Old Masters

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Published April 8, 2009

 

 

The art world was supposed to be a place where men could grow old, a place where Picasso could re-visit the old master for decades, and be photographed, virile and shirtless, well into his fifties—if not to the same critical success, then to continuously accruing popular appeal. But the art world can also be a cruel place, for artists who aren’t Richard Prince and don’t make the museum circuit, especially in a New York that for the last decade or more indulged in the flowers of youth. One wonders if economic downturn means sobriety and maturity, or that artists born in the 1990s might not know an alternative to mid-career at 30. In due spirit we highlight artists Peter Saul and Barry Le Va, with shows on exhibition at David Nolan Gallery and Mary Boone Gallery, respectively.

At 75, painter Peter Saul is respected by his peers (Chuck Close, Steve DiBenedetto, and KAWS came out for the opening), but under-appreciated (or avoided) by major institutions, due at least in part to the polite white-box notion that Saul’s bright and busy large-scale paintings intentionally violate good taste. The colorful scenes in this exhibition string together cartoonish depictions of large-breasted women and celebrities partaking in scenes alternatingly obscene and banal with Nazis or real-life villains like Hitler, Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin and Bernie Madoff. The works make prickly references to capitalism, Communism, homophobia, feminism, racism, pedophilia, and art-world politics. Saul says in the exhibition catalogue that he doesn’t have “some political opinion behind it; I just hope it will be interesting” although that’s for the viewer to decide. Nonetheless, this exhibition of colorful works clearly looks at the fringes and formalities of Pop, and informs the aesthetic of painters like Carroll Dunham, Elizabeth Murray and Peter Doig.

Uptown is always a safer bet for in-depth surveys and historical value, and collectors with the past at heart. At Mary Boone’s Fifth Avenue location, 68-year-old artist Barry Le Va, a pioneer of both minimal and conceptual art, has a retrospective of “Cleaver Configurations,” a so-called “Process” work started in 1969 up to the present, works comprised of meat cleavers embedded in the wall or the floor. Le Va’s art possesses a quality rare in such reductive art: a visual representation and understanding of the process. The three wall pieces in the exhibition were each made by thrusting a cleaver into the wall at intervals equivalent to a large side step. The works are clear, direct, unadorned manifestations of a simple physical process, created without self-conscious aesthetic intention. Le Va’s work is determined by the space it occupies; as one of the first Process artists, Le Va has informed generations of artists with work that was the virtuality before “virtual” was even part of the daily lexicon.

Works by Peter Saul are on view at David Nolan Gallery through May 23. The gallery is located at 527 West 29 St., New York. Barry Le Va’s “Cleaver Configurations” is on view at Mary Boone Gallery through May 16. The gallery is at 745 Fifth Avenue, New York.