Volume 76, Number 6 | June 28 - July 4 2006

Hans Hofmann’s “Perpetua”.

Uptown gallery revisits Ninth St. exhibit

By Rachel Youens

At the uptown gallery David Findlay Jr. Fine Art, a selection of paintings and sculpture by nine painters who participated in the legendary 9th Street Show in 1951 is an opportunity to revisit a watershed moment in the formation of the New York School of art. The artworks on view were all produced within a year or two of the show, by artists who were members of the Abstract Expressionist movement: Alcopley, Peter Busa, Nicholas Carrone, Robert Richenburg, George McNeil, Constantino Nivola, John Stephan, and Phillip Pavia. Also shown is the original poster for the “9th St. Show,” which was designed by Franz Kline and lists 61 artists and the several contributing galleries. Findlay has also included two works by Hans Hofmann, with whom six of the nine artists studied, and a catalogue that gives a synopsis of the time period.

This effort by Findlay Fine Art to mount a historically researched exhibit adds to our knowledge about this period of the lesser known artists who lived hand to mouth in cold water flats, side by side with the heavyweight artists who populated the neighborhood below 14th Street, like Willem De Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, David Smith, and many more. The poster itself, designed with plain block letters is a document of the casual nature of this event. On it are the names of some artists who passed up the opportunity to exhibit, and missing are the names of several artists who actually exhibited.

Phillip Pavia, for instance, originally did not plan to include his work, and his name was not printed on the poster, even though the catalogue essay credits Pavia as the organizer of the “9th St.” show and as leader and founder of “The Club.” It outlines the 9th St. show as a salon des refuse response to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition the year before titled “American Painting Today-1950.” Of the 761 artists chosen, only two were drawn from their bohemian group. Painter Pat Passlof’s remembrance of that period (as recounted in my recent conversation with her), is of the artists’ progression from the Waldorf cafeteria to the Cedar Bar, and finally to “The Club,” an upper floor loft space that Pavia paid the deposit for with money he was saving to cast his sculptures into bronze. Passlof also contradicted Pavia’s role as sole organizer of the 9th St. Show, citing that Jean Stuebing, whose name was included on the poster, negotiated a one month rental of the space in exchange for cleaning and painting it.

Even with Passlof’s modifications in the oral narrative of the event, Pavia’s two bronze works here, “Evening” and “Waiting Time,” elongated, stick-like figures that poetically invoke the lifting steel supports of a skyscraper, gain with a sense of the efforts he made. Passlof described the show’s effort as community based, where everyone pitched in, and of the 9th St. show site, at 60 East 9th Street between University Place and Broadway, as the furniture shop that she and several other artists stood in front of as they said their goodnights on the evening walks home. Pavia’s role, Passlof stated, was valuable as the “person with his ear to the ground, listening for the vibration and significance.”

This show is as much about the narratives of modernism in the Village, as it is about the well-crafted and loving explorations of its nine artists in automatism, surrealism and abstraction. Alcopley, a refugee from Nazi Germany who came to New York in 1937, is represented by two paintings, “Sun Signals” and “Elective Affinities,” which combine luminous color fields with flattened, anthropomorphic shapes and organic mark making, reminiscent of Paul Klee. Peter Busa, in his painting, “Figure,” interprets Picasso’s angst into decoratively complex, cloisonné like forms. Nicholas Carrone’s imagery in “Earthbound, 1948” also utilized automatic methods — the creation of organic forms that emerged out of the unconscious — to capture his ‘unconscious’ while retaining allusions to figuration. Robert Richenburg’s expansive painting “Flying Blues” most directly reflects Hofmann’s theory of figure ground relationships, in which expressive brush strokes applied across the canvas create depth .

John Stephan, whose “Untitled IV,” a work of laterally expanding organic forms that gracefully break through to distant horizons, was painted on matte board. He and his wife, Ruth Walgreen Stephan, published nine issues of “The Tiger’s Eye” in New York during the late 1940’s. Named after William Blake’s poem, “The Tyger,” the magazine is credited in “New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century,” for cultivating, in the small New York community, “Romanticism’s aim to bring tense equilibrium… between many radical diversities.” Its format separated the authors’ and artists’ names from their works in order to emphasize artistry over name recognition. The Romantic interest in the primitive among this group is represented by Constantino Nivola’s sandcast work “Totem” in plaster, based on bas-reliefs from his native Sardinia.
The inclusion of the Hofmann painting, “Perpetua,” a self-portrait that is at once deeply humorous and monumental, points out differences in mastery and generation that existed between these artists.

Findlay could have included such peers as Motherwell or Kline, who achieved fame and were actively involved in the creation of the original 9th St. Show. But all in all, “Nine Artists from the Ninth Street Show” offers insight into an historic event.

“Nine Artists from the Ninth Street Show,” through July 5 at David Findlay Jr. Fine Art, 41 East 57th Street, Suite 1120, (212-486-7660; findlayart.com).

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