After a slow start to the new year, the New York art scene suddenly picked up last week. The big show — that, in actual size, is quite small — that finally got critics raving was Tibor de Nagy’s 60th anniversary exhibition, "Painters & Poets." I recently got to see it, and while the enthusiasm probably stems from the era it evokes, and the lack of other new shows, it’s still worth a trip.
The show’s dedicated to the New York School of painters and poets — John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Fairfield Porter, Red Grooms — who gave a distinctly American, urbane feel to an art world that was still living off the legacy of European expats. The Abstract Expressionists that made New York the epicenter of the art world after the Second World War, let’s face it, were basically one-off European modernists.
But when American-born, Harvard-educated poets like John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch came to New York, they began making art that was worldly but also decidedly autochtonous. When painters began tagging along — thanks in large part to Frank O’Hara, who was a curator at the MoMA — interesting things started to happen.
You can’t say this without looking over your shoulder, of course, since poets like Ashbery were and remain deeply indebted to European Surrealists. But one look at the Tibor de Nagy show and you quickly sense the extreme localism. This is America’s art, and it’s fantastic. Sarah Palin would love it.
Let’s be specific, though, and talk for a minute about what makes it feel American. If there’s one connective theme running throughout the show it’s a daffy, comic sensibility. I mean that literally, as in Looney Tunes. Ashbery in particular frequently references the Sunday funnies, and I remember a recent interview I did with him (he’s still alive, at 88, and teaching even at NYU) where he spoke at length about a signed cartoon he had hanging on his wall (I forget by whom).
In the de Nagy show, paintings with ebullient, bulbous figures pop up throughout. You see comics referenced most directly in the aborted comic book collaboration Ashbery tried to do with the artist Joe Brainard. And there are glimpses of it in a few of the exhibit’s show stoppers — namely, ones by Larry Rivers.
Who — by the way — was Jewish. Rivers was born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg, in the Bronx, New York in 1923 to Samuel and Sonya Grossberg. After serving in the Army, he moved back to Manhattan to study jazz at Jiulliard, where he became friends with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. The de Nagy exhibit has a few videos with wonderous jazz scores (mostly Ellington), evoking midcentury Manhattan, but it’s really by the 1960s that you see Rivers’ real talent — his painting — take over.
His portrait of Frank O’Hara, more of a collage, really, is the show’s gem, its highlight. Large washes of green and cream white paint slash across the canvas, partly eliding O’Hara’s sketched-in head. There’s a superficial serenity, a solemnity to the painting, until you look closer. Beneath thin white layers of paint the comic strip quiddity comes through: there Rivers scribbles the barely legible lines "Arf!" "OUCH!" and, my favorite, "cheap thrills are still a thrill!"
Rivers’s most famous Jewish work is not in the show, but you can see parts of it at The Jewish Museum where (I believe) it’s on permanent display. In the mid-1980s, The Jewish Museum commissioned Rivers to make a piece inspired by Jewish history. The result was "History of Matzah: The Story of the Jews," a 40-foot long mural encompassing the great sweep of Jewish history. I’ve never seen the work in full, but from the bits I have seen, it’s nothing special. Commissioned works with too specific a mission tend to fall flat, comprised by all the comprises you must make. "History of Matzah" is no different.
But the trademark comic strip mentality is still there. In Rivers’ de Nagy paintings, moreover, you can almost anticipate the Pop Art movement coming around the corner (it’s worth noting that Andy Warhol considered Rivers a big influence), to say nothing of Philip Guston, born Philip Goldstein, whose own comic paintings a decade later are some of the most mordantly funny paintings around.
Of course, there is a Jewish fascination with comics, from the well-known DC Comics history to the outcast, lovable losers of Harvey Pekar. Many of these Jewish artists share not only an indelible feeling of outsiderness, rooted in their Jewishness, but also a tragic sense. They have the existentialist’s absurd view of the world, but don’t bother hanging their head in despair. Instead, they take a deep hard look at the human comedy that’s around them, forget about putting up a fight, and instead let out a deep, bellowing laugh.
Comic Art: (l to r) Larry Rivers, Philip Guston and Red Grooms (bottom)
(P.S. Art fans: if you’re looking for an even funnier show, which I have not been to, but hope to soon, check out the New Museum’s just-opened George Condo show. There’s more than a bit of comic strip humor in his own painting too.)
(…And George Condo!)