Friday, November 16, 2007
I noticed in the NYT this morning that William Beckman currently has a show at the Forum Gallery. I forget if I've mentioned him here before, but he was a very important painter for me in my college years and beyond. I still follow his work when possible, even as a good deal of it has become problematic for me.
Though it didn't make a huge impression on me at the time, I actually first saw a painting of his as part of a group show of "New Realists" at the Huntington Hartford Gallery, in that strange building on Columbus Circle, around 1973. It was an odd, quasi-surreal piece, a depiction of himself, his wife and child aboard the Staten Island Ferry, Beckman in the process of removing his clothes.
But my first real exposure was an exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the fall of 1974. (I don't quite remember if they ran concurrently, but interestingly enough, the other show there that knocked me out was one with Rauschenberg's splayed cardboard boxes--two rather different approaches to art)
There were two full length portraits of his wife, Diana, one clothed, one nude and two self-portraits, just the head, about life-sized. While the pure technique was stunning (he's often likened to Dürer), I was even more drawn to the psychology of the portraits. No angst, just a calm, extremely penetrating gaze, one that was rather confrontational actually, challenging one to meet it on equal terms. Both with the self-portraits and even more with the ones of his wife. No artifice, no romanticizing; in the nude she stands arms crossed at her chest, almost daring you to deal with her.
Anyway, I became a fan. When I moved to NYC, I found that he was showing at the Allan Stone Gallery and went frequently. There were some great paintings in the late 70s (which I can't locate images of on-line): a full-length self-portrait in jeans with a marvelously illuminated interior and an amazing double-nude, nearly full length of himself and his wife. He had a hand protectively wrapped around hers, staring somewhat aggressively out of the picture while she looked as though the last thing she needed was protection.
As you can see, his subject matter was intentionally limited, though he began to do landscapes, both from his native Minnesota as well as the workaday semi-rural countryside where he lived in Millbrook, NY. The grounds depicted were always worked, often farmed. The skies tended to be huge. They also, imho, showed a perhaps surprising affinity to color field painters, something I think Beckman acknowledged at one point. Here's a recent one.
His relationship, such as it is, to abstract painting is obviously tenuous. He's pretty much a cranky old-style realist, but he is quite an aware one and things creep in. His flat backgrounds, in the portraits, tend to be extremely vibrant, often creating great tension with the hyper-real faces. otoh, he plays with this, doing (for example) a series of enormous paintings of cows crossing country roads. Cows. Moving, black and white abstract images. It takes (for me) a great deal of effort to look past the damn cows, something I imagine Beckman would rather I not do.
Anyway. In recent years, maybe the last 15 or so, some of his work has become disturbingly slick, usually when it involves portraits of friends and others. Often takes on something of a cartoonish quality. Here, for example:
I can't even attempt to justify that. These have cropped up often enough that the last time I went to an exhibition of his, I left quite disappointed. The intensity he achieves in his best work is a fine enough balance as is, something many people are going to pass over either oohing and aahing over his technique or derisive of the same. That last, I'm guessing, is a common enough reaction from contemporary art enthusiasts which, imho, is too bad. There's always more than enough room for those who stubbornly go their own way, fixated on their own ideas. His self-portraits have spanned four decades or so now and have generally been unflinching (though occasionally odd as well, like the one in the motorcycle suit). Hair recedes, creases multiply, eyeglasses arrive, age spots bloom, but that gaze remains.