"The New York Armory, ‘The Real Avante Guarde,’ New New Painters Exhibition, 69th Regimental Armory , New York U.S.A."

by Ed McCormick

The name of the exhibition, which was advertised everywhere, including on the classical  music station that we listen to, was what initially intrigued us: ”New New Painters.”  It sounded desperate and hokey, as though someone was trying to ascend in one audacious leap to the top of the hype-heap that has dominated the contemporary art scene like an abominable dung hill for several seasons now.  And we were further dismayed to learn that the unfortunate name denotes an ongoing movement, because, as we soon found out when curiosity compelled us to visit the exhibition, most of the artists involved are far too good to be stuck with so silly a label.  (That the term was actually coined by two of the painters, Graham Peacock and John Gittins, “partly as a parody of the annual art world announcements of a ‘new’ painting, which, then turned out to offer little that is really new,” only proves that when it comes to communicating their intentions to the public, artists are often self defeating.)

Obviously the show’s curator Kenworth W. Moffett, a former Professor of Art History at Wellsley College and ex Curator of Contemporary Art at the Boston Museum, as well as the author of books on artists as diverse as Kenneth Noland and Odd Nerdrum, had high hopes for the exhibition.  He staged it at the 69th Regiment Armory, on 26th Street and Lexington Avenue- the site of the original Armory Show of 1913, which introduced “Modern Art” to New York - and stated in the catalog that he intended “to expand cultural horizons” just like that historical hallmark of the avant garde did.

The show consisted of over one hundred and thirty paintings by an international group of thirteen painters:  Lucy Baker, Bram Bogart, Steven Brent, Eduardo de Rosa, Joseph Drapell, John Gittins, Roy Lerner, Anne Low, Marjorie Minkin, Irene Neal, Graham Peacock, Bruce Piermarini, and Jerald Webster.

Anyone familiar with any of those names will realize right away that there is nothing radically new about the  “New New Painters”- at least not in the over-hyped, flash-in-the-pan contemporary sense of the term.  Most of them descend-very honorably, one might add - from the tradition of Jules Olitski and his cohorts in the Color Field movement of the mid fifties and late sixties, as well as from the “materialism” of slightly younger painters like Larry Poons.

That said, this was one of the most spectacular and vital major surveys of mainly abstract painting (with a few anomalously figurative exceptions) to be seen anywhere in a very long time.

Much of the razzle dazzle part of it is technical, to be sure.  Almost all of these artists are partial to acrylics and acrylics gels, the technology of which has flourished in recent years.  They employ fluorescent, pearlescent, iridescent and metallic colors, as well as “glitter paint” for peculiarly vibrant, light-reflecting effects.  Some of them even use something called “hologram paint” (although we’re still not clear exactly what that consists of).  Others build up thick, stone-like textures on their surfaces with pumice paint.  One artist, Steven Brent, disperses and suspends mirrored pigments in transparent gel to create colored layers that, as he puts it, “reflect though other layers, creating totally new colors.”

Granted all this could sound tricky, but the proof, as they say, is in the painting.  And, special effects aside, there were some very powerful paintings in this show, among them monumental slabs of colored matter by the veteran European painter Bram Bogart that by virtue of their sheer massiveness bring the art of painting firmly into the arena of sculpture; large works in acrylic gel medium on canvas by Roy Lerner that appear to impart physical substance to pure light while building impressively on the Color Field innovations of the aforementioned Olitski; mural-scale canvases by Lucy Baker combining fluorescent hues with glass, marbles, glitter- and even a smashed windshield- in swirling compositions (some with figurative elements) that mate the energy of Jackson Pollock to the excessiveness of Julien Schnabel (sometimes you have to take the bad with the good!); Graham Peacock’s  irregularly shaped shards of marbleized color that gleam like gigantic jewels; and Marjorie Minkin’s sensual shaped works in acrylic on molded lexan, resembling huge see-through female torsos with viscerally glistening multicolored inner organs…

For sheer showmanship, as well as for the overall obvious commitment of the artists involved, “New New Painters” was an exhibition to put all the recent museum surveys of contemporary abstraction to shame.  Whether or not one agrees with curator Moffett’s Greenbergian belief in “pure painting,” it was clear that this show was a serious venture worthy of much more attention than it seemed to be generating on the day that we visited the Armory.  In fact, the cavernous halls in which the huge paintings were hung had the eerie, empty silence of an elephant’s graveyard.

No doubt, in 1913, when the original Armory Show was hanging in the same space, it had been thronged with spectators eager to be outraged by the novel new sideshow of Modern Art.  But on this day, in a much more jaded era that demands more prurient and grisly forms of outrage, the only visitors evident, beside ourselves, were the artists.  They were all mature people, and when you read their lengthy resumes in the exhibition catalog, it became clear that they had track records to match their seniority, with exhibitions in prestigious contemporary galleries worldwide.  But they weren’t really “New New” - not in the way that people in the art world use the word today.  Which is to say:  their art was not all about shock-value or novelty and they themselves didn’t look like marketable personalities with a long shelf-life.  They didn’t look like they had just graduated from art school or like they would look good in one of the glossy non-art magazines where young, up-and-coming, photogenic artists increasingly appear in fashion spreads and other non-art contexts.  What they actually looked, almost to a man or a woman, was depressed to discover that a widely advertised exhibition of paintings by a group of painters with a sincere and deep commitment to a shared aesthetic was not a sufficiently “sexy” draw to assure them an audience.

Such is the shame, the pity, and the plight of the serious artist today.  All the same, serious artists and dedicated curators and gallerists persevere, regardless of the fact that the art business is rife with insufferable egomaniacs and unprincipled profiteers.  So, for that matter, is the medical profession, the clergy, the entertainment industry, and every other enterprise one can name.  Those dedicated to making and exhibiting good art persevere because theirs is still one of the nobler callings.  Art, after, is the crowning jewel of civilization.  Today’s murky cultural climate only serves to make it a challenge more worth meeting.

Ed McCormick, October 2000