‘UNTITLED (CRANBERRY ISLAND, 16 AUGUST 1990)’ Charcoal on paper by Emily Nelligan, 1990.
My friend the late Sidney Tillim has been much on my mind in recent weeks. A minor encounter 40 years ago with Sidney, an artist, critic, teacher, book collector, and all-around intellectual, occurred outside the newly opened first location of the OK Harris Gallery in New York. That moment has been a personal iconic image for me ever since. As he was walking out the door and jamming his pork-pie hat on, he spotted me and said in a plaintive voice, "Where's the commitment to seriousness!" He had just seen an especially dumb photo-realist show, popular and selling well in those days.
That image of Sidney and its appended question appears to me often, and its ghost manifested in a recent visit to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. (Please note I am deliberately sidestepping the Lesley Vance show in these considerations, recently reviewed in these pages.)
Most of the museum's flexible spaces are taken up presenting works in their collection. One new piece that was good to see was a large piece by the late, underrated New York color painter Doug Ohlson. Also of note was a snappy little drawing by Franz Kline. Those are paper-conservation nightmares, so it's in good hands at Bowdoin, where they know how to take care of it.
Drifting up to an upper floor, apparently the "pride of place" section, invoked Sidney's ghost as well as Andy Warhol's. It was dominated by a Jean-Michel Basquiat and a Gerhard Richter. Richter is considered one of the internationally dominant painters of his generation, but this one seems to have been done on an off day. The Basquiat is basically nothing, an example of Warhol's guiding principle that the business of art is more significant and interesting than anything else. It's Hallmark-card existentialism, rendered important more by its price than its value. The other works in the room were more exercises in design than art, clever things done with snazzy materials.
What anchored my afternoon and would, I suspect, have anchored Sidney's, was a room containing a number of small charcoal drawings by Emily Nelligan and equally modest-sized etchings by her late husband Marvin Bileck.
Nelligan, now in her mid 80s, works entirely in charcoal on paper, mostly eight by ten inches or less. She has summered on Great Cranberry Island in Maine for many years, and her subject is often the woods and shore. She has a magical way of rendering not only the presence of what she sees but its essence as well. Simple dark shapes become a rock surrounded by water, spots of the white paper showing through the charcoal become reflections that reveal the sea's surface and edge. There's not much detail, but the ideas and strength of the spot are immediately tangible. There's true artistic, intellectual, and visual coherence in these works, the kind that Sidney sought.
Nelligan has been known mostly by other artists for most of her life, only coming to wider notice in the past 20 years or so. She was never "branded," to use a term much in evidence in modern thinking about the art world and its business. Contrast this with the dedicated careerism of Basquiat for much of his short life and the skillful management of his work after his death by overdose at the age of 28. Basquiat's family, dealers, and that greatest of all 1980s art-world branders, Julian Schnabel with his film, turned him into a multi-million-dollar property.