A revised view of some recent European art -- thanks to Enzo Cucchi
New York — It's obvious now that the newer Italian and West German artists are here to stay. And that their impact will be felt for a long time to come. Their painterly violence and thematic blatancy may offend many, and their no-holds-barred attitude may strike others as more anti- than pro-art. And yet, they've brought a passion and focus to art that it hasn't seen in quite some time.
American reaction, by and large, has been one of outrage. And that has been somewhat justified. The younger Italians, most especially Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, and Nino Longobardi, take particular delight in bizarre subjects and pseudo-primitive techniques of the sort we've been taught for decades to view as vulgar and antithetical to art. After 30 years of formalist dogma, we simply aren't able to cope with art that focuses on exotic subject matter and ignores the formalist doctrines we've held dear for so long.
We've been appalled, and have reacted by denying that these impassioned, ''vulgar,'' non-abstract works are art at all. And in this we've responded much as we have at least four previous times in the past 50 years to the dramatically new.
The first time was when the American Regionalists, led by Benton, Curry, and Wood, drew the art world's attention away from European modernism and focused it upon the landscapes and activities of the American countryside. The second, when Abstract Expressionism erupted upon the scene and overwhelmed both the Regionalists and the geometric modernists. The third, when Pop Art once again shifted our attention from ''form'' to ''subject.'' And the fourth, when Minimalism returned formal purity to its primary place in the modernist pantheon.
At the beginning of each of these upheavals, our response has been to denounce the new as non- or anti-art. And we are doing the same again today. The only difference this time is that the challenge is coming from abroad, and we have the added difficulty of accepting the possibility that we are no longer the leaders in world art.
I myself have had serious doubts about the quality of this art ever since it began appearing in New York about three years ago. I welcomed its passion and painterliness, but found individual works heavy-handed and obvious. Here and there, something powerful and true did shine through, but by and large I found most of it bad despite what I assumed were its good intentions.
That is no longer entirely the case. At least not as far as Enzo Cucchi is concerned. And for evidence I cite his excellent exhibition currently at the Sperone Westwater Gallery here.
I went, expecting to see more of his grotesqueries, but found instead a handful of extraordinarily powerful and exciting canvases. Although I saw the show several days ago, I still haven't shaken off the effect it had on me.
For one thing, his paintings are overwhelmingly physical, with thick, rich layers of heavily encrusted paint that tear one's sensibilities much as the early work of the Abstract Expressionists (especially Clyfford Still) did in the 1940s. For another, they confront and challenge the viewer on his simplest and most directly empathetic levels. And finally, they are as boldly and bluntly positive and as life enhancing in effect as anything seen of late.
In ''Il Vento dei Galli Neri,'' a black rooster hurtles upward out of a restraining enclosure in a manner reminiscent of various Renaissance ''Ascensions,'' and of later depictions of ''The Phoenix Rising From the Ashes.'' The effect is electric and exultant, and so physically direct that the event seems to be taking place before our very eyes.
In another, even larger canvas a similar rooster is dramatically propelled into the sky. Here, the soaring effect is even more spectacular, thanks to the manner in which huge slashes and gobs of paint have been utilized to suggest the gravitational pull against which the bird must fight in order to ascend.
Throughout, the paint is applied thickly, directly, and without finesse. The surfaces are often lumpy and clotted - the result of sections of rumpled canvas applied to the paintings' surfaces, and painted over. And the color is biting and raw.
But no matter. It all works to produce the effect of agitated physicality Cucchi needs to make his point.
There is an urgency about Cucchi's recent paintings that transcends all traditional notions of painterliness, imagery, or good taste. What matters is what can be gotten across as directly as possible to the viewer, not what can be admired at leisure for its exquisite craftsmanship or innovative brilliance. In this, he fits in very neatly with his West German and Italian contemporaries. Where he now apparently differs from most of them, however, is in his ability to transmute passion and private imagery into art.
A few much less successful drawings are also on view. In them, most of Cucchi's weaknesses, and few of his very real strengths, are exposed.
At Sperone Westwater Gallery, 142 Greene Street in SoHo, through March 28th. Representational art gallery
Even 10 years ago, opening a major gallery devoted largely to representational art would have been difficult. And 20 years ago it would have been downright foolish. Times and tastes have changed, however, and the chances of such a gallery succeeding today are excellent.
That certainly must have been on the mind of Sherry French during the process of deciding to open her own gallery, locating space for it, and choosing the artists she would represent. And it must have been on her mind while making the selections for her opening show.
She has chosen wisely and well, and has included works by her own artists as well as by others represented elsewhere. Seven of her final choices work in a representational manner, and two - Ida Kohlmeyer and Billy Al Bengston - do not. It's an extremely handsome show that bodes well for the gallery. I was particularly taken by the paintings of Robert Birmelin, Susan Shatter, Ida Kohlmeyer, Peter Poskas, and Donald Roller Wilson.
At the Sherry French Gallery, 41 West 57th Street, through April 2. An exceptional talent
In the June 25 Monitor of last year, I reviewed on the arts page a group show at the Jewish Museum that included a huge triptych by Jerome Witkin. I wrote, ''As for the Witkin, it's as superb a piece of narrative painting as I've seen in years . . . he is obviously an artist about whom we shall hear a great deal more.''
I'm more certain of that now than ever, having just studied the illustrated catalog of Witkin's current exhibition at Pennsylvania State University. It's a 10-year survey that includes 86 paintings and drawings and features ''Death as an Usher: Germany, 1933,'' the triptych that had impressed me so last year.
Witkin is an exceptional talent. He's a representational painter who also draws beautifully and can move from juicy paint passage to elegant pencil line with the greatest ease. He also has the other basic requirements of a good painter: a love for the physicality of paint, a good sense of color, and something to say.
He has the skill to be a brilliant technical virtuoso, and I suppose the temptation to go that route is strong at times. But he never succumbs, and that is part of the drama of his work. We watch breathlessly as he skirts mere virtuosity, and then relax as he directs his talents toward the creation of significant art.
Although I haven't seen this exhibition, I'm familiar enough with Witkin's work to recommend it highly. After its closing at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pa., on March 27, it travels to the Columbia Museum of Art and Science, Columbia, S.C. (April 9-June 5); the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, N.Y. (June 17-Aug. 14); and the Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, Ark. (Nov. 18 -Jan. 1, 1984).