the mark. Still, it got us thinking about aspects of the post-WWII experience among artists who didn’t fully embrace the instruction of Hans Hofmann or Josef Albers. We wondered, not just about the choice to paint the figure and landscape in the face of the abstract expressionist juggernaut, but, considering this crew, the essence of masculinity at this time in history.

Neil Welliver's paintings looked great. This jpeg doesn't reveal why. (It's the paint.)

Neil Welliver’s paintings looked great. This jpeg doesn’t prove it, you’d have to see them in person.

What surprised us

Of the seven on exhibition we’re most familiar with the landscapes of Neil Welliver. We’d never been fans. His colors don’t meld. No scumbling, no washes. He’d simply start at the upper left hand corner of the canvas and work his way down and across. Perhaps our expectation of the sublime made his work appear dutiful and cold. He never seemed to really care about the Maine landscape he depicted.

Sometimes not liking an artist’s work is reason enough for us to seek it out. It’s a chance to either congratulate ourselves, or challenge our prejudice. This time we got schooled. We had to admit that Welliver’s canvases looked amazing. That hard-edged, paint-by-numbers quality was trumped by an exquisitely lush feeling for the paint. He had commanded his stroke across immense picture planes with fluid consistency. His images shimmered as if the paint were still wet. He was the highlight this time out.

If you decide to visit “See It Loud: Seven Post-War American Painters” there isn’t much time, the exhibition closes on January 26.

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