The power of 'Cool'

A contemporary-art show at Bowdoin is a must-see
By KEN GREENLEAF  |  May 18, 2009

090424_Noland_m
"SPREAD" (1958) Oil on canvas by Kenneth Noland, 117 x 117 inches. 

"New York Cool" is required viewing for anyone who has an interest in contemporary American art. Comprised of nearly 80 works, the show, at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art through July 19, illuminates a period in New York directly after the high-water mark of Abstract Impressionism ("warm") and just before the onset of analytical minimalism and the deep ironies of pop art ("cool"). It has at 

"NEW YORK COOL" at Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick | through July 19 | 207.725.3275

least four or five major works and many others that are not only really good but illuminate the evolutionary changes that were part of life in art at that moment. It was assembled from the collection of the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, and is currently on the fourth of its tour of five museums around the country.

Most of the works in the show were executed within a 10-year period centered around 1960. Two of the best works that exemplify the changes in the air at that time are Adolph Gottlieb's "Circular" (1960) and Kenneth Noland's "Spread" (1958). The Gottlieb, although made a little later than the Noland, comes from the earlier side of the divide.

"Circular" is a characteristic work of the best period in Gottlieb's career. A bright red circle with a darker center floats on a white ground in the top half of the painting, and a rough-edged brown mass occupies the lower half. Close up, one can see how the paint is built up, tangible and carefully wrought, resolving a harmony from dissonant elements.

The Noland is one of his "Target" series, concentric circles of highly saturated color made before he went on to his better-known horizontal-stripe paintings. Noland had learned about stain painting from Helen Frankenthaler (also in this show) , and took it in a new direction, using color in a simple but resonant structure. The Noland "Target" paintings are rarely shown, and were often as good as anything he has made in his long career. "Spread" is close to ten feet square, and is a wonderful painting.

Louise Nevelson was undervalued during that period, and it's hard, in retrospect, to see why. She carried on with her characteristic wood assemblages throughout her career, in her later years finally getting the recognition she deserved. "The Tropical Gardens" (1957), made of her usual black boxes and collected bits and pieces, has that dominant presence shared by all really good sculpture, and does it without being physically overwhelming.

Works by Alex Katz and Will Barnet show them in transitional periods in the their work. A Barnet, "Little Duluth Bathers" (1960), is nearly abstract. The later "Portrait of RRN" (1965) is directly representational, made with flat, un-modeled shapes, but without the iconographic color of his later works.

The two Alex Katz paintings, "Ada Ada" (1959) and "Ada Seated" (1963), are very simply rendered, but haven't yet reached the minimalist-inspired artificiality that became Katz's characteristic style.

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