Small Works Can Make a Big Impact

Abstract Impressionist show honors once-slighted artists who didn't produce large canvases

THE exhibition `Abstract Expressionism: Other Dimensions,'' currently at the Whitney Museum's Park Avenue branch, proves two things. First, that the movement made famous by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and a few others, was not necessarily defined by size. And second, that a number of very fine painters were denied greater recognition in the movement because they insisted on working on a very small scale.

Just as important - although this will surprise many - it proves that Abstract Expressionism produced at least as many small, delicate paintings as huge, blatantly aggressive ones.

Almost all of the exhibition's 46 works by 27 artists are small. The tiniest, at 4 inches square, is Mark Tobey's ``Space Rose.'' The largest, at 44 1/4 inches by 33 1/2 inches, is Rothko's 1950 ``Untitled.''

Most, however, don't exceed 24 inches in either direction. Considering that Abstract Expressionism's most famous canvases tend to measure 8-to-10-feet in width and not much less than that in height, it's obvious that what is on view here cannot be described as a typical exhibition of that movement's work.

That is not news, of course, to Jeffrey Wechsler, the exhibition's curator. He writes in the show's excellent catalog: ```Abstract Expressionism: Other Dimensions' was formulated as an experiment in visual art history. ...

``Whether the small works by famous artists - or the art of forgotten artists who preferred to paint small pictures - attain a memorable niche in the general perception of advanced abstract painting will depend very much on the willingness of individual observers to judge this art in an unbiased manner.''

He goes on to say the works here are not ``miniaturist oddities'' or merely ``studies or sketches for larger works'' but ``fully realized paintings.'' Although most of the major Abstract Expressionists are included, particular emphasis has been placed on several lesser-known or forgotten painters of the 1940-65 period. Thus Charles Selinger, who achieved sudden art-world fame in the 1940s while still in his teens - and who has been painting quietly but exquisitely ever since - is given his due. And so is Ralph Rosenborg, Janet Sobel, Harold Shapinsky and Sal Sirugo. Mrs. Sobel, in fact, is a fascinating example of an untrained individual who turned intuitively to gestural abstraction when she was already a grandmother, received the highest possible critical acclaim, and is now all but forgotten.

Although far from forgotten, Mark Tobey is another artist Mr. Wechsler feels has received insufficient credit for his involvement with ideas and methods similar to those of the Abstract Expressionists.

He makes a particular issue of the fact that Tobey was generally dismissed by most members of the New York School as a ``West Coast Mystic'' and as a painter of talent who nevertheless failed to accept the challenge of working on a large scale. He thus was ``punished'' on three counts: His identification with a geographic area far removed from New York, his well-known mystical inclinations, and the small size of his paintings.

A particularly poignant case is that of Harold Shapinsky, a modest, unrecognized painter who had known most of Abstract Expressionism's major figures and had painted in that manner since 1945. Some 32 New York dealers had either refused to look at his work or, upon seeing it, doubted the authenticity of his dates. Then in 1985, he received a retrospective at the Mayor Gallery in London. Obviously London dealers were more open-minded than those in New York. One of the latter had argued, ``You simply couldn't work this small and be a true Abstract Expressionist.'' Interestingly enough, the Mayor Gallery show sold out.

On the other hand, fame came quickly to Pollock, Rothko, Kline, Still, Newman, Stamos and a handful of others. And just as important, it never left them. Baziotes is particularly well-represented in this show by ``Primeval Wall.'' And Hoffman, Pollock, Motherwell, and Stamos score rather nicely with ``The Window,'' ``Number 20, 1948,'' ``N.R.F. Collage, Number 2,'' and ``The Field'' respectively.

Of equal value as the exhibition, however, is the show's catalog. Although modest in size, it is profusely illustrated with numerous color and black-and-white illustrations, and graced with one of the most perceptive and clearly written essays on Abstract Expressionism it has ever been my pleasure to read. Mr. Wechsler must be thanked, not only for his essay, which should do much to throw light on some of the movement's darker areas, but also for including illuminating contributions by Sam Hunter, Irving Sandler, William Seitz and Matthew Lee Rohn.

My only regret is that I did not see this show in its original, considerably larger form as assembled by the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum of Rutgers University. Even so, this shorter version, which will remain on view at the Whitney Museum's Park Avenue and 42nd Street branch through Dec. 5, is first rate.

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