A triple-header at the Newport Harbor Art Museum to July 7 addresses burning issues of our time. Well, maybe not burning. Smoldering? Guttering? Flickering? Something like that.
A traveling retrospective revival of Jan Mueller's painting asks the visual question, why are we plunging headlong into the past? Mueller was a German refugee who worked in New York and died there in 1958 at the early age of 36. The art world barely knew him when he expired and hardly anyone has thought of him since, so it seems fair to view the show as an interesting but fairly esoteric footnote to contemporary history and to wonder what can be the point of resurrecting him now.
The terrain of art history is pocked with poignant stories of artists who were not vouchsafed the time to fulfill their promise. The Eva Hesses and Andrew Wilfs of the world leave us wondering if art would have been greatly different had they been able to go on. In the world of What If we never, of course, get answers to these profound conundrums. But hard-nosed realism seems to suggest that the work of history gets done in spite of the individual. Urgent ideas find many a willing hand to give them shape.
This is particularly true in Mueller's case, as he was part of a well-populated late-'50s swing back to the depiction of the figure after the triumph of Abstract Expressionism. Mueller spent time studying with Hans Hofmann, the pedant-patriarch of AE, and produced formal fields of squarish dots. But he soon joined a group of his contemporaries in a cooperative gallery and respectful revolt against the older generation. The East 12th Street showplace was called Hansa, and the stable included such well-remembered figures as George Segal, Allan Kaprow and Richard Stankiewicz.
Compared to his peers' eventual development, Mueller was conservative. Every formality and emotional wavelength in his work was pre-established in Northern European figurative Expressionist movements early in the century. What little was not accounted for by them was taken up in the '40s French Art Brut style of Jean Dubuffet and that lot.
The selection of about 25 works on view at Newport has the superficial manners of strident Expressionism. Big formats, blocky forms, busy brushwork and intense color seem to promise the fervor of Ensor or Nolde. Mueller, however, quickly turns out a much more ruminative artist. Rarely does he escape the underlying proportions of Renaissance figure-in-landscape compositions and even alludes directly to folding altarpieces. He likes classic religious subjects like "The Temptation of St. Anthony" (his most vital painting) and literary themes like "Hamlet and Horatio."
Mueller was something of a Hamlet himself. He did not really want to act. He wanted to worry. Spectral white figures haunt many a work but they are less terrifying than mournful with their cottony forms and child-art features.
This art is like the bad dreams of a good German boy who knows he is going to die. In "The Search for the Unicorn," he feels erotic desire but it is smothered by a combination of guilt at having the feelings and regret that they will never be realized. A still-life bouquet called "All Living Things" reveals Mueller as the doomed young poet being cheerful.
Touching as it is, this art will persuade few that it is the spawn of an ignored genius for whom history must be rewritten. It is certainly worth pondering for its own sake, but one suspects another subtext. Mueller's art looks like much current Neo-Expressionism, but it makes no historical sense as an actual precursor.
So, we come back to the original question: Why are we once again plunging into the past? One usual answer is that we hope it will reveal something about the present. In Mueller's case, the lesson is less in the work than in the artist's biography. An essay in the slender catalogue reveals that Mueller spent his last years with a plastic pump in a heart badly weakened by rheumatic fever. He could have prolonged his life by taking it easy but chose to paint until he dropped.
Aha! At last we have it. Mueller's function in the art world is to stand as a symbol of the true artist's profound dedication to a lofty calling.
One must react to that idea with some recognition that all art (and other) spheres of special interest sometimes lose objectivity in fits of sentimentality.
It also happens that holding Mueller up as a mirror to Neo-Expressionism and its adherents is a healthy idea. Heaven knows that often cynical lot can use a reminder that art does require exceptional passion and ethical rigor.
Present time is the focus of "Contemporary American Ceramics." The show, organized by the Newport Museum and New York's Independent Curators Inc., acknowledges California as the cradle of today's ceramic art but shows 20 artists who prove accomplished work is made throughout the land. That done, it launches into a gripe familiar to artistic sub-categories from printmaking to photography.