A friend asked me the other night, “Do you think there are any really important artists who get completely overlooked? And do you think blogging might change that?”
This is an interesting question–more interesting than many critics might be willing to admit. In the long run, I think the answer is no, or at least probably not. Canons of excellence tend to sort themselves out over time (with a little nudging from critics), and I think it’s fairly safe to say that there are no truly great contemporaries of Shakespeare or Mozart about whom we have yet to hear.
In the short run, though, all bets are off. “Every morning a stock-market report on reputations comes out in New York,” Norman Podhoretz wrote in Making It. “It is invisible, but those who have eyes to see can read it.” It also has an arts section, equally invisible but equally readable, and the numbers are quite volatile indeed. Most journalists are day traders–all they care about are today’s winners. Me, I try to buy low and hold. I’m old enough to trust my taste, and I don’t much care what anybody else thinks, though it’s always nice when smart people agree with you. I think, for example, that I’ll live long enough to see Fairfield Porter generally regarded as a major American painter and critic (his stock registered a healthy upward spike when Justin Spring’s excellent Porter biography was published three years ago), and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happens to Arnold Friedman one of these days, though that’s a longer shot.
I mention all this because I just paid a visit to the studio of a painter whom I believe to be absolutely first-class, even though it’s a safe bet that you’ve never heard of him. Albert Kresch has been around forever (he was born in 1922, back when Warren Harding was in the White House), and every once in a while he gets a bit of ink, but for some reason his work never seems to ring the bell of fame. Part of the reason–the biggest part, I suspect–is that he’s never been fashionable, not even for an afternoon. A pupil of Hans Hofmann, the great Abstract Expressionist teacher (and painter), Kresch embraced representation back in the Forties, at the exact moment when all the hip New York painters were going abstract with a vengeance. Yet he never completely abandoned abstraction, either, which made him even harder to pigeonhole. Instead, like Porter, Nell Blaine, and a number of other greatly gifted American painters, he bent it to his own subtle purposes.
Here’s how Kresch explains the seeming paradox:
We were using the abstract as an armature or a structure onto which to build a painting, and [the Abstract Expressionists] were using it as the be-all and end-all of the painting. And in a way, we felt that what we were doing was more difficult, because we were trying to interrogate reality, and what we saw, and the visual. They were in the first ecstasies of success and triumph and we just didn’t agree.
That’s what I call a recipe for unfashionability. But fashion be damned, for Kresch is still alive, well, and painting as wonderfully as ever. As a matter of fact, I wrote about a show of his last year in my Washington Post column:
His paintings are full of sweeping horizontal movement and hot, high-keyed color contrasts. Kresch’s work is rarely shown in New York, but I was dazzled by a solo exhibit last year at the Center for Figurative Painting, so I went straight to the opening of his current show, a roomful of small but compelling landscapes at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries. For me, the pick of the litter was “Yellow Landscape,” scarcely bigger than a postcard but breathtaking in its focused intensity.
To look at some of the paintings from that show (including “Yellow Landscape”), and to read an equally enthusiastic New York Times review by Michael Kimmelman, go here.
I wish I could send you to an exhibit of Kresch’s work right now, but I can’t, because there isn’t one up at the moment. All I can do is tell you that I spent a couple of hours in his Brooklyn studio last Thursday looking at his latest paintings, after which we retired to a neighborhood café, where he told me amazing stories about hanging out with Charlie Parker in the Village a half-century ago. (He’s a jazz fan, too—one of his best paintings is of Lester Young, the great tenor saxophonist.) Then I rode the subway back to Manhattan, thinking for maybe the thousandth time this year that when you live in New York, there’s no place like home.
I promise to let you know the next time any of Albert Kresch’s paintings are on display in the New York area. And to the friend whose original question inspired this lengthy reply, here’s my short answer: That’s one of the reasons why I started this blog.