Brave New Worlds

The Spectator, Andrew Lambirth, 2000

The Crane Kalman Gallery is gaining something of a reputation for mounting high-quality summer exhibitions at a time when most other galleries are closed or are content to hang a fairly random selection from stock. Andras Kalman has long been known for his broadly European perspective, and for showing artists we might otherwise not see in Britain, and his son Andrew is continuing and enlarging on this tradition. Born in Hungary, Andras Kalman was himself an immigrant to the UK in 1939, so it is deeply appropriate that his gallery should now host this galaxy of artist immigrants in America.

And galaxy it is. Among the brilliant company assembled here are Rothko, Guston, Gorky, Hofmann, Grosz, Steinberg and Hockney. In his wide-ranging catalogue preface, Bryan Robertson points out that, although American art was 'received more generously and with greater comprehension' in London from the mid-1950s on than in any other European city (he him- self was responsible for a series of ground- breaking exhibitions, including the first UK showings of Jackson Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell and Kline, when he was director of the Whitechapel Gallery from 1952 to 1968), we still know very little of the true richness of American art.

What is refreshing about this exhibition is the diversity of art it brings together, from abstract to social realist, from a decorated bronze portrait bust to an assemblage of wooden offcuts, as well as the generations it bridges. The most senior figure here is Joseph Stella, who was born near Naples in 1877 and arrived in New York in 1896, while the most recent immigrant included is Francesco Clemente, born (coincidentally) in Naples in 1952, who took up residence in America in 1982. With more than 20 artists in the show, it is at the very least an intriguing selection.

There is real beauty to be seen. Down- stairs is an exquisite Gorky pencil drawing on a sheet of bright yellow paper, of which it occupies only the top half, yet manages to meander vigorously through a gamut of inventive soft forms. It is to my mind much more interesting that the elaborate 'Pink Drawing', touched in with blue and red crayon, hanging next to it. There's a third Gorky on the stairs: a black-and-white study for Night-time, Enigma and Nostalgia', hard-edged and altogether more anguished. Of the two early Rothkos, the oil on canvas 'Composition' from c.1941 is more obviously surreal with a distinct flavour of Ernst, but 'Encantation' of 1944, mixed media on paper, casts a delicate magic through gentle pink and blue plant forms, stringed and singing like harps.

Louise Nevelson assembled arcs and chair-legs of wood, baluster and bench-foot into a sprayed black box of found objects, with the objects stuck on the outside, like the pipes on a Richard Rogers building. She studied with Hans Hofmann, here rep- resented by four bright abstracts, in searching contrast to Ben Shahn's 'Protest Painting', campaigning for 'The Right to Earn Enough ... ' That welcome socio-political element is amplified by Saul Stein- berg, supremely elegant satirist-dandy, who managed remarkably to be acclaimed as Protest Painting' c.1942 by Ben Shahn

both cartoonist and fine artist. Incidentally, when he arrived at Ellis Island in 1941, he happened to exceed the quota for Romanian immigrants, and was refused permission to enter America. He was deported to Santo Domingo for a year, until the art editor of the New Yorker persuaded the magazine's editor, Harold Ross, to sponsor him. Only then was Steinberg granted a visa. Entry into the United States was by no means to be taken for granted.

The odd man out is Theodoros Stamos (1922-97) who was actually born in America, though of Greek parentage. He is included in the show because the Kalmans believe in his work and, from the example on show, it's readily apparent why. Stamos was drawn to organic imagery such as rocks, a shell or pine cone, presented with poetic sensibility as still-life rather than landscape, with a rare refinement of colour and texture. He became increasingly abstract in idiom, but no less attentive to the subtleties of colour and surface. His artistic reputation has suffered because he was a trustee of the Rothko estate, and was thus deeply implicated in the subsequent scandal to defraud the artist's heirs. While not for a moment condoning his behaviour back in 1970, I think we should be able to look at his art again.

In the meantime, the gallery is to be congratulated on a richly entertaining exhibition which, if it doesn't include every artist it could (and the hoped-for de Kooning hadn't yet arrived when 1 saw the show), does nevertheless offer sufficient aesthetic pleasure and food for thought in the balmy days of the silly season. 


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August 26, 2000