Culture: March 2011 Archives

John Blee Jewel Return 1982 acrylic on canvas 48" x 33"

I met our friend John Blee soon after I had moved to New York in 1985. I knew him first as a brilliant mind and an engaging conversationalist. I quickly found out that he was a painter and was relieved, and delighted, to learn that I really liked his work. It might not be too much of a stretch to attribute much of my ensuing engagement with the New York art world to our friendship in the 80s. John moved to D.C. years ago, much to my sorrow, but we never lost touch.

At the time we first knew each other he shared an incredibly vast unfinished loft with several truly tonic friends in what was just beginning to be referred to as "DUMBO" It faced Manhattan, and its windows overlooking what I used to call the "electricity factory," where a transformer would occasionally act up, lighting the night sky. Of course it made me think of the paintings.

John is still in Washington, but he's having a show this weekend in DUMBO, in the gorgeous apartment (with incredible views) of Norma Jean Markus. It's a return of sorts to the neighborhood which gave birth to so many beautiful canvases, even if the neighborhood itself has changed dramatically. For one thing, a visitor from Manhattan will no longer be the only one on the street after the end of the day shift.

Event Details:

Reception: Sat., March 12, 4 - 7 pm and Sun., March 13, 1 - 4 pm

Location: 70 Washington Street #12G, DUMBO, Brooklyn

To visit by appointment: Contact Norma Jean Markus at 917.446.7234

As Barry writes on Bloggy, many visitors to our apartment have admired the two paintings we have of John's. The larger one was actually one of the first works of art I had bought for the apartment. In Brooklyn this weekend you can see a range of his work from the 1980s to the present.

Related blog post: Art Wrap.

Below is an essay by writer and art critic David Matlock on John's work.

John Blee in DUMBO

As the 100th anniversary of Kandinsky' s breakthrough approaches, it is fair to ask: what
has been achieved? Are abstract paintings today repeating what has already been said--
and with each repetition, fading in strength? Or do they have something new to say, both
from a technical standpoint and in terms of meaning?

At the beginning, abstraction exploded. Kandinsky himself tried to consolidate a more
controlled language and connoisseurs still argue about his degree of success. When the
Abstract Expressionists adopted the language on a larger scale, canvases exploded again
in shamanic frenzy. Success was hit or miss, all too dependent on possession.

John Blee' s first mature paintings, dating from the early 1970s, were also shamanic,
painted on the floor, and dependent on force and a possessed dancing. In a career of 40
years, the man has achieved total control over paint and, more importantly, now owns
his meditative inscape. He owns the land that earlier painters had to burst into by force.
His paintings are deliberate acts of self-intoxication. (It is worth noting, that although he
came of age in the 1960s, he has always disdained the use of recreational drugs.) The
Hindu and Buddhist art he experienced as a child and adolescent in India were formative;
as was the medieval sculpture in the caves of Ajanta and Ellora; and the work of Indian
modernists in the National Museum. Blee responds to Asian art as an insider--someone
who was shaped by the culture before he received his American inheritance.

The paintings on display are easy to enjoy but difficult to understand. From a technical
standpoint, the rendering of space is unique. There is nothing arbitrary or " atmospheric"
about the backgrounds--they are architectonic--that is, they create a definite space in
which " painterly event" unfolds. It is easy to take pleasure in the paint--casual admirers
often remark, " What a painterly painter! What a colorist!" without suspecting the hidden
narrative. I strongly suspect the hieratic " Sphinx" (2009) is one of Blee' s dogs, posing
nobly on the grass--the humorous title a reference to the difficulty of knowing what the
animal is really thinking. These paintings are truthful because they begin from within
and encompass the outside world in an ecstatic veil of paint. Earlier abstract painters
discovered a new continent; John Blee is traveling inland and is providing a faithful
record of what he finds.

John Blee studied with Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Moskowitz, and Robert Motherwell.
His paintings have been shown in Paris, Moscow, Boston, Washington DC, and New
York City (including the Andre Emmerich Gallery). His work is in the Museum of
Modern Art and the Los Angeles County Museum.
He currently living in Washington DC.

- David Matlock

Reproducing the subtleties of a painting is always a challenge, one which can never be met fully, but I hope John won't be too unhappy with shot at this wonderful painting. I photographed it with an available (overhead) light while it was hanging on the wall of the Brooklyn apartment where it can be seen this weekend. It also appears here on the artist's own site, more evenly lit, but on a smaller scale.

The Dependent, where boundaries blurred (here the New York Fine Arts room)

I've found my art fair. "Armory Arts Week" worked this year: Institutions often don't age any better than people, and maybe the secret of life for old art shows is in the spawning of the new.

The Armory Show itself was, well, armorial, although there were pockets of real humanity.

Independent, which was such a hit last year on its first outing, was definitely more cerebral than both the Armory itself and even its own first manifestation. But there was little eye candy or energy, and it felt surprisingly stiff and corporate. I'm certain many individual conceptual projects would open up if only I could hang around some more, but on a frustratingly-short weekend of compelling attractions there's almost never enough time.

Speaking of candy, Daniel Reich hosted a modest, slightly roguish party inside his gallery on Friday afternoon. A salute to the 60s and the current gallery installation, Jack Early's Ear Candy Machine, it included continuous live music performances. it will probably remain one of my personal highlights of the week, and only partly for its odd folksy character (and Daniel's inimitable conversation).

The Dependent was the event I had most anticipated since I first heard about it, and I wasn't disappointed. Last night the Gramercy Fair (The Gramercy International Contemporary Art Fair), the 1994 progenitor of the modern Armory Show, was resurrected for a few hours. This was no sterile reproduction however, but a brilliant, exciting original. On the basis of the magic created last night, may have already created its own legend. It was "let's put on a show," and the results were pretty compelling, beginning with the contagious enthusiasm of the crowds on both sides of the "proscenium," and continuing through the marvelous blur of boundaries between art, environment, artists, viewers and listeners. The dozen or so exhibitors were given one hour to arrange their installations inside an equivalent number of smallish rooms (inside the Sheraton Hotel on West 25th Street) before the doors were opened at 4 pm. The show was supposed to end five hours later, but the crowds were still lined up outside when we left at nine o'clock.


I tried resisting the lure, and I almost didn't go to The Armory Show this year. So I think I was feeling a little grumpy in the first hour or so at the preview last night (it didn't help that Barry had once again refused to make the trek with me).

My personal best experiences with the West Side piers will almost certainly remain history, as they involved embarking and debarking from great ocean liners - or just "cruising," while today the most they can offer are trade shows.

I hate the getting to and the coming from when it comes to the the Armory Shows on these piers, and even being there is a strain. It's a desert over there: Nowhere else in New York do I feel I have to bring supplies with along me or I might starve or die of thirst. It's worse than the Chelsea gallery "neighborhood," and that's saying something. Because of the lines and the logistics, those piers are always barren of refreshments, even when the organizers claim to have made food and drink available. I couldn't even find a water fountain last night. Four hours in I was saved, just in time, by Pommery, thanks to a friendly dealer.

My enthusiasm for some of the art which hundreds of handlers had arrayed on the far West Side above the Hudson gradually picked up after the first hour or so. I ended up seeing some good work, and I had a great time, but the big reward, for me, came when I arrived at the CANADA stall. I always look forward to visiting the gallery - and visiting with the art keepers themselves - but last night, in the midst of so much intensive marketing up and down those long aisles, their space felt more than ever like an oasis of sweetness and light.

Of course Katherine Bernhardt's gorgeous thick Moroccan carpets helped, but they probably wouldn't actually have been necessary to establish the ambience that was drawing visitors so easily. I think I was there for almost an hour.

The image at the top includes, from the left, lower portions of paintings by Michael Williams, Xylor Jane, and Katherine Bernhardt. The work hanging on those warm umber walls can be expected to change throughout the show.

This page is an archive of entries in the Culture category from March 2011.

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