Klaus Kertess has a big idea. Bigger than "Painting as Landscape: Views of American Modernism, 1920-1984," the exhibition he organized to illuminate the concept. Bigger than the space he had to fill at Caltech's Baxter Art Gallery, where the show remains through May 5. Bigger than his catalogue essay that steams through a vast swath of art history. His idea is as big as the real and imaginary spaces invoked by the 21 artists represented in the show.
Kertess, who is Robert Lehman Curator at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, N.Y., says that a major chunk of recent American art is transformed landscape. This is not a new idea, but Kertess takes a fresh curatorial view by looking at the persistence of landscape and its influence on the development of American painting in the last 60 years.
In a key paragraph of his essay, he writes that "landscape painting and experience . . . provided the field out of which the abstract painterliness of the late 1940s grew. Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, et al., succeeded in transforming landscape into painting; what formerly had been drawn from the landscape now resided in the very act of painting itself--vastness, non-specificity, overallness, and space."
Kertess' concept suggests a massive survey; available space dictated something less. The show seems oddly truncated, but it represents three major constituencies to support his thesis. Four little paintings in the central entryway--by John Marin, Arthur Dove, Augustus V. Tack and Mark Tobey--provide '30s and '40s roots for later abstraction. Here we find literal depictions of landscape becoming fractured, Orientalized, infused with spiritual force and transformed to quivering fields.
One of the two major galleries holds expansive abstractions (with few references to landscape) by first- and second-generation Abstract Expressionists and Richard Diebenkorn, as well as three paintings on marble fragments by Brice Marden. The other gallery is filled with more abrasive works by younger, mostly less prominent painters. (The inclusion of a work by German Anselm Kiefer, "to note current internationalism," seems expendable if not disruptive in a small show trying to make a big point about American art.)
The distance the artists have traveled from representations of nature to, say, James Brooks' circular arena of stains and brush strokes, Norman Bluhm's dripping pathways, Willem de Kooning's fluid ribbons of color and Diebenkorn's orchestrations of bleached color and light at Ocean Park is so great that visitors may think it spurious to call this a landscape show. It is about landscape--and in a more profound sense than the usual "pushing the boundaries" approach. Even as artists explore private visions, they connect with each other through their interpreted experiences of limitless space. Underlying the whole enterprise is the fact of America's vast openness.
In the gallery dominated by Abstract Expressionist canvases, the work may be heroic, celebratory, explosive or classically contained but it always presents itself as part of something larger and unknowable. Oddly enough, works once thought to be overflowing with passion and angst now appear quite peaceful--especially when compared with the acrid colors, worried strokes and turbulent compositions of the younger crowd.
The space of landscape becomes a lurid, yellow-green sea for Louisa Chase, a gurgling brew of comic splashes and protruding phalluses for Carroll Dunham, a muddy ground behind cellular spheres for Terry Winters and a scene of rolling confrontation for Louise Fishman. Mystical wonder seems to have been driven away by apprehension, defensive humor or dread.
No sooner do we get involved with this show than it's over. Caltech's gallery has rarely seemed so small. That's not because the art is uniformly wonderful or because the exercise is trouble-free.
We can argue about a selection or two and complain that Kertess' essay turns from reflective analysis into a list. We can worry that the concept behind the show brings up problems as circular as the origin of the chicken and the egg. We can take the whole thing a few steps further and wonder whether the human figure has shaped figurative art and whether Cubism would have taken its course without the existence of still life.
What we cannot do is forget that Kertess has given us something to think about--a rare event in an era of sprawling pluralistic affairs assembled for reasons far less absorbing than this.