George Bellows: a world of passionate coloration in black and white

A first-rate talent is almost as rare as genius, and yet art history is rather harsh on those who possess it. The reasons are obvious: Talent, even an exceptional one, represents ability rather than brilliance, and achieves its results by being best at what it does rather than by being truly unique. Talent tends to follow paths already laid out, genius to strike out on its own, and in ways that have significance to the culture as a whole. Occasionally, however, someone comes along whose talent verges on genius, and who does, at odd moments, seem to possess it. Pissarro and Cassatt were such artists, as were Corinth, Derain, Leger, and Moholy-Nagy. And when it comes to 20th-century America, no one fits that description better than George Bellows.

Bellows's talent was as big as any American's has ever been -- although it wasn't as deep or as original as that of a few. What he may have lacked in depth and originality, however, he more than made up in facility and passion, as well as in a vision of art that occasionally lifted him above his limitations to produce some of America's finest paintings and prints.

Roughly 60 excellent examples of the latter are currently on view at the Mary Ryan Gallery here in an exhibition that also features the graphic work of John Sloan. Included are several lithographs from Bellows's ``War'' series and ``Men Like Gods'' series, some of his genre and satirical works, a smattering of portraits and figure studies, and a few of his fight scenes.

In all, it's a thoroughly convincing display of the strength and quality of Bellows's talent, as well as a superb demonstration of the range, subtlety, and power of which lithography is capable.

Like Daumier, Lautrec, and Redon before him, Bellows exercised total authority over the lithographic crayon, and used it as masterfully as have only a dozen or so artists since lithography's invention by Alois Senefelder in 1798. In his hands, tone and value totally obliterated a need for hue, and created such an aura of pictorial authenticity that even the thought of adding color to one of his prints is utterly inconceivable.

His ability to orchestrate velvety blacks, a wide range of grays, brilliant whites, and crisp linear definitions on a lithographic stone remains unmatched in American art. The only other artist who was his equal in tonal range and control was Stow Wengenroth, and he was considerably his inferior as a draftsman. In such prints as ``A Stag at Sharkey's,'' ``Dance in a Madhouse,'' ``A Knock-Out,'' ``Elsie, Emma and Marjorie,'' ``River Front,'' and ``The Sawdust Trail,'' Bellows took the black-and-white lithograph as far as any American has -- or probably will for some time to come.

And if he was masterful in his handling of black, white, and gray, and extraordinarily effective as a draftsman, he was downright sensational when it came to dramatic pictorial effect. No one could surpass him in making a point or telling a story in a manner so close to pure melodrama at times that except for the creative passion that motivated him, and his careful attention to authenticating detail, melodrama is precisely what some of his prints would be.

It is fashionable today to dismiss the prints of his ``War'' series as hysterical and closer to propaganda than to art, and to laugh at his ``Men Like Gods'' series as artificial and sentimental. And yet both series include works that are powerfully effective as human documents, and that deserve to rank high in any survey of 20th-century graphic art. Having once seen ``Murder of Edith Cavell,'' for instance, who could ever forget the image of the English wartime nurse calmly descending the stairs to her execution? And having studied ``The Christ of the Wheel,'' who would ever again claim that all of Bellows's allegories are so much sentimental claptrap?

If he can be accused of coming perilously close to melodrama at times -- and of his almost 200 prints, only a dozen or so can possibly be so classified -- he must also be credited with some of the most charming, elegant, and humorous graphic images of his time. ``Head of Anne,'' for instance, is as lovely a study of a young girl as any printmaker has produced in this century, and ``Elsie, Emma and Marjorie'' is almost as richly and elegantly rendered as any of Sargent's 19th-century studies of seated women. And for sheer fun, one need only examine ``Artists Judging Works of Art'' or ``Business-Men's Class'' to understand that Bellows had a good eye for humanity's foibles and idiosyncracies.

His superb draftsmanship is particularly evident in his small figure studies in which economy of means is matched by a subtle but highly effective massing of one or two blacks against pure white and a few discreetly placed lines. His portraits also make their point with simplicity and directness, occasionally employing only a few contrasting areas of tone pulled together by a carefully plotted linear structure to produce likenesses of considerable character and impact.

It is only in his fight scenes, however, as well as in such comments on American life as ``Prayer Meeting,'' ``Reducing,'' and ``Splinter Beach,'' his biting ``Dance in a Madhouse,'' and such prints from the ``War'' series as ``The Return of the Useless'' and ``The Germans Arrive'' that the issue of whether or not Bellows had a touch of genius arises. No matter how one decides, it's a tribute to his art that the question even exists.

At the Mary Ryan Gallery, 452 Columbus Avenue, through May 2. `20th Century American Drawings'

A magnificent George Bellows charcoal drawing is one of the outstanding pieces in ``20th Century American Drawings'' presently on view at the National Academy of Design here. These drawings range in time from a 1900 Charles Demuth watercolor to a 1983 sumi ink drawing by Keith Haring, and in style from an idealized academic study for a mural by Edwin Blashfield to a sensitive abstraction by Mark Rothko. Other exceptional pieces are by Peggy Bacon, George Grosz, Edward Hopper, Robert Motherwell, Joyce Treiman, and William T. Wiley.

At the National Academy, 1083 Fifth Avenue, through May 5. A Monday column

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