Key Moments in Artists' Lives

Summer show of mid-20th-century work pinpoints phases in their careers. ART REVIEW

THE significant thing about the Gagosian Gallery's summer exhibition is not that its paintings are so outstanding (most are not), but that almost every one epitomizes a particularly important phase of its creator's career. As far as famous American names are concerned, no gallery could do better. Stepping off the elevator, one is confronted by an early Mark Rothko painting. And then, while moving about, one comes upon works by Franz Kline, Willem De Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, and Arshile Gorky.

Most are large, a few are huge, and all but three were painted in the 1960s. Rothko's colorful 1947 canvas, measuring roughly 33 by 45 inches, is the smallest. Still's 1960 painting, at 112 by 144 inches, is the largest.

For my money, Kline's 1960-61 ``Sabro IV'' is the best thing in the show. Monumental, aggressively black-and-white, and painted shortly before his death, it's as perfect an example of that artist's final period as one is likely to find outside a major museum. Nothing else here matches it in clarity of intention and in power.

Still's ``1960 F'' is almost as successful. If it falls a little short, it is only because its shapes don't interlock with quite the precision one has learned to expect from this artist. The color, however, is superb, with just the right balance of earth-hues and reddish tints set off by a perfectly placed patch of blue at the extreme left. All that's missing is that wonderful sense of compositional clarity and unity that was Still's hallmark during his best years.

Newman's ``The Moment II,'' on the other hand, is ``classic'' Newman. Painted in 1969, one year before the artist's death, it couldn't be simpler or more representative of his late style or his philosophy. Those who hold that Newman was an important or even a great artist will almost certainly accept this large unprimed canvas with two narrow vertical stripes of yellow paint as a masterpiece.

Unfortunately, I've come to the conclusion that while Newman was an interesting theoretician, he had neither talent nor anything to say as a painter. ``The Moment II'' strikes me, therefore, as merely a blank canvas with two vertical stripes. Nothing more and nothing less.

WARHOL'S 1962 ``Coke Bottle'' is another ``classic,'' only in this case there's a little more to it. This is quintessential Warhol, with no colorful patterning to divert attention away from the work's unequivocal Pop Art statement. This is art as idea, as a declarative sentence. Warhol says, simply and flatly, ``This is a Coca-Cola bottle,'' and he does so without feeling, ``style,'' or inflection. Nothing else matters, nothing else exists in this work, but that statement - and it, of course, in order to be ``heard,'' had to be painted with black paint on a piece of canvas roughly 6 feet high.

Do I like or admire this painting? No. Do I think it's important? Yes, but only in an art historical sense. Without it and others like it by Warhol and three or four other Pop artists, late 20th-century art would have turned out differently than it did.

Lichtenstein's 1961 ``Black Flowers'' is also art historically ``important,'' and for precisely the same reasons. Studying it, however, one can see why Warhol is considered the more important of the two. He went further than anyone else in subverting everything art had held dear and in embracing banality and boredom as the new ideals of art.

Didn't that, in itself, qualify him for art-world fame ahead of his colleagues? He certainly seemed to think so - and so, by and large, did the art world of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s.

Even so, Lichtenstein's ``Black Flowers'' is still an ``important'' painting and a genuine cultural icon of the latter half of the 20th century. Frankly, however, the fact that it is so strikes me as one of the saddest things one could say about the art of our time.

As for the other paintings, Rothko's 1962 ``Blue and Grey'' is effective but not one of his best, and Gorky's 1947 ``Terra Cotta'' is both unfinished and unlikely to do his reputation as one of America's finest mid-20th-century painters any good. De Kooning's 1975 oil is big, brassy, and largely unsuccessful, and Rauschenberg's 1964 `` Stop and Rebound'' is interesting but also a little silly.

In summary, Kline, Still, and Rothko come off best in this exhibition of famous mid-20th-century American painters. De Kooning, Gorky, and Rauschenberg show less than outstanding works, Warhol and Lichtenstein are represented by ``classic'' examples, and Newman proves once again that there's nothing on his canvases but paint.

At the Gagosian Gallery, 980 Madison Avenue, through Aug. 31.

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