Plattsburgh Art MuseumHugo Weber

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Notes on Artists and Friends:
The New York School of Action Painting

Alternatively titled Artists and Friends:
The Collection of an Early See-er

In the glare of attention paid so lavishly to the multimillion dollar collections of Armand Hammer and Victor and Sally Ganz, it is often forgotten that the art world has long found its most sustaining infusions of life blood in the form of love, support and, sometimes, rent money, offered to the later-to-be-famous when they were still struggling. One such collector, sustainer, and friend of artists—especially of what is now called the New York School of Action Painters—was Al Lazar, whose participation in and contribution to the early days of that era, the late 1940s and early 1950s, we celebrate in this exhibit.

Al Lazar, who in 1949 was visiting New York frequently on business, was introduced to Charles Egan by a friend on one of those trips. It was something of an historic occasion, for, from it flowed all the friendships that we see documented in the present show. Egan was then offering the public its first New York Gallery showing of the paintings of Willem deKooning. None sold.

Although he had had a lifelong interest in literature and music, Lazar had never until that time been particularly interested in painting. Asked what led him to hang out with the deKoonings (both Bill and his wife Elaine had become friends), along with Franz Kline and a Swiss painter named Hugo Weber and others in the old Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village and in the various studio lofts in which he visited them “at work,” Al Lazar is likely to shrug and give a somewhat cryptic answer: "I wanted to know more about painters, and about the so-called ‘modern’ in art." Or, he might say, "I wanted to know what an artist is.” Evidently the quality of his interest sparked their interest in return, for the next dozen years saw Lazar become a familiar figure, a friend and a "regular" in the circle. Elaine was to do two oil portraits of him before their paths diverged; another friend, the painter Cora Ward—one of whose paintings is represented in this show—was to take a photograph (also on display here) of Al in typically laconic/intense conversation with Hugo Weber and, here and there, now and then—when it would help pay that rent buy those dinners and that booze at the Cedar and/or new canvasses—Lazar would buy a picture. He bought the first deKooning Egan sold—after the show failed to generate another sale. Over the next fifteen years he bought many more.

Most of those paintings are no longer in Lazar's possession, but we have blowups of early art books by Thomas Hess to illustrate their quality.

Another of the friends in the circle from its beginnings was Aaron Siskind, whose work as a photographer also caught Lazar's interest—and this at a time when photography was not yet considered a "real" art form. He believed so strongly in Siskind's work as a real art form that Lazar sold one of his early deKooning's to finance Siskind's first book of photographs. At about the same time, another photographer, Harry Callahan—now, like Siskind, justly famous—became a friend of the circle. It is his photograph of Hugo Weber in his studio we see in the present exhibit. Asked by Lazar what prompted the photograph, Callahan replied with his usual self-irony, "I don’t know. He was just standing there like a dummy, so I shot his picture."

As you roam around the show, becoming acquainted with the work of the Painters of the action “School”— such as Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, Jimmy Guy, Arshile Gorky and Hugo Weber along with the work of Siskind and Callahan, the kindred spirit photographers who also belonged to the group—we hope you will experience the thrill of an era revisited and receive fresh pleasure in the act of looking through the eye of an early see-er.

The Plattsburgh Art Museum, State University of New York is exhibiting the works of abstract expressionist painter Hugo Weber. Concentration will be on Weber’s Love Series and works by Arshile Gorky, Jack Tworkov and Milton Resnick.

Speaking of Weber Jack Kerouac said, “Somebody told Hugo that he was too intelligent to be a painter. He is actually one of the last of the Faustian men studying paint. He is probably Etruscan. Hugo Weber, Who looks like a submarine commander for Karl Doenitz, Is actually a sleeping young author dreaming in paint, But Excellently...If works had power, I’d praise him for himself, But also his paintings speak.”

This largely abstract miscellany demonstrates again the vitality of the New York art scene in the post war period. The excitement over the breakthroughs of the representational barrier in the works emanating from the studios of Jackson Pollock, Willem deKooning and Franz Kline energized artists everywhere, but particularly those who were living and working in New York at that time. “Jackson broke the ice,” as deKooning put it. A whole new movement called Abstract Expressionism was launched, and the artists and works represented in this show were a vibrant part of it.

The variety of artistic media on display—not just oil on canvas and oil on paper, but acrylic on wood, pastels and ink, pen and ink—is an intrinsic part of the abstraction of form from content around which the whole movement revolved.

Hugo Weber lived at 797 Greenwich St. when he died in 1971 at the age of 53; The New York Times described him as “a painter long recognized as a member of the avant-garde.” Born in Basal, Switzerland, he began studying painting at the University of Basal and continued to study in Paris, with Maillot, and knew Giacometti and Brancusi. He taught at the Institute of Design in Chicago and is represented in the permanent collection of the Chicago Art Institute. A showing of his abstract paintings at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York in 1954 was praised by the Times critics for its “vitality and an incessant search for fresh pictorial ideas.” His work was described as “an art of pure self-expression, reflecting nothing in terms of subject matter, which would guarantee nothing were it not that he is a virtuoso with the brush and that his color sense is delicately exuberant.” He lived and worked for many years in a loft-studio building containing a number of artists on Greenwich Street in the Village. Although he was mainly a painter, the Times noted, “Mr. Weber had also done sculpture, including a bronze portrait of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the architect.” The ten pencil sketches of van der Rohe in the present exhibit may have been preparations for that portrait. A film he made in 1954, which showed him in the act of painting, was explained by Weber, according to the Times, as an effort “to show its developmental aspect and the spontaneity of the artist’s continuous search for symbolic meaning.” The delicately exuberant color sense and that search for symbolic meaning are both strikingly evident in Weber’s 50 studies for lithographs that are featured in the present show.

As Weber’s sketches show and as the figures in the Arshile Gorky drawing on exhibit here confirm, not all the work of these abstract artists was without human form. Somebody once said to deKooning “It is impossible to paint a face” and he is said to have replied “That’s right. And it is impossible not to.” Non- human representations crept in from time to time as well as witnessed in Weber’s variations on the French negative “Non.” The point is they all become symbolic forms of the artist’s own expression.

Arshile Gorky, who did much of his work abroad, and whose death by suicide in 1948 makes him something of an anomaly here, was nevertheless very much a presence on the abstract scene as his prominence in Thomas Hess’s book, Abstract Painting (Viking, 1951) attests. His real name was Wostanig Adoyan; he was born in Armenia, about 1904 (the date is uncertain) and he is a somewhat controversial as well as legendary figure. Hess quotes a sculptor friend of his as saying “his whole biography was a splendid source for improvisation which could be garnished with poetry and anecdote—much of it borrowed quite openly from books he was reading.” Hess goes on to say of his work, “As in deKooning, and as in so much contemporary American painting, the lines of abstract, Expressionist, and fantastic art join, so that geometry can bloom like a flower… Gorky went from abstract forms—perceived in the manifold idioms of Parisian styles—to intricate, human, and universalized statements.” The simile immediately brings to Hess’s mind another artist, as well as the very work, represented here.

Jack Tworkov, says Hess, does paintings which in many respects resemble those of deKooning and Gorky. He “finds his point of departure in the experience of nature, and from there, proceeds to abstraction.” Hess goes on to tell of Tworkov’s birth in Poland, his arrival in America in 1913, and his schooling, which took him through high school in New York and a brief attendance at Columbia University. His art, however, like Gorky’s was mainly self-taught, and Hess traces it “through a steady development parallel to the international abstract styles” from a “rather bland realist technique, through Cubism...to his present, tightly controlled and personal extension of Expressionism.” Hess tells us that the painting on exhibit here, “Flowering White,” was begun on a summer day in 1949 while standing in front of the subject. “The knitted, hooking curves of black, sometimes describing colored areas, sometimes slicing through them, are reminiscent of deKooning’s calligraphy (the New York studios of the two painters abut)...however, Tworkov has found he need not sacrifice style—his individual manner of supervising technique. At any point the conscious artist can intervene between the picture and sensation; no matter how violently a patch of white will wheel and explode, Tworkov is there, with swift armatures and softly adjusted dark values, to control the structure.” It would be hard to find a better description of the picture or its technique than that.

Milton Resnick was another of the artists working in New York in the abstract mode and a look at the oil on paper offering in the present show will demonstrate his links to deKooning. However, he has made his own mark sufficiently to have had many shows, the latest just this past December in the Robert Miller Gallery in New York.

Other artists in the present show of Jimmy Guy, whose three-dimensional piece is executed in acrylic on wood; Dan Rice (who, incidentally, functions as executor of Franz Kline’s estate) is represented by an abstract oil on paper, and Cora Ward, whose work here is oil on canvas.

Aaron Siskind, who died several years ago, was born in New York City in 1903. The presence in this exhibit of photographs by Siskind, though he is recognized as one of the masters of American photography, may seem another anomaly, but the connection will soon become clear. What follows is drawn from David Featherstone’s Preface to Siskind’s Road Trip (Friends of Photography, 1989.) “Siskind’s first serious work in the medium, in the early 1930’s, was done in the traditional documentary style...[But] in the early 1940’s...he made a complete break working in the abstract style for which he is well known today. This aesthetic transition was not made in isolation, however. Siskind was an active member of the group of Abstract Expressionist artists who transformed American art; among his friends and associates were Willem deKooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko...Carl Chiarenza described Siskind’s involvement. “He was part of a band...A will to form, staunch individualism, underdogism, poverty and a passion for freedom and for New York City were their bonds...These artists were controversial, changing, growing, and all were vocal. As a man—as a friend—Siskind shared in this new direction of American art.” In this context, it makes perfect sense to include him in the present show.

Dr. Janet Groth

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