6 SEPTEMBER 1975, Page 25


New York letter

Summer in the galleries

Ruth Berenson

New York this summer has been packed with tourists from Europe battening on the dollar's unhappy state. Most of them stick to mid-' town — Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building — but a few hardy souls have been observed walking around SoHo, the straggling enclave south of Greenwich Village where, so they've been told, the artists hang out and where the avant-garde makes its headquarters. Unfortunately, they encounter few artists, as everyone Who is anyone has made tracks for Long Island, Cape Cod or the Berkshires, and the others are holed up with their air-conditioning.

A few galleries — not many — are Open; but the visitor soon discovers that the art they display is no more 'advanced' than what he has seen in London or Dusseldorf; no new 'isms' have emerged in a long time and the old ones — Pop, Hard-Edge, Colour-field Abstraction, Minimalism, Photorealism — all look pretty tired. (One hopes that the energy crisis will eventually persuade the Photorealists to stop painting shiny Plymouths and Technicolored Shell stations, but this is not yet.) There are a few Earthworks around, usually in the form of carefully detailed plans, since even tolerant 501-10 gallery-owners don't want their premises messed up by artists seeking to put their personal muddy imprint on them. And then there's Conceptialism, latest Offspring of the Greatgrandada of the 1920s: random words or numbers or syllables scribbled, typed or taped in patterns whose form and significance the visitor may never grasp.

The uptown galleries are also closed, the promise of their September reopenings cellotaped to their premises in handlettered Signs. Fortunately, however, New York's museums are open and have mounted a number of attractions to entice the sightseeing itinerant as well as the inflation-battling native. Herewith a brief roundup:

Metropolitan Museum: The major offering is French Painting 1774-1830: The Age of Revolution, seen last year at the Grand Palais in Paris and at the Detroit Aft Insti

tute this past winter. Though some critics attempted to make a cause celebre of the fact that a number of pictures seen in Paris were not included in New York because the Met, chronically broke, was trying to save on insurance costs, the final verdict is that this is a fascinating show which, by including so many major though seldom-seen works from France's provincial museums, will force extensive revisions of previously held ideas about Classicism and Romanticism, blurring the hitherto take-for-granted distinctions between them.

Though the American Bicentennial celebrations are not scheduled to begin officially until July 4, 1976, preliminary events are already beginning to overwhelm everybody. The Met is reserving its big guns for next year, but it obviously felt it could not let 1975 go by without an appropriate nod in the shape of unpretentious but amusing displays in the printsand-drawings gallery. One is a tongue-in-cheek survey, George Washington: Icon for America, of the different ways the square-jawed founding father has been used — on spoons, china, wooden cigar-store sighs, etc — to symbolise the US since its founding. The other is a look at how Europeans, in drawings and book illustrations, perceived the New World from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.

Whitney Museum of American Art: Usually the Whitney concentrates — some would say it overconcentrates — on contemporary happenings; this summer, however, it is glancing nostalgically backwards. One floor contains Seascape and the American Imagination, ostensibly a survey of American ocean-inspired art in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though a number of exhibits have only a tenuous connection with the sea. However, there are some fine things; handsome carved figureheads from New England sailing ships; scrimshaw carved by sailors on whaling voyages that often kept them at sea for years at a time; the landscapist Thomas Cole's Voyage of Life, four allegorical pictures

evocatively romantic, which are to American painting what Melville's Moby Dick is to its literature: Another floor of the Whitney is given over to a charming reminiscence of the museum's founding, by the socialite-turned sculptor, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and its early days on 8th Street, in the heart of Greenwich Village.

The ground floor gallery is occupied by the gouaches of Minnie Evans, an eighty-year-old black woman from North Carolina who has been painting since the 1940s but has only recently been 'discovered.' Unlike her white counterpart, Grandma Moses, Mrs Evans is preoccupied with dreams and visions, rainbow-coloured and curiously reminiscent of the crudely painted mythologies in the Hindu temples of Trinidad, where she was born but which she left when still a child. They are a notable addition to the expanding repertory of 'nail" art.

Guggenheim Museum: A Marc Chagall show, consisting mostly of works on paper but including some of the Guggenheim's own early oils, is the main attraction here, and worth looking at as a reminder that this artist only started turning out kitsch since he was accorded oldmaster status after the last war. There is also a selection of the museum's well-chosen acquisitions of American paintings of the 1960s and 1970s.

Museum of Modern Art: Suffering badly from the financial pinch, MOMA has wisely decided to concentrate its energies on its own holdings. The great collections of paintings and sculptures have been beautifully reinstalled, and can be seen in near-entirety. There's also a small show of works on paper by Jacques Villon, least-known of the three Duchamp-Villon brothers, in honour of his 100th birthday.

New York Cultural Center: This lively institution is due, alas, to close on September 30, though there are hopes that its resourceful director, Mario A maya, will arrange a last-minute reprieve. In the meantime he's mounted Illusion in Nature and Art, which some Londoners may have missed at the Institute of Contemporary Art in 1973. Lots of buttons to push, which makes it a natural for children and the gadget-minded.

The Morgan Library: Drawings by Benjamin West, who, despite the fact that he succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as President of the Royal Academy, Americans persist in thinking of as American. Whatever he thought he was, he was an artist whose fecund originality continues to surprise and delight.

For a city coping with both incipient bankruptcy and temperatures in the high 80s, that's not too bad a welcome mat.

Ruth Berenson is art critic of the National Review.