‘Affordable’ Art, Powerful Panels and the AbEx Table

Art for Every Home: Associated American Artists, 1934-2000

Grey Art Gallery, NYU
100 Washington Square East
(212) 998-6780
Through July 9
From 1962 to 1971, the actor Vincent Price appeared on television for Sears, attempting to purvey modern art to the general public. In 1965, the aspiring art dealer Marian Goodman founded Multiples Inc., with the idea of selling lower-price Minimal and Pop Art editions to a broader audience than top-tier collectors. Today we have the various "affordable" art fairs, offering all manner of contemporanea at a fraction of what high-end galleries charge. The whole populist enterprise, however, has proved quixotic; modern and contemporary art with any edge to it lies mostly outside the taste box of, as the English have it, your average punter.

Back in 1934, however, the accessible imagery of such heartland "American Scene" artists as Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood appealed to both serious collectors and everyday citizens. Entrepreneur Reeves Lewenthal persuaded those artists and others to produce $5 signed prints for his business, Associated American Artists. They were available at first in department stores and then more successfully through the mail. During the '40s, AAA produced visuals for war-effort propaganda, and also segued into corporate advertising, particularly—with pictures of noble tobacco farmers at work—in what's been called the "Golden Age of Cigarette Marketing." The organization expanded into home decor and, with artist-designed textiles, even apparel. AAA shut down in 2000, after an improbably long life.

To a current art-worlder like me, the feeling engendered by this affably crowded show of pictures and objects is that of meeting a previously unknown uncle with an undeniable family resemblance, but who disturbingly dresses like an extra in "It's a Wonderful Life." The show was organized, b y the way, in Manhattan—the one, that is, where the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art at Kansas State University is located.

Jinn Skin: Lui Shtini

Kate Werble
83 Vandam St.
(212) 352-9700
Through June 4
If it's possible to boil down Chicago Imagism (think Christina Ramberg or Barbara Rossi) into intensely colored panels, no larger than two feet on a side, that feel like they'd swell up into giant Ed Paschkes if you added water (or more turpentine), then the Albanian-born (1978) artist Lui Shtini has done it—and done it well. These small pictures containing highly abstracted and totemic allusions to mustaches, faces and genitalia are little powerhouses.

After receiving a BFA degree from the Academy of Arts in Albania's capital, Tirana, Mr. Shtini emigrated to the U.S. while in his 20s, and has enjoyed gallery solo exhibitions in, among other places, Chicago. But Mr. Shtini is no fish out of water in New York, where he works. In fact, his control-freak, almost fetishist approach to painting is a welcome antidote to the seeming acres of pictorial surf aces currently out there in the galleries, indifferently slathered with zombie-this and hybrid-that painting. Thanks are owed to Mr. Shtini for the course correction.

Philip Guston:
Painter, 1957-1967

Hauser & Wirth
511 W. 18th St.
(212) 790-3900
Through July 29
The uncertainty principle in physics states that both the position and trajectory of a particle cannot be precisely determined at the same instant. That also applies to this full and quietly exhilarating exhibition of the most painterly paintings—by Philip Guston (1913-1980)—you're likely to see in any gallery this year. There are two somewhat contradictory ways of looking at them.

One favored by most critics is to view them as a part of Guston's trajectory as an artist. He went from a kind of social-protest figuration in the 1930s (e.g., menacing Ku Klux Klansmen and nooses) to Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s and '60s, and then back to figuration, but this time a deliberately all-thumbs style in which the hooded KKK'er becomes a cartoon of a bumbling, death-obsessed everyman (i.e., the artist himself). Since Guston arrived a bit late to the AbEx table (seven years or so after Jackson Pollock's full-blown "drip" paintings of 1947), and didn't stick around nearly as long as did Willem de Kooning, the temptation is to treat Guston's abstract period as a long diversion from his true calling as a self-effacing narrative artist. Wrong.

Seen in position—that is, as works in and of themselves—these 36 paintings, ranging up to nine feet wide, are remarkable for the poetic power they summon from a fairly limited palette (heavy on dark grays and variegated reds) with a standard set of oil-painting brushes (I don't see much evidence of anything larger than three inches). They're solid and cloudy, threatening and joyful, totally abstract and slyly referential—all at the same time. This is a rare and brilliant exhibition.

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