Here's a partial list of the biggest big-time art stars: David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Robert Longo, Neil Jenney, Anselm Kiefer and 24-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat. All six of them are riding the moving wave of fashion. And all are represented well in the juicy, useful group show now on exhibition at the Middendorf Gallery, 2009 Columbia Rd. NW.
There are no hotter painters. The Friends of the Philadelphia Museum of Art just celebrated their 20th anniversary by buying their museum a Kiefer and a Jenney. Works by Schnabel and by Salle, by Basquiat and by Jenney, are reproduced in color in this week's Time magazine. Once upon a time, the old Washington Gallery of Modern Art, and the Corcoran as well, kept this town in touch with the newest New York flash. But those days are long over. Every other year the Hirshhorn does its bit, but only rather tepdily. Those Washingtonians intent on keeping up to date with Manhattan market chic must nowadays depend on Chris Middendorf instead.
The pictures he has chosen do not look much alike. The 1981 Schnabel on display -- it seems to show a hanged man -- is full of broken saucers, coffee cups and teapots. Basquiat is a scrawler. Salle fills his peculiarly crude paintings with borrowed images he likes. The opalescent Jenney and the 16-foot-wide Longo -- the best works in the show -- seem precisionist in contrast. Yet there is much these objects share.
All appear peculiarly New Yorkish. Here in this exhibit one begins to comprehend what makes these big, bold paintings feel so up-to-date, so new. Expressionism, or Neo-Expressionism, has nothing to do with it. The pictures on display depend on something else. Not one is an abstraction. Yet all of them acknowledge the nonhierarchal and centerless fields that one sees in the famous New York pictures of Pollock, Rothko, Newman, early Stella and Le Witt. These are field paintings, too. But the fields one perceives in the Middendorf exhibit aren't optical. They're mental.
These works are disjunctive, enigmatic, discontinuous. They rely on separation. Each picture here presents -- and then stresses equally -- two images, or textures, or thoughts so far apart that a yawning void opens up between them. To contemplate these paintings is to be cast adrift. Between Schnabel's darkly outlined hanging man (he looks like a Rouault) and the broken teapots on which he is painted looms nothingness. An emptiness as deep is sensed between the elements of the larger David Salle: His picture's bottom half shows the androgynous face of a Carol Armitage, a Merce Cunningham dancer. But she is not alone. A red and coarsely drawn cabbage-with-legs, and a just as coarsely drawn blue turnip-with-legs, and a portrait of Henry Kissinger, too, float upon her image. The Middendorf Basquiat is another two-part painting. Its foreground shows a dark-skinned, toothy, scary mask; its background is a rather nice New York School abstraction. It looks something like a Haitian Hans Hoffmann.
The crisp and handsome Longo is as radically divided. Its center panel, a bronzed bas relief, shows a dead (or sleeping) mother surrounded by her children. To her left and to her right are architectural silhouettes of what appears to be high-rise Bronx public housing.
Atmosphere is the subject of the haunting, thickly framed, glowing Neil Jenney. Somehow in this picture he has managed to combine an empty spacious field with the operatic spirit of the through-the-window landscape views made in the last century by Bierstadt and Moran.
One compelling dark and moody Edvard Munch-like picture by West Germany's Anselm Kiefer is on display upstairs. Despite its disparate components -- its starry sky, its ferns, and its cracked palette -- it is a unitary painting. Its title is "Johannis-Nacht." Its subject is that holiday when all Northern Europeans celebate the loosening of winter's grip by succumbing to a hectic and erotic frenzy of spring fever.
One leaves this show convinced that Salle and Schnabel have been much overpraised, and that Longo, Jenney and Kiefer will not soon be forgotten. Basquiat has verve, but he is only 24, and it is too soon to tell. These paintings cost between $25,000 and $80,000. The show closes June 27. Goldstein, Another New Yorker
Jack Goldstein, another much-talked-about New Yorker (who, like Robert Longo, shows at Manhattan's Metro Pictures) is represented in the current group show at Jack Shainman's Gallery, 2443 18th St. NW. Like Sherrie Levine (who photographs photographs, say those by Walker Evans), Goldstein "appropriates" images made by others. "Appropriates," like "liberates," is another word for "steals."
Goldstein doesn't even paint his paintings. He has them airbrushed by assistants. For his two canvases at Shainman's, he has chosen to appropriate meteorological photographs of jagged bolts of lightning. The borrowed image, he has said, "doesn't belong to me, it never did, it passes through me." His paintings pass as easily through the mind of the observer. They don't leave much of a trace.
The most thought-provoking picture in Shainman's show is a new painting by Washington's Robert McCurdy. He used to be a meticulous portraitist. No longer. At a time when many abstract painters have been moving toward figuration, McCurdy has decided to go the other way. His new, almost-Oriental, thickly painted, shield-shaped, asymmetrical canvases are entirely abstract. And very handsome, too. Shainman's group show closes July 14. John McIntosh's Color Photos
The Jones Troyer Gallery, 1614 20th St. NW., is showing new color photographs by Washington's John McIntosh. No advertising artist photographing products for ads for magazine portrays beer bottles or cigarette packs more carefully that McIntosh, who portrays cigarette lighters, corkscrews, colored rubber bands and marbles.
Because he likes the primary colors, red and yellow and blue, he likes to make not just one photograph, but three. One of his triptychs shows three push pins (red, yellow, blue). Another shows three plastic cigarette lighters (red, yellow, blue). You get the idea.
Two of his pictures are more memorable than the others. One shows a used corkscrew whose spots of rust and chipped surfaces at least give the eye something to alight on. The other, of a white lighter, could not be much more subtle. The best Minimalist art somehow evokes vastness. McIntosh's technique is flawless. But his art is merely meager. His show closes June 22.