Ongoing. Van Doren Waxter, vandorenwaxter.com
As an artist, Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) started young. His catalog raisonné begins with drawings he made in 1933, the year he turned 11: renderings of cowboys in strokes of dark, heavy pencil whose intensity goes beyond gun battles. “Paintings and Works on Paper 1946-1952,” the main exhibition at Van Doren Waxter, follows Diebenkorn moving quickly toward his first mature abstract style.
He had just been honorably discharged from the Marines, having dropped out of Stanford University to enlist (and to get some distance on his father, who wanted him to become a lawyer or doctor). Upon his return, he enrolled at the California Academy of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) — soon to be a hotbed of what would be called Abstract Expressionism — beginning a hectic six-year period of degree-earning, teaching and most of all, highly disciplined work in his studio. It was also a peripatetic time: Diebenkorn and his growing family moved from the Bay Area, to Albuquerque, N.M., to Urbana, Ill., before settling back in Berkeley, Calif. Among all this, grants enabled him to spend a year and then a summer in New York, eliminating any desire to live there.
An air of diligent experimentation prevails here, as Diebenkorn tries out various forms of European modernism and absorbs the latest developments among younger artists in both New York and San Francisco. Most of his energies are devoted to spiky geometries that hint variously at figures, buildings or weapons. In dark primary colors, they are sophisticated distillations of Cubism, De Chirico, Picasso and Robert Motherwell. Other works show Diebenkorn softening his colors and flattening his forms while adding bits of elegant improvisational drawing, taking crucial inspiration from the light, open spaces and paler tonalities of the Southwest. “Untitled (Albuquerque),” from 1951, and an untitled canvas from 1952, especially signal Diebenkorn finding his feet. They point toward the distinctively gentled Abstract Expressionist style, pursued primarily in Berkeley up to 1955, that yielded some of his greatest paintings.
Accompanying this show is a bonus: “Wartime Works 1943-45,” which demonstrates that in the Marines Diebenkorn used barracks life as an extended drawing class. At Stanford, he had made very little art. Now his prodigious drawing skills seem to explode.
He captures a dress uniform on its hanger in exquisite shades of graphite, and a young off-duty Marine, bare-chested and smoking, in equally effortless ink line. A watercolor and ink portrait of an older man verges on caricature: He is also stripped to the waist, his sagging skin dotted with tattoos. Four hollow-eyed men at a table (one slumped over) have some of the foreboding of Alice Neel’s early work. Other works borrow from Social Realism, Surrealism, German Expressionism, always with uncanny command.
Selected by the artist’s daughter, Gretchen Diebenkorn Grant, assisted by Daisy Murray Holman of the Diebenkorn Foundation in Berkeley, the often beguiling figurative drawings make the progress of the main exhibition’s paintings even more impressive. They show that Diebenkorn mastered abstraction from a standing start.
‘Labyrinth of Solitude’
Ongoing. 56 Henry; 56henry.nyc.
A lot of work goes into mounting an exhibition before the installers get their hands dirty. The curator has to come up with an idea, discuss it with a gallerist and other collaborators, request loans or permissions, maybe even arrange jpegs of old masters on the walls of a virtual gallery. What if the curator did all that, stopped short of installing the actual paintings, and called it a show?
It’s not exactly a new idea, but with so many museums and galleries still closed, it’s a timely one. And the curator Jens Hoffmann has taken this approach, which he calls “soft curating,” for an exciting, if not entirely convincing, ride in the online show “Labyrinth of Solitude.”
Choosing 13 masterworks from the Metropolitan Museum, Mr. Hoffmann matched them with new paintings, some specially commissioned by the gallery, in themed pairings that elaborate the equally timely theme of solitude, from “Death” to “Salvation” and “Identity” to “Isolation.”
For the most part, the new works are eclipsed by their elders, though Jakub Julian Ziolkowski’s surreal nightmare, “Hospitalized,” makes a tantalizing complement to Michele Giambono’s 15th-century “The Man of Sorrows,” and Delia Brown’s Cubist pastiche “Modern Girl (yellow top)” is an interesting counterpoint to a wistful portrait by Mary Cassatt. But all of the pairings are worthwhile, if only because they highlight some interesting aspect of a shared subject.
The problem, basic but insurmountable, is that you just can’t see them well enough. But if the show, as a show, doesn’t quite make it, as a high-concept short story, it’s a tour de force.
Through July 24. Karma, 188 and 172 East Second Street, Manhattan; 212-390-8290, karmakarma.org (open by appointment).
Let me start with a disclaimer: Thaddeus Mosley’s sculptures are not best viewed virtually. Their hand-carved textures, beguiling balance of shape and form, and commanding presence don’t translate to digital images. But images are what we have (for now: art galleries, including Karma, have begun to reopen by appointment). And they give us an opportunity to meditate on his vital work.
Mr. Mosley, 93, began teaching himself to carve in the 1950s, inspired by displays of Scandinavian design. He continued while working a day job for the post office. A 1966 solo show at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh led to interest from New York galleries, but he “told them no,” he explained in an interview. Mr. Mosley has spent his life and career rooted in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area, where he sources the wood for his art.
The exhibition, online as well as at Karma’s two locations, features 23 sculptures that both embrace and transcend their material. Taken as a whole, the most populous display looks like a forest, with the works’ grooves and marks recalling tree bark. Upon closer study, each one unfolds as a complex assembly of interlocking pieces, which sometimes, as in “Inclination” (2003), seem to defy gravity. Forms emerge — a gun in “Propelled Simulation” (2001), a pair of figures facing off in “Geometric Plateau” (2014) — remain suggested more than definitive. Mr. Mosley creates objects that feel natural yet mysterious, like handmade totems embedded with metaphysical knowledge.