Arthur Danto wrote somewhere how if he had continued his youthful ambition to be an Abstract Expressionist painter, he'd have probably ended up like bitter one-time students of Hans Hofmann who taught in the art schools long after their chosen style had passed from the scene. The image's more vivid in his telling, but also more than a little unfair. Danto's throwaway remark conjures a vision of artists passed by history, irrelevant and cursing their fate. But how many of them followed their own former teacher's example and quietly set down to the patient exploration of their ideas?
I was reminded of Danto's remark when visiting the small retrospective of work by Michael Loew, who studied with Hofmann and then taught for nearly thirty years at School of Visual Arts, on view at Acme Fine Art in Boston on Saturday. There were about 14 or so piecess, drawings, watercolors and oil paintings. Most of them can be seen here. "Retrospective" may be too exalted a term for such a small group, but nevertheless, the central line of development in Loew's came across. Though I have no real knowledge, there's no reason to suspect regrets on the part of Loew, a friend of de Kooning in the early days and from what I can discover, a well-respected teacher. And even if a fuller biography said otherwise, the work would still disagree. This is a very pleasurable small show. The gallery space may be small and a little awkward, but the works look good - or more than good.
Loew's process of reduction from figure or landscape to geometric order takes real hold around the time of his study with Hofmann, but even earlier drawings have the angular line that would distinguish his draftsmanship. Landscapes from the late forties show how he's absorbed the cubist lesson book, with the bars and blocks that make up a Provincetown wharf reoccuring as the basic elements of his vocabulary. Loew's thin watercolors have a bleary light, and it's interesting to note the entrance of musical vocabulary in the titles of works from the 1950's on. Among all the possible associations, the one that felt strongest to me was Mondrian, both early and late. Loew's early explorations in abstraction don't create the same sense of a field as the Dutch painter's, and the colors of his later works (such as in Off Balance Rhythms #2 from 1978, above) fly way beyond anything Mondrian would accept, but the debt is clear.
The two large paintings, Off Balance Rhythms #2 and Spatial Interchange (1976) are thinly painted, as are all but one of the works on view. The gallery also has preparatory drawings (no images online) on graph paper for paintings in this late style of Loew's. Seeing them gives a sense of how carefully he blocked out and planned his work. But to turn from them to the paintings is to see how much occured on the surface: grid lines fade in and out and multiple washes of blue, cream and white watercolor bleed, at times covering over and obscuring the colored bars that otherwise shine out the dominant pattern. There's a strong sense of touch, of the hand of a knowledgable artist who has studied long and hard and found his path.
It may be unfair to compare this brief career overview by a deceased painter with the other shows by young artists I saw this weekend. Be that as it may, it was the best thing I saw when out in the galleries. If you hope to catch it, don't let the snow stop you: go soon. It closes February 5th.