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Where have all the painterly painters gone?

By Theodore F. Wolff / December 21, 1982



New York

I wonder sometimes where all the good painters have gone. I mean those artists who let paint itself carry the main expressive burden, who can both control it and let it roar - and who don't see it merely as something used to cover large areas with flat color.

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I had thought, when the recent neo-Expressionist craze descended upon us, that lively painting was largely what it was all about, that regardless of what else it might lack, the movement would at least bring some fire and lightning back to art.

Well it has - to a degree. Passion has indeed returned to painting. The West Germans, the Italians, the French, and the British have given back to paint much of its identity. And there are certainly enough younger Americans who have established glittering reputations with huge canvases piled high with thick, multicolored pigment.

But if passion has returned, painterly sensibility, by and large, has not. For all the acres of canvas filled with maximum-strength color and mounds of heavily encrusted paint hanging on our gallery walls today, there is relatively little art of outstanding quality. Not since the days of the Abstract Expressionists and the Color-Field painters has so much paint been slung and splashed about. But this time, unfortunately, it's with relatively little genuine artistic effect.

I find it all quite disturbing - until I remember that I do come across exceptions. I was very pleased, for instance, to discover the work of young John McNamara just a few days ago in his first New York show. His canvases were big, bold, and truly painterly. And two huge canvases by James Adley in his exhibition at the 22 Wooster Street Gallery were real knockouts, with a sensibility seldom seen hereabouts. Recent work by Terence LaNoue confirms his continuing growth as a painter, as do the paintings of Tino Zago, Robert Zakanitch, Sam Gilliam, Kes Zapkus, Joyce Treiman, and Jean Michel Basquiat.

Among the better-established artists, Robert Natkin's recent show included a handful of paintings that can only be described as beautiful. Enrico Donati exhibited a few canvases in his recent show which dramatically cap his long career. And Willem de Kooning and Richard Diebenkorn came across as superbly as usual in their exhibitions a few months ago.

This by no means exhausts my list of good contemporary painters. But it's long enough to remind me that I'm mistaken, should I ever seriously begin to think that painting today is dead or dying. Studio Museum in Harlem

The Studio Museum in Harlem has a new home. Although only a few minutes' walking time from its previous location, it is light-years beyond it in attractiveness, accessibility, and the appropriateness of its facilities.

It is now housed - thanks to the donation of a five-story commercial building by a local bank - in spacious, attractively renovated quarters at 144 West 125th Street. The three stories it occupies (it rents out the other two) contain several handsome galleries, a gift shop, office space, storage for its permanent collection, and a photographic research and study center, as well as workshops and artists' studios.

Its new home fits the museum well, for it reflects the open and dynamic spirit projected both by the museum staff and by the art on its walls. And its location, toward the middle of Harlem's busiest thoroughfare, in the hub of the community's rebirth and development, is ideal.

As museums go, the Studio Museum is very young. It was conceived in the mid- 1960s by the Junior Council of the Museum of Modern Art as a working space for artists - but outgrew that exclusive function almost immediately. Too much else was demanded of it, most particularly that it serve as the art center for the Harlem community by providing both art-education and museum services.