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Two Exhibits Tied to Tradition

Chicago Tribune: Sunday 3rd December 1972
Jane Addams Allen & Derek Guthrie were the art correspondents for the Chicago Tribune for nearly two years. It was only when one of their articles was pulled from the galleys that Jane suggested they publish themselves and start the New Art Examiner in 1974. Their thirst for freedom of speech is our inheritance.

Girl at Sewing Machine

The return is realism, frequently cited, carries the moral overtones of runaway children returning to the family fold after a disastrous summer on the road. Along with the Russians, countless conservative academics and anti-modernist critics and painters have been predicting the collapse of abstraction as a decadent fad for the last 50 years or so. As a result, “realism” has become a very loaded word. It suggests, among others, such wide-ranging features as feet-on-the-ground, common sense; a return to humanism; and the re-establishment of good craftsmanship. These solid bourgeois virtues, so often decried by the elitist avant-garde, are willy-nilly brought out and brushed up every time a realist, new or old, goes on view in the galleries.
As a result it is often overlooked that there are three quite different strains of realism currently being practised in America, each with its own locale and heritage. Two of these are closely tied to art events of the last decade. We refer here to the romantic West Coast realism which dramatises the beauties of nature with slightly sinister ecological overtones – William Allen and Joseph Raffael come to mind – and in the urban intellectual “sharp focus” or “photo” realism – Richard Estes, Duane Hanson, Chuck Close Malcolm Morley – which is definitely post-pop in its picture postcard, advertising sources.
The third strain of realism is one which has been a consistent force on the American scene since the late 19th century. Unlike other American movements, the realist tradition that one can trace from Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer, thru Edward Hopper and Charles Sheeler, to such current realists as Fairfield Porter and Philip Pearlstein never completely lost its following, even among artists and critics who are anti-realist in their outlook. In the most avant-garde glossies, periodic articles on Sheila, Hopper, and Eakins were trotted out with frequency during the 1950s and 1960s. These artists contention with the realities of their time, their strong powers of concentration and reduction, their relationship with the photographic medium prevented their painting and graphic work from acquiring the dated look of the American Impressionists, the Ashcan school, and the early American abstractionists.
Two exhibitions currently on view in this area suggests the continuity and strength of this tradition. The most important of the two is clearly the show of paintings, drawings, and prints from the Hopper bequest to the Whitney Museum of American Art which opened November 17 in the Milwaukee Art Centre and will continue thru December 17.
The Hoppers left their entire artistic estate to the Whitney – an estate which was, in the words of John I Baur, director of the museum, “probably the most important bequest of an American artist work to a museum.” The collection contains more than 2000 oils, watercolours, drawings, and prints, ranging from Hoppers student days to his later years.
Hopper gets his strength from a direct confrontation with the world as he finds it. His paintings exude a rare confidence in what the eye sees as a meaningful pictorial statement. As a result his paintings can be clearly pinned down in their locale and date.

Edward Hopper

Within the East Coast environment, however, no aspect was alien to him. He painted movie theatre interiors, rural gas stations, city offices, old country houses, and suburban bedrooms with the same attention and respect. Best known for his paintings of old New England, some of his finest works are cityscapes. “Early Sunday Morning” and “The Nighthawks” are examples.
Although lonely and often isolated, Hopper’s paintings are always peopled with human feelings. Building façades, empty chairs take on an almost anthropomorphic impress of the people who were recently there. His subject is not nature but the environment built and inhabited by his fellows.
The second exhibition – paintings by George Bentley Nick at the Gray Gallery 620 N. Michigan Ave., thru next Sunday – is strikingly akin to certain aspects of Hoppers work. Nick has concentrated on the façades of New England houses and the configuration of New England streets, painting them with the sharp distinctions between light and shade, the attention to architectural detail, and the sunlit effect that Hopper favoured. One is reminded of Hoppers often repeated quote, “maybe I am not very human. What I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.”
The statement, in fact, seems much more applicable to Nick’s painting than to Hopper’s. While the contemporary painter thrives on man-made painted surfaces, his efforts to represent nature are painfully uneven. Trees, shrubbery, grass, any of that green stuff, tends to cause a complete breakdown in his paint surface and accuracy of colour. Perhaps he should avoid excursions into the country until he finds an antidote to his allergy. People fare little better.
Nick’s real forte lies in his ability to resolve an urban jungle (as in “small East Coast City on a Summers Day”) into a totally coherent pictorial composition. He is able to peer down and across streets, up and across complicated buildings, façades, taking the viewers on a visual guided tour and bringing them back without a single spatial misstep.

House by the Railroad

It is his handling of colour which allows him to do this. He pitches it with unnerving accuracy within a high keyed range. Inside an overall harsh brightness which gives Kodachrome a run for its money, it is full of subtle touches.
Comparing Nick’s work to Hopper’s, one feels keenly that much has been lost. The art climate of the 1960s has pushed latter-day realist into a fake objectivity which owes as much to magazine colour photography as it does to philosophical position. The contention with all aspects of society has gone too. No one would speculate about the kind of people who live inside Nick’s houses. Their function as habitats is irrelevant. Finally Nick’s painting suffers from occasional total lapses of sensitivity to place, material, and subject matter. Perhaps he has not placed a high enough value on his own eye.

Jane Addams Allen and Derek Guthrie

Volume 34 no.2 November/December 2019 pp 10-11

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