More than superb -- alive
NOTHING is more welcome during a long day of gallery-viewing than coming across work that is so genuinely moving or enchanting that it doesn't have to stand on its head or shout out its virtues to gain our attention. I can remember, as clearly as though it were yesterday, the time seven or eight years ago I encountered a small Giacometti painting of a chair in a gallery. It was so quietly self-assured, and represented such integrity, depth, and mastery, that it immediately erased from my memory the hundred s of good but often self-serving canvases I had just seen and turned what had promised to be a rather dreary day into an exhilarating one. I was affected by that painting much as I would have been a meeting with a very wise man willing to share whatever life had taught him, but who by no means insisted that I listen or even pay him any special attention. What he had to offer was there, but he was not pushing it. If I could recognize its worth and benefit from it, fine and good. If I could not, he had more important things to do than to try to convince me.
Fortunately, that quality, that ``wisdom,'' is not limited to the work of important masters but can be found in as many places in art as truth, integrity, goodwill, and character can be found in mankind. I've come across it in the naive paintings of a farmer in Wisconsin; the carvings of a very old sculptor who works almost exclusively by touch; the pictures of excellent regional artists who have never seriously considered exhibiting in New York; and in modest pieces by otherwise overeager young painter s.
It means the most, of course, when found in the creative endeavors of someone who has devoted an entire lifetime to the furtherance of his or her art, and who had rich talent to begin with. Such an individual is certain to present us with quality as well as with character, and to add an element of poetry to what others might insist should be rendered in flat prose.
Such artists are not as rare as one might think -- given the art world's tendency to honor a few and to shove the rest under the rug, or to toss them a few tidbits now and again. I could, with ease and with little fear of meaningful contradiction, devote the rest of this essay to listing the painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers, and workers in other media who have either never received the attention they deserve or were unceremoniously dumped the moment their styles went out of fashion. But I
won't. Instead, I will mention and discuss only one, Joyce Treiman, and even then, I'll focus on what some would consider a lesser aspect of her work.
Treiman's drawings are among the best being produced in America today. They prove that she is not only a superb painter but a first-rate draftsman as well. She has exhibited widely, has sold her pictures to some of our major museums, and has won several significant awards. For one reason or another, however, she has never quite made it beyond the fringes into the Big Time.
Interestingly, her drawings have recently received somewhat greater attention than her paintings and, at this moment, seem more likely to gain official recognition than her larger and more ``serious'' works on canvas. This preference is meaningless, of course, for everything she does is equally representative of her talent and commitment. It does, however, indicate that some of those who are unwilling to honor her more complex and ``difficult'' pieces are quite eager to lend their support to her smaller
and simpler studies on paper.
The latter are filled with stylistic inconsistencies that, in lesser hands, would prove disastrous. Her style is both clinically exact and wildly extravagant. It zeroes in on a face, a foot, or a pair of hands with all the objective clarity of a D"urer, and then zooms back and kicks up its heels as though it had nothing better to do than have fun. Exquisite details rub shoulders with smudges and ``doodles'' barely recognizable as objects. And throughout it all, there is a delightfully free-spirited live liness only occasionally dampened by highly charged, psychologically provocative images designed to remind us of the darker side of human reality.
Treiman oversees and blends these various devices and themes with the aplomb of a brilliant symphony conductor pulling a widely disparate group of musicians into shape, and with the kind of mastery that dares take risks because it is secure in its ability somehow to pull everything off.
It is in some of her figure and portrait drawings, however, that she is at her best and reminds us that in this wonderfully gifted and dedicated artist we have one of the most acute and versatile draftsmen of recent years.
That fact was brought dramatically home to me recently at the end of a particularly unrewarding gallery-visiting day. I was ready to call it quits but decided to stop in to see an exhibition of drawings by nine artists whose work especially interested me. Everything on view was very good, if not excellent, but two portrait studies by Joyce Treiman stole the show. They were more than merely good, excellent, or superb, they were alive -- and they gave me much the same feeling I had received from the Giaco metti painting of a chair several years before.