"5 From New York," the fine new talent show at the WPA, was picked by Walter Hopps. It is fresh and hip and handsome. Because it cuts a kind of section through "New Image" or "New Wave" (or whatever you might call that newish New York painting of which we've seen so little and yet heard so much) it seems bigger than its parts. If all the curators in town were doing what they ought to do, we'd see shows as good as this every other month.
Hopps, former director of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art and of the Corcoran, is now helping start museums in Houston and Los Angeles. With this inexpensive show (Hopps said his budget was $300) Hopps proves once again he is among the best art scouts around.
There is in Hopps' exhibit, beneath its vigor and its flash, an undertone of poignance. None of the five artists that he has selected--Angela Cockman, Billy Copley, Anne Doran, Philip Allen and James Mullen--has a "major" reputation. Fame in art is tricky. A few, a very few, young artists grab the golden ring. Many thousands miss it. Hopps says when he picked this show, in Brooklyn and in Hoboken, he was "looking past the shoulders of Julian Schnabel, Robert Longo and the other New Wave painters who--boom!--suddenly have made it. The artists just beside them--I picked these five from 20--are of more interest to me."
They all may be New Imagists, but their styles vary greatly. Only two of them make images everyone can read.
Using painted strips of wood, Anne Doran manufactures witty fragments of small scenes of "Domestic Bliss": a woman's lower body, dressed in yellow pantaloons, steps into a skirt; a fragment of a housewife puts a fragment of a fitted sheet on the mattress of a bed; two little girls, wearing Mary Janes and bright blue skirts with bows, stand in knock-kneed grace on a nearby wall. Doran's objects seem to wink at pop art, women's lib, and the drawing of Ce'zanne.
Her colleague, Billy Copley, though now a New Yorker, still appears to bow to the hot and violent Tex-Mex dreams of his native southern California. His paint is thick, his brush is quick, his glowing colors garish. A huge green skeleton cavorts in "Sometimes You Eat the Bird and Sometimes the Bird Eats You." An enormous rattlesnake writhes in love-hate with an eagle. A third Copley canvas stars a kind of pig-frog-rat; its feet are webbed, its tail long, its colors neon-brilliant blues and yellow-greens.
Two other artists here, who paint beneath the star of the late Philip Guston (and perhaps those of Kandinsky and the New York action painters) produce dense and complex images one cannot quite decipher. Both Philip Allen and James Mullen seem to be attracted, but never quite succumb, to a kind of private, vigorous cartooning. Both men paint with verve. Mullen's active paintings (they are mostly black-and-white) hint at heads and endless columns, spinning wheels, streets and the formal plans of Renaissance church ceilings. Allen's even denser canvases somehow call to mind German Expressionism crossed with late Braque and early Pollock. They are clotted variations on archaic themes--Greek goddesses and gods, monsters blue Aegean seas.
Both men seem, at heart, loyal to abstraction, unlike Copley and Doran. The fifth artist is somewhere in between. Angela Cockman's moving, unpretentious, semi-abstract drawings, in black and terra cotta, hymn an ancient landscape, its step pyramids and cacti, its mountains, snakes and fissures. The entire exhibition seems to pivot around them.
This show is never minimal. It offers few hard edges. It looks as if these artists (except, perhaps, for Doran) have been busy reinventing the myth-mining and vigor that marked New York painting before it turned to cool. Though all of them, says Hopps, "have a real New York stance," it is interesting that four of them began their careers elsewhere. Three--Cockman, Doran, Mullen--once studied at the Corcoran. Copley, as one guessed, comes from California. Hopps knew his father well there. William Copley (who signed his pictures "Cply" and said he dropped the vowels to avoid confusion with the portraits of John Singleton) was one of the first men to turn Hopps on to art. Cply, in the '50s, ran a Beverly Hills gallery that showed only six artists, all stars of Surrealism--Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Matta, Man Ray, Rene Magritte and Joseph Cornell. When no one seemed to want it, Cply bought their art himself. In scouting this exhibit, Hopps followed leads he'd picked up here and in L.A.
Time has done few favors for Paul Reed, the Washington color painter, whose new collages are on view downstairs. Few artists in this city are sweeter or more modest or more devoted teachers. Yet Reed's work was far better known here in the 1960s than it is today. Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, both perhaps his superiors, tend to sop up all the credit now for the local school of painting in which he played a part.
Reed's work has changed a lot. Once bold and colorful and big, it is now small and subtle. Once based on the hard edge and on high-keyed color, it now suggests a modest lyrical automatism. A freely drawn and dancing line gives his new work movement, but most of its color comes from the small color photographs he has glued on top of it. He tends to twin his photos--of elephants, motels, fallen leaves and parrots--as if to tell the viewer a quiet joke. His collages often pun: A hornbill's beak makes light of a sculpture by Miro', a parrot's beak, in turn, puns the curvings of the horns of a cow's bleached skull. Ghosts of the hard edges and flat fields on which he once relied show up in these pictures as black dividing lines, as scatterings of dots. While a kind of big ambition crackles in the show upstairs, Reed, it seems, has made his peace with the private and the small. Both shows at the WPA, 404 Seventh St. NW, close April 24.