The '40s: decisive time for American art

The first thing seen as one gets off the elevator at the Whitney Museum's exhibition here, "Decade of Transition: 1940-1950," are Andrew Wyeth's "Winter Fields" and Morris Graves's "Bird in the Spirit."

Both paintings are not only excellent in their own right but also obviously were chosen to establish just the right introductory note for this handsome and timely exhibition. It was designed to remind us that the decade of the 1940s was not the exclusive bailiwick of abstract expressionism -- a great deal more of what was good and lasting was also being produced at the same time.

It was a decisive decade for American art. At its beginning, Thomas Hart Benton was still America's best-known painter. By the end of World War II, the American art scene had begun to change dramatically. Art schools were filling up with returning servicemen, galleries were showing increasingly innovative work. By 1948 it was becoming quite obvious that an entirely new phase of American art was about to begin.

During this decade one could still find a true diversity of styles among the American paintings, sculpture, and prints in the galleries (something no longer trude during most of the following two decades). These ranged from the representational works of artists like Benton, Burchfield, Shahn, and Wyeth; the more private and interior images of such painters as Dove, Graves, Murch, and Tobey; the modified surrealist pictures of Seligmann, Tanguy, and Tcheletchew; to the works of the emerging abstract expressionists. It also extended to sculptors like Calder and Smith, and to any number of rugged individualists who followed no set path.

It was a lively time, with many false starts and many real beginnings. It marked the beginning of this country's emergence into worldwide artistic prominence, and also the end of many longstanding careers in art. I remember the period well, and found, by and large, that this show does it justice -- even though some well-known artists (Curry, Wood, Guston, the Soyers, etc.) have been left out. But their exclusion was probably due to the fact that the Whitney had no works of theirs of that decade, and this exhibition is drawn entirely from the Whitney's collections. It was not intended to be a comprehensive survey of those years. It will remain on view through July 12. Honore Sharrer

An artist who made quite a name for herself in the 1940s and 1950s for relatively small, precisely detailed, and fastidiously executed paintings of working people is having an exhibition of both older and more recent works at the Forum Gallery here.

Honore Sharrer has not been heard from a great deal lately. Why has seen fit to keep herself out of the public eye -- her last show in New York was in 1969 -- I'll never know. She is without doubt one of the most delightful figurative painters around. Not only does she draw beautifully and elegantly, she also has a nice sense of color, and a deliciously naughty and full-of-life point of view. If it is true, as some insist, that one can tell the quality of an artist by how well he or she draws hands and feet, well then, Honore Sharrer is a very good artist indeed. Austria's expressionism

Another outstanding exhibition, this time detailing some of the more important and intriguing nooks and crannies of Austrian expressionism, is at the Galerie St. Etienne here.

It is one of the most extensive showings of this art ever attempted in this country, and includes oils, watercolors, and drawings from over two dozen museums and private collections in Austria and the United States. Among these are works by Oskar Kokoschka, (including his famous "Two Nudes (Dancing Couple)" , and "London, Tower Bridge"), Gustav Klimt, Alfred Kubin, and Egon Schiele, together with some excellent paintings by such earlier and lesser-known Austrians as Ferdinand Georg Walmuller, Rudolf von Alt, and Hans Makart.

Of particular interest are a number of paintings and drawings by Richard Gerstl, generally regarded as a major American expressionist, but rarely exhibited abroad because so few of his works are in existence.

Gerstl was born in 1883. By the first years of this century he was producing works of such passionate intensity and originality that he could find no one to exhibit them. Although such a painting as "Grinzing" owes something to Van Gogh in its perspective and directness, its color and brushwork, are totally his own. In "Portrait of the Arnold Schonberg Family" (ca. 1908), his violently personal expressionistic style resulted in a work whose subjects are barely discernible from within the painting's swirling slashes and daubs of thick, rich paint.

But his creative life was short lived. Despondent over a love affair, Gerstl committed suicide at the age of 25. His work, virtually forgotten after his death, was rediscovered 23 years later in a warehouse, and now hangs, highly regarded, in Vienna's major museums.

As is usual in any exhibition of 20th-century Austrian art, it is Egon Schiele who either steals the show, or comes close to it. This exhibition is no exception, with three oils and eight watercolor drawings that present this artist, if not at his very best, then certainly close to it. I found the watercolors, especially "Girl with Blond Hair," quite enchanting.(This valuable show at the Galerie St. Etienne will close May 30.)

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