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by James Panero
On “Sam Francis: 1953–1959”at L&M Arts; “Jay Milder: Recent Work” at Lohin Geduld Gallery; “Abby Leigh: The Sleeper’s Eye” at Betty Cuningham Gallery & “Silver Anniversary: 25 Photographs, 1835 to 1914” at Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Fine Photographs.
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Even by the exacting standards of the Abstract Expressionists, Sam Francis was an exceptional egomaniac, one of the last century’s great high-flying experiments in self-absorption. Born in San Mateo, California in 1923, he trained as an airman in the Second World War. When this experience ended in a bout of spinal tuberculosis following a crash, he took up painting from his hospital bed. As he recovered, laid out on his stomach and sketching on the floor, he came to see himself as a shaman with mystical powers. It was a notion that appealed to his diabolical nature, and rather than exorcise them, he indulged his artistic demons through thirty years of Jungian therapy (he was fascinated by Jung’s writings on alchemy). “I was a bird,” Francis once said of his earliest dreams, “and my job was to fly around the earth leaving trails of beautiful clouds behind me until the whole earth, the whole sky, was covered in a network of colored clouds.”
In 1950 Francis moved from California to Paris and quickly became one of the decade’s wealthiest abstract artists. Here he lived out his bird-dreams by painting huge lumi- nous cloud-forms, mackerel-sky compositions soaked in rain and infused with light. Acclaimed in Europe and Asia, he developed outside the New York School. Conventional wisdom has it that his Stateside reputation suffered through his absence. Perhaps, but by avoiding the center of post-war abstraction he also avoided its inward pressures. With studios stretching from California to Switzerland to Japan, he managed to float above the fray for his entire career—his powers failed only in 1994, when prostate cancer grounded him for good.
The Francis Zeppelin operated best when fully inflated, and this month we have a couple of opportunities to climb aboard. In 1968 the filmmaker Jeffrey Perkins began shooting a documentary of the artist. Forty years later this project has reached the silver screen with a limited release at Anthology Film Archives in New York in September and film festivals in Naples and Rome. The movie matches recent interviews of Francis’s contemporaries with Perkins’s archival footage. At the heart of the film is an “interview” between Francis and Perkins shot on 16mm in Santa Monica in 1973. Stretched out on a deck chair and talking through his nose, Francis does his best late Brando, one big bloated grin issuing profundities. Painting, he says, “is devotion to the self.” He speaks of “getting back into myself. I had become too extroverted.” While bemoaning the demands on his time, he fiddles with a roll of gaffer’s tape. He also fields unfortunate follow-up questions from his young son Osamu sitting off camera (“What shit?” “Lots of times I say things you say I’m busy.” “Remember when you didn’t want to go play hide and seek?”).
Painful. That Francis was a head case is all too apparent. In terms of making art, the footage in the studio is more revealing. The painter Al Held singles out Francis’s “light, lyrical hand.” Wearing nothing more than white socks, a red smock, and blue underwear, we see Francis walking over his enormous canvases like an out-of-shape Superman on retirement pay, flinging, pouring, and rolling out his paint with the greatest of ease. I am always grateful for glimpses of painters in the studio. With the rise of alternative media, the oil-on-canvas world is ever more rarefied, like the production of artisanal cheese. Filmmakers are smart to capture this world before it dies out. The findings, however flawed, remain illuminating.
Through December, L&M Arts has mounted a medium-sized exhibition dedicated to the art of Francis’s Paris years, and we can take Perkins’s images of Francis’s studio practice to the show. If the Eastern aesthetic is an art of absence, Francis’s appeal to his Asian patrons is readily apparent. In his best work at L&M, like Middle Blue (1957) and Blue out of White (1958), on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum, pools of color circulate in bright empty space. Francis’s lyrical hand often knew just what to leave out. Even in denser compositions, such as Black (1955), white light reaches around his dark forms. The more open the space, the better the work tends to be. In some of Francis’s best paintings (not on display in this show), the pigment has been pushed to the extreme edges of the canvases. In his studio, sometimes Francis really could fly.
If Francis had only stayed in that studio, he would have done a lot less collateral damage. Perkins’s film offers some choice stories of the artist at his worst. Ed Moses recalls that after one drug haze Francis left his wallet containing $32,000 cash in a café (someone returned it). His daughter Kayo Malik remembers smoking pot with her generally absentee dad around age thirteen and attending the Moulin Rouge. Walter Hopps recounts a story of how Francis won over his fourth wife (of five), Mako Idemitsu, by renting a P-38 and threatening to crash the plane into her father’s house unless he consented to their marriage; it so happened that the father, Sazo, was also Francis’s biggest patron—the Japanese oil baron’s foundation, the Idemitsu Museum of Art, still maintains the largest collection of his work.
Today the absurdities of Francis’s life seem almost quaint. On the one hand, the paintings can still appear fresh, if at times a little lightweight. On the other, Francis’s mistreated wives and children might want to ask the Jung Foundation for a refund. You have to wonder if his indulgences were worth it. The art does not always justify the means.
When the painter Jay Milder says that “my work has to do with symbols, not signs,” I think I get it. Born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1934, Milder is descended from the Ukrainian Hasidic mystic Rabbi Nachman. He matches his studies in the art of the New York School with an interest in Kabbalah and Theosophy. His paintings, now on display at Lohin Geduld, seem packed with symbols, with bits of numbers and letters layered on top of one another. Milder marks out these symbolic particles with a childlike hand and gobs of paint. The clumsy paint handling, as well as the Cosby-sweater-like color choices, camouflages the complex symbol system contained within. Aside from Noah’s Ark Series (2008–09), which manages a pleasing overall composition, I am not sure I would want to live with many of these paintings. They start out frighteningly overpacked and rather garish. Still they could be the kind of work that, through extended viewing, reveals interesting secrets over time.
Since first taking painting classes with Will Barnet at the Art Students League as an adult, Abby Leigh has been on an artistic journey that I doubt she expected or can even quite explain, which makes her development all the more interesting. As she recently recounted in The Brooklyn Rail: “One day [Barnet] said, ‘You should be a painter.’ And I said, ‘Please, I don’t want to be a laughing stock at 40. Don’t tell me that if you’re just being nice.’ And he said, ‘No, no, I think you should be a painter.’ So I thought, well okay, I’ll give it a shot.” Trained in the theater and married to the Broadway producer Mitch Leigh, who wrote Man of La Mancha and a famous jingle for Sara Lee, Abby Leigh brings a precise hand to her odd and wide-ranging sensibility (her studio is filled with biological specimens). Many of her paintings address the issues of sight. She was, until recent surgery, legally blind.
For her third exhibition at Betty Cuningham, Leigh takes on optical art with supersaturated monochromatic paintings that seem to glow in halos of light. Emerging Thought (2008), in deep red, has an almost synesthetic hum to it, with subtle tonal variations suggesting blind spots and other ocular effects. To this Leigh adds two black-and-white series on paper, one of targets and the other of horizontal bands, both made of smoke. To miraculous effect, Leigh has blown smoke clouds over paper to produce a marbleizing texture. She controls the smoke layers with masking tape. I found the resulting hard edges of the work too rigid. Her technique is innovative, but the overall compositions appear dated. I would prefer to see the subtle variations of the oils brought to the smoke. You never know with Leigh—that could be next, or something else entirely.
One of the finest dealers in early photography, Hans P. Kraus is now celebrating his silver anniversary with a must-see show of twenty-five haunting works from the first photographic experiments in 1835 to the Photo Secession and the Great War. Kraus calls his exhibitions Sun Pictures after a term that William Henry Fox Talbot used to distinguish the products of his new technology from other forms of reproduction: His work was the product of the sun’s rays alone. In many ways Kraus’s exhibition is a celebration of this light. His earliest pieces, Talbot’s Tripod in the Cloisters of Lacock Abbey (1835–36) and Hippolyte Bayard’s Bust, possibly of Alexander the Great, are two spectral examples of some of the first rays of light collected in history, barely visible through the darkness. Both of these early experiments are so fragile that they can only be viewed in near darkness and for brief periods of time. “These are the whispers of the invention of photography,” says Kraus. “The very act of looking at it is creating a chemical reaction.” The dealer keeps the Bayard in a special velvet-covered case.
What distinguishes all of these images from many other early photographs is their high state of preservation. They are not artifacts but still works of art, revealed to us in the state their creators first saw them. Kraus calls himself a dealer in the “Old Masters of photography,” and he has an expert eye for condition. But Kraus also has a sensibility for photography’s wonderment—the translucence of the flowers in Anna Atkins’s cyanotype photogram (“Iris pseudacorus”); the composition of Etienne-Jules Marey’s Plaster Seagulls in a Zoetrope (1887). The strange presence of Charles Nègre’s Chandelier is a special example. In this unsentimental work, which could stand on its own in any contemporary art fair, Nègre has painted in the candle flames. The technique comes out of necessity. Flickering flame could not be captured by early photography’s long exposures. But the result also seems to radiate an unearthly glow. The photograph is a celebration of light, both real and imagined.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 November 2009, on page 47
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