Friday, March 27, 2009

Review: "Better Than Ever: Women Figurative Artists of the '70's SoHo Co-ops."

The artists Dotty Attie, Nancy Beal, Temma Bell, Marcia Clark, Daria Dorosh, Sharyn Finnegan, Janet Fish, Susan Grabel, Nancy Grilikhes, Barbara Grossman, Marjorie Kramer, Marion Lerner Levine,

 Tomar Levine

Cynthia Mailman, Juanita McNeely, Frances Siegel, Sylvia Sleigh, Shaw Stuart, and Selina Trieff make up the show “Better Than Ever: Women Figurative Artists of the 70's SoHo Co-op’s.”  The show was curated by Sharyn Finnegan.  Just concluding it’s run at The Long Island University’s Salena Gallery, it will go on, subsequently, to The Dishman Art Museum, Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas, from April 3-22, and The Rowan University Art Gallery, Glassboro, New Jersey, from September 1-October 2, 2009.

This is a show that had deep personal meaning for me, since many of the artists it includes were known to me when I first met artists.  I didn’t know every one of them closely, but this was my scene.  I’m talking about painters who painted, without delving into video, new age materials, or conceptual art.  They were painterly realists; they made representational paintings, expressive, usually without donning the mantel of expressionism.  At its best, the work was traditional and natural.

The present survey praises the women for having done much to create a scene in which they stood an even chance of showing, and promoting their own careers.  Though these downtown figurative galleries also included men, the point is that the equal representation they attained through these cooperative endeavors was a way to address the inequality of the male dominated art world of the 70’s. Time, and time again, in the show’s catalogue, the women recognized, appreciatively, the nurturing supportiveness they received from their peers and their public.  They are here honored during Women’s History Month.  

Curatorially, each artist is represented by one early piece, from the 70’s, when the galleries started, and one more recent piece.  This creates some sense of the artists’ maturation in both style and age.  I would like to discuss every piece in this show, but, unfortunately, must limit myself.  Every artist in this show deserves our attention. 

Nancy Beal’s “Late View, 2007, a mid size oil, gives us a feast of delicious, subtly colorful brushwork.  At first glance reminiscent of Jane Freilicher’s work, this piece nevertheless asserts its own personality on closer inspection.  Within this view of a garden with trees in the middle distance, and a range of low-lying hills beyond, there’s hardly a spot where the succulent leavings of Ms. Beal’s loaded brush don’t thrill the senses.  Only one among the many breathtaking offerings on this surface is a vertically oriented rectangle in the lower right, about a foot in height, if memory serves.  It’s a deceptively blank, flat area; seemingly “thrown away.”  Its color, of a green denoting an expanse of the lawn, shows little variation till the eye moves to the lower edge of the canvas.  There, a very slight coarsening of the brushwork, accompanied by a restrained color change, produce the correct, believable resolution change to establish the space.

Janet Fish, easily one of the more masterful artists painting today in any genre, shows an impressively handled, large world in her tabletop still lifes.  Looking from her earlier to her later pictures here is particularly interesting.  They seem to be just the same sort of picture, yet, closer inspection yields a definite dissimilarity between the two.  The earlier picture contains a consistently applied dark accent, which works, correctly and forcefully, to define all things depicted.  But in the later picture, Ice Cream Sundae, 2004, that hard-nosed, defining accent has disappeared, yielding a consistently more harmonious rendering.  Breathtaking is the complete control the painter shows as she evokes every volume, casts every shadow, dissolves every firm surface into translucency, and claims the dominion of every passage over a given pocket of space.

I once heard Marjorie Kramer, one of the artists I did know personally in the 70’s, say that she was very struck by the realization that the rapturous gestures she saw people enact when seeing a baby were also represented in the renaissance nativities she knew.  About this, she said, “I used to think those pictures were about religion.”  Well, Marjorie contemplated the thought at least long enough to express her feeling about her own birthing and child nurturing through the creation of her own altar piece, with a peak on the top.  This is her 70’s picture, in which she breast feeds her daughter, Raloon, in the interior of her home.  The very free and expressive blonde baby girl’s hair, and her engorged, nursing mother’s breasts, translucently showing a network of blue veins under the skin, are very real details.  Her 2008 self portrait shows her holding a photo of Hillary Clinton, and it's titled simply, “Thanks for Running, Hillary.”  It is a much simpler picture than her altarpiece, reducing the background plane behind her torso to a very simply handled wall where a picture hangs.  In it, she uses a “weightless,” light palette.  Her face features the intense, blue eyed gaze I remember.  The cadenza in this painting is her sensuously handled silver grey hair, very liberally brushed, for which she shows a strong feeling.

Marion Lerner Levine’s 70’s still life has the technical weakness I remember from the past.  Her use of the color red seemed always the same: overly saturated, and lacking the flexibility necessary to convey turning forms and refraction of light.  But, thankfully, the “then and now” format of the show comes to the rescue, for “Constellations,” 1998-2001, a quite deftly handled watercolor, shows the great intelligence this artist gained later.  Through her use of the reds, in particular, her progress may be gauged.  She applies her vision quite evenly throughout the entire composition to render a collection of delicate, personal objects, demonstrative of her fine sensibility.  The entire image is radiant with fine textures and rich color.

As I said earlier, this show encompasses the work of many worthy artists, and I would write about every one if it were possible.  I only hope that many will see the incarnations of the show set to appear at the Dishman Art Museum and the Rowan University Art Gallery in April and September, respectively.  Those that do will find much sincere expression and invention in these works.


  1. wonderful clear review of this historical (herstorical?)exhibit. thank you