Handsome, stimulating -- little-known

The Whitney Museum here has performed an important service for anyone interested in American art: It is presenting, in three separate but concurrent exhibitions, the works of two undeservedly little-known American painters, and the drawings of one of our major sculptors.

These three exhibitions are not glamour shows but are, rather, serious attempts to familiarize the public with significant American art otherwise largely overlooked. They are also extremely handsome and stimulating.

"Preston Dickinson 1889-1930," "Jan Matulka 1890- 1972," and "David Smith Drawings" attempt to rectify critical oversights and to broaden the public's understanding of how an artist creates. It is not often such shows are handsome and stimulating as well. But these are -- the result of the intelligent way they have been presented as much as it is to quality of the work itself.

American painters between the world wars were, as a whole, divided between those who saw Cezanne and the other "moderns" as the precursors of a genuinely new and valid way of painting, and those who remained faithful to more traditional modes of transcribing physical reality into paint.

But there also were some who sought to reconcile portions of both points of view. Their formal strategies were learned from Cezanne and cubism. Their subjects were what they saw around them. These painters -- Dickinson and Matulka were among them -- tried to create an art which, while firmly embedded within the realities of American life, would also hold its formalistic own among the more advanced art of Europe.

At least that was the intention. That these artists only partially succeeded was more because modernism was too great to be diverted into half measures than because they lacked enough talent. Modernism only gradually revealed itself to the vast majority of American painters, who too often saw it as little more than a touch of spice to be used to give art a more zesty up-to-date look.Our traditional American notion that art had to have a practical reason for being caused us to see modernism as something frivolous, even immoral, and certainly not as an ideal to be followed no matter where it led.

But then abstract expressionism once and for all let modernism have its head. With this movement, painting entered a new era. Unfortunately, however, when that happened many of those who had struggled to give modernism an indigenous American flavor in the years preceding it were summarily consigned to the rubbish pile of art history.

It is to the Whitney Museum's credit, and to the credit of the Sheldon Memorial Gallery at the University of Nebraska which organized the Dickinson show, that the art of Preston Dickinson and Jan Matulka is once again being given a chance to speak for itself.

Of the two, Dickinson was the more consistent painter. As a young man, he quickly absorbed the influence of Impressionism and Cezanne and turned to cubism in his quest for a stylistic point of view. But like so many younger Americans intent upon finding answers in European painting, Dickinson took only what suited his needs. In his case, that consisted of the geometric aspects of cubism, its angularity, spatial progression, ans subtle interplay of curves and straight lines. Looking about him for subjects whose forms most clearly echoed these structural qualities, he discovered that American urban and industrial life had provided him with any number of subjects.

Before long, the angles and intersecting planes of cubism had been transformed in his paintings into the angles and intersecting planes of buildings and bridges, and cubism's fragmentation effect -- as well as its linear interplay -- had been translated into city street scenes, studies of tall sun-struck grain elevators, and studio still lifes.

But that was only the skeleton upon which his art was based. For the rest of his life he studiously examined every possibility open to him for enriching and strengthening his art. His compositions became increasingly more compact and his color richer and more luminous. By the time he drew "Harlem River" he was so much in command of his art that this study could be equally appreciated as a realistic study from life and as an exercise in structure and design.

But of course his art was both, and this dual nature gives it a quiet solidity and dignity which contributes greatly to the overall tone of this exhibition. It is a handsome show reflecting Dickinson's integrity, intelligence, and sensibility, and should be visited and savored more than once.

Jim Matulka was quite another matter. Although his art derived from the same sources as Dickinson's, he remained a more restless and eclectic creative personality throughout his career, with the result that more influences are apparent in his work than in Dickinson's.More fascinated by a succession of "modern" styles than capable of truly assimilating or personalizing any one of them, Matulka came perilously close to being one of modernism's numerous victims , for his paintings sometimes look more like demonstration pieces for a particular style or point of view than like creative expressive vehicles.

Nevertheless, his strengths far outweigh his weaknesses, if indeed a restless intelligence can be called a weakness. For one thing, he had a formidable sense of organization -- as is evident in his drawing "Musical Still Life" and in any number of his paintings. That his works tend at times to be a bit static and decorative should not deter us from appreciating those paintings that achieve a kind of rough monumentality. In these, his various influences are submerged and his own identity shines through clearly.

Matulka was very much a product of his time. His work reflects not only the diversity of styles available to a young painter after World War I, but also reveals a keen, open, and curious mind. As such, this show should be of particular value to anyone interested in examining the influence of European modernism upon early 20th-century American art.

David Smith is generally considered one of our major sculptors. But although his sculpture has received serious critical attention for over 40 years, his drawings have been consistently slighted. This should be remedied by the superb exhibition of roughly 140 of his drawings, including early student works; drawings from the late '30s reflecting various influences from Hieronymus Bosch to constructivism, cubism and the School of Paris; and a large group of studies representing varied interests and techniques from the '50s and early '60s. It is an impressive and important show.

Upon its closing on Feb. 24, the Dickinson show travels to the University of New Mexico Museum, Albuquerque; the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center; and the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia, Athens. (No dates given.)

The Matulka show also closes on Feb. 24 and then goes to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (April 3 - June 1); the Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama (June 15 - Oct. 1); and the National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington (Nov. 21 - Feb. 8, 1981).

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