Since itís not a race, you canít cite the fable of the tortoise and the hare. And since itís not a competition, you wouldnít want to invoke David and Goliath. But certainly the better of the two current overviews on Boston art is the not one you would have predicted.
In fact, were it not for the spirited integrity of Boston Universityís “The Visionary Decade,” it would be hard to pinpoint what went wrong with “Painting in Boston,” the large but lifeless show at the DeCordova Museum. Each exhibit serves up a history of painting in Boston. And theyíre about the same size, with 75 pieces at the DeCordova and 67 at BU.
“Painting in Boston,” however, claims to span half a century in the “Athens of America,” roughly from 1950 to 2000, whereas “The Visionary Decade” focuses on a single 10-year period. Is it any wonder, then, that “Painting in Boston” feels disconnected, incomplete, shallow, even, whereas “The Visionary Decade” registers as coherent and meaningful? Look at it this way: of the 20 artists in “The Visionary Decade,” 17 are represented by more than one work, whereas of the 67 artists who make up “Painting in Boston,” 62 are represented by a single work.
The real problem with “Painting in Boston,” though, goes beyond the way it shoehorns an expansive concept into a narrow space (thatís every curatorís worry to some degree) and straight to the heart of the showís organizing principle. Rather than ask, “What work remains most exciting to see?”, or “What does influence look like across a community of artists?”, the exhibitís curators seem to have asked first, “Who have we already got in our collection?”, and then, “Whose academic credentials qualify as most elite?” The result is that seminal artists ó Philip Guston, Sarah Supplee, Gregory Gillespie ó occupy an equal footing with their distinctly less inspired contemporaries.
Thereís also a weird physical uniformity to this DeCordova show. Almost all the paintings are large, bright, and overbearingly pleasant. The range in scale and in pitch is so reduced, the selection process feels as if it had been computer-generated. After a while, everything starts to look alike. And then thereís the question of whoís been left out ó disgraces abound.
Yet there are some seldom-seen works by terrific painters to be enjoyed. A quarter-century ago, Sarah Supplee was at the apex of her career, painting chillingly exact scenes of cars and trucks coursing along infinite highways. Speed meets utter stillness in Suppleeís roadscapes ó the vehicles imply velocity even as the road and the ground and the sky imply stasis and composure. Photorealism is typically understood to denote compulsive exactitude, oil mimicking the mechanical process of image transference in photography. In Suppleeís case, photorealism means something else entirely ó like photos, her paintings stop time. Tanker, Rte. 2, Fitchburg, Mass. (1975) offers competing suggestions of loneliness and purposefulness, familiarity and strangeness.
I missed the Hyman Bloom retrospective a few years ago at the Fuller Museum, and I regret that now, since his paintings grow fresher (both more provocative and more alive) with time. This native Bostonian ó heís pushing 90 now and living just over the border in New Hampshire ó was recognized a half-century ago by patrons, critics, and artists like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock as a luminary among American abstract expressionists. Bloomís challenges us to find beauty in the grotesque and the tumultuous. Flayed Animal (1950-í54) depicts an excoriated halved cow. The image is just barely rescued from inducing nausea by the sheer hypnotic power of its colors, a mesmerizing confection of ribbon-candy hues. From a distance, Seascape 1, first series (1955-í56) seems little more than an attractive whorl of blues and oranges and whites; only on closer inspection do you discover that youíre in the belly of the leviathan, as the bright, swirling patterns become gaping fish skulls and bulging eyeballs and skeletal rib cages.
Scott Priorís Nellie in Backyard (1993-í99) grows stranger and more arresting as the years pass. The naked little girl on the shadowy green lawn increasingly looks as if she had been fired from a cannon or spat out from a pneumatic tube ó it may be her back yard, but sheís still an alien. Then thereís Alex Grey, whoís not from Boston and doesnít exhibit much here but still made it into the show, perhaps because he attended the Museum School for a year. Breaking sharply with the prevailing wine-and-cheese-reception atmosphere, his 1983 oil Kissing looks like Grayís Anatomy on an acid trip as two people, stripped of skin, embrace in a mesh of exposed brain matter and teeth, capillaries and lymph systems, blood vessels and cartilage ó all the while surrounded by an electrified halo and flames of light.
“The Visionary Decade” may not boast as many outstanding individual works as “Painting in Boston,” but it compensates with a thoughtfulness and a sensitivity so finely tuned that I came away from it with a sense of having visited a place I never thought Iíd get to see. In this case, the religious and spiritual foment that informed so much Boston artwork in the decade that included World War II.
David Aronson, a Jew who emigrated from Lithuania and was a protégé of Karl Zerbe at the Museum School, had his second solo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946 and went on to teaching positions at the Museum School and BU. His recasting of episodes in the life of Jesus ó Crowning with Thorns and Christ in the House of Simon, both from 1947 ó suggests a desire to make sense of, and to make his own, the religious tradition whence he issued. There is a curious ambivalence to Crowning with Thorns: its almost cartoonish, identical figures with their square haircuts and elongated necks seem engaged in not mockery and murder so much as some sort of party ritual. The Christ figure looks out from the canvas aloof, vaguely bemused.
A few feet away, Boston-born African American artist Allan Rohan Criteís Stations of the Cross express no such ambivalence; their intent is devotional, yet their power lies in the artistís inventive compositional sense. Each station is a vertical diptych: the upper image illustrates Christís face in a recognizable moment of his ordeal, but the lower image depicts only his foot. It is a subtle and dramatic way of encouraging your imagination to complete the scene.
Unlike “Painting in Boston,” “The Visionary Decade” allows for the inclusion of relevant samples of paintingís closest cousins, drawing and photography, and for me the highlight of the exhibit was seeing how the artists conversed with each other in their work. Two of Barbara Swanís ink drawings of Ellsworth Kelly complement an Ellsworth Kelly pencil drawing of Barbara Swan. We see Ralph Coburn in three 1949 pencil sketches, one by Coburn himself, one by Ellsworth Kelly, one by Arthur Polonsky. Jason Bergerís gouache self-portrait appears a few feet away from Polonskyís Jason Berger with Fur Hat, a pencil drawing from 1947. Throw into that mix Bernard Chaetís Portrait of Ellsworth Kelly, a Barbara Swan self-portrait in oil, and Ellsworth Kellyís drawing Ninon Chaet (4) and you realize that “The Visionary Decade” honors not just the vitality and talent of its artists but the community they created.