NO American artists are further out of fashion today than Paul Cadmus (born 1904), Jared French (1905-87), and George Tooker (born 1920), and yet few have as passionate and devoted a following. Their art-world position has always been off to one side. At a time when Regionalism and American Scene Painting, with their romanticized depictions of rural and urban life, were all the rage, Cadmus and French achieved notice for their small, exquisitely drawn and subtly idiosyncratic renderings of human figures in vaguely surreal surroundings.
And then when Abstract Expressionism took center stage and swept away almost everything that wasn't huge, passionately painted, and abstract, these two were joined by Tooker, and the three went right ahead producing pictures that were small, meticulously executed, and as representational as any painting could be.
In a belated tribute to independent spirit and professional accomplishments of these artists, the Whitney Museum branch at Park Avenue and 42nd Street has brought together 32 paintings, drawings, and prints produced by this trio between 1936 and 1955.
``Cadmus, French and Tooker: The Early Years,'' while small as exhibitions go, has been sensitively assembled to achieve a balance of media and themes and to reflect a healthy regard for the creative intentions of these unusual artists.
It wasn't just stylistic and technical similarities that brought them together for this show, however. They were also close friends.
Cadmus met French when both were students at the Art Students League in New York and soon was sharing a studio with him. Tooker came on the scene in 1944. From that point on, until about 1955, the three often worked alongside one another while producing some of the most intense and haunting images of their respective careers.
As Josephine Gear, the Whitney's branch director, writes in the exhibition brochure, these works ``represent a closed world of elemental landscapes and bare interiors in which single figures or small groups are waiting, listening and watching .... an inner reality. George Tooker referred to this reality when he said, `I am after painting reality impressed on the mind so hard that it returns as a dream, but I am not after painting dreams as such, or fantasy.'''
Perhaps not, but Tooker did paint pictures that were fanciful and dreamlike. In a way, they all did, though French a bit less than the others. His cool, classical approach gave his work a more pronounced early Renaissance look than the work of the other two.
The medium they employed, egg tempera on panel, also set their work apart. Even the simplest of their subjects had a subtly mysterious aura, due partly to the medium (which allowed for extremely sharp-focus work) and partly to their compositional approach, which brought apparently unrelated elements together in strange, often disquieting ways.
The thing that either attracts art lovers or drives them away, however, is the subtle sense of foreboding that permeates these artists' work.
In almost every one of the paintings something out of the ordinary has either just taken place or is about to happen. Exactly what, however, remains a mystery. One looks for clues, mostly among the exotic-looking people in the paintings, but without success. So the viewer remains free to imagine, while the images themselves remain enigmatic.
French's pristine panels, with their clear, cool colors, highly refined draftsmanship, and frozen composition, are particularly provocative. And, probably because of their sophisticated formal attributes, they are also the most successful as art. ``Washing the White Blood from Daniel Boone'' and ``The Double'' evoke memories of Piero della Francesca and Georges Seurat, without damaging their maker's credibility.
Cadmus, though by far the most famous of the trio, presents the most problems. At his best (``Arabesque'' and a number of his figure drawings), he is a minor master. At his worst (fortunately, none of those are in this show), he is a major embarrassment. Overall, he is an artist of genuine accomplishment who deserves a larger measure of art-world respect than he yet enjoys.
All three artists deserve more respect, and Tooker, from all indications, is beginning to receive it. How far his acceptance will go, however, remains an open question.
At the Whitney Museum branch at Park Avenue and 42nd Street through May 5.