Critics often referred to them as mavericks and their lack of regard for aesthetically beautiful and chic art made them a tough group to digest and promote. Their work was an “un-hip”contrast to the style conscious city that New York had become. Perhaps the epitome of critical responses can be found in the West Hartford New’s article covering a Rhino Horn Exhibition at Joseloff Gallery at the University of Hartford in 1971: “When you see it you might well be feeling the discomfort felt by Goya’s contemporaries when they reviled at his “Caprices” and “Disasters of War” series of etchings and paintings during the days of Charles IV of Spain and the Napoleonic Wars, or Picasso’s paintings of the martyred town of “Guernica” during the Spanish Civil War in 1937.”
However, not all critics placed so much emphasis and willingness to absorb their work for its humanist drive. Hilton Kramer, the polemic neoconservative art critic, wrote a scathing review of Rhino Horn’s inaugural exhibition in which he dismissed the members as vulgar expressionists who lacked both style and technique. In reality, however, the objection was more likely doctrinal and ideological than aesthetic. Like the more influential critic Clement Greenberg, Kramer championed an essentially content-neutral modernism. Unfortunately for the critical and commercial success of the group, the efforts of the Rhino Horn artists to produce artwork with a message that could also serve a cause did not fit well with the Kramer/Greenberg program.
Of course, they were not without sympathizers and proponents, even within powerful, mainstream media. Their most prominent early write up was Peter Schjeldahl’s New York Times review titled “A World of Raucous, Challenging Images,” of their inaugural show at the Wollman Gallery at the New School for Social Research in New York in 1970.
The show at the New School was indeed “raucous” in a socially conscious manner according to art critic Peter Schjeldahl, who reviewed it in the New York Times. Schjeldahl, who noted the marginalization that Figurative Expressionism had experienced over the previous 30 years, states that the exhibition was successful in “making a case that simple justice should have made long ago” for renewed explorations of the possibilities of figuration. Schjeldahl calls the Rhino Horn exhibition an optimistic beginning for a contemporary revival of Figurative Expressionism and suggests that the group consider Christopher Lane and Bill Barrell in future activities, among other prolific artists who were also painting in this mode. Regarding the distaste for Figurative Expressionism that was widespread in the American art scene of the time, Schjeldahl wrote that “It would be too bad if the uptown art world, attuned to parochial (though legitimate) standards of beauty and formal rigor, continues to ignore the real merit of painters whose swirling pigment and raucous images are among the most challenging pleasures of art in New York today.”
One day before Schjeldahl’s enthusiastic article appeared, Grace Glueck published a lukewarm review of the inaugural Rhino Horn exhibition in the New York Times. Glueck reported, in a somewhat exasperated tone, that the member artists’ “…imagery is entirely concerned with the figure, and their manifesto, which knocks ‘spraygun’ art and other uptown breeds, proclaims that a ‘new art, a humanistic art, will characterize the seventies. On the whole though, I find this art more nostalgic than nouvelle vague.” By contrast, Leslie Powell of The Villager, a Greenwich Village newspaper, acknowledged that, “these exponents of Humanism all have much to say and are technically well equipped, and all of them, with the exception of Bowman, feel the need to create disturbing and shocking images to express their reaction to our environment and culture.”
Rhino Horn received encouraging reviews in response to many of its subsequent shows. Some, like that of Alberta Collier in the New Orleans Times-Picayune reviewing the group’s first show at the Bienville Gallery in New Orleans in 1971, dealt primarily on the novelty of the return to figuration. Stating that their work shared a concern for a “community of commitment,” Collier noted that all of the participating artists “depart from the contemporary norm and find expression, not in the abstract symbolism, but in compositions centered around the human figure.” Others, however, like Walt McCaslin’s article entitled “No Op, Pop, Color Field for Rebel N.Y. Artists,” a review of the group’s show at the Living Arts Gallery in 1971 for the Dayton, Ohio Journal Herald, expressed more enthusiasm and acknowledge that the group’s work does not begin and end with the figure: “…here is a show full of grotesquerie, brilliant color and a certain amount of grim fun, although a stretch of the imagination will be needed to bring several works into the figure genre.” Similarly, Luba Glade in the New Orleans’ Vieux Carre Courier wrote in response to a 1971 exhibition at the Bienville Gallery that “…people who like their scotch, revel in the catharsis of pity and fear offered by Greek drama, and like the art they see to grab them and twist will have a field day at the Bienville Gallery for the next couple of weeks.” The Bienville Gallery exhibition opened on November 1, 1971 and continued through the 27th of the month, and Rhino Horn showed at the New Orleans based gallery again in February of 1974. While Rhino Horn did not have an exclusive gallery showing their work, the Bienville Gallery’s owner, Ed Wiegand, was a strong patron and promoter of their art, and New Orleans offered a largely positive reception for the group’s work. The gallery had previously shown the work of Peter Dean in 1970 (and would show Dean again in 1973, 1975, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1983, and 1985), and Wiegand was an outspoken member of the arts community with an eye for the grotesque and banality in contemporary art, which earned him the nickname Godfather of the Ugly.
Rhino Horn’s 1974 show at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, which acquired several works by Rhino Horn artists in its permanent collection, received differing reviews from John Levin of the Ledger Star and by Dick Cossitt of the Virginia Pilot. In an article entitled “Reward Lies beneath Rhino Horn,” Levin told readers that they “…will need an open mind to view successfully the exhibit by New York’s Rhino Horn artists. The Show, which opens a month long visit Friday at the Chrysler Museum, is composed of art which makes little pretense of seeking universal understanding of its message.” That Levin himself had little idea what to make of the exhibition is clear when he goes on to state that “…there is certainly very little within the art to suggest that the viewer should have an easy time of grasping what the artist wants him to know.” Cossitt, although similarly unwilling to attempt to assign as a meaning or message to the artists’ work, is certainly more enthusiastic when he states that “…the exhibit itself is far more interesting and communicative than all the words that will be associated with it. One’s first impression is that four or five mad men have been turned on the loose, and that they are all bent on either a celebration or a rending of garments about life today, perhaps both, using the most unfettered sort of color and imagination.”
Selected Rhino Horn Press
(Author Unknown; Possibly Roberta Jenckes) “An Unstylish, Uncool Show” West Hartford News, 30 September 1971, sec. 5B.
Hilton Kramer, “Frivolous or Serious?” New York Times, June 21, 1970. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007)
Peter Schjeldahl, “A World of Raucous, Challenging Images.” New York Times, (March 22, 1970).
Grace Glueck, “Art: Drawings by All-Star Cast,” New York Times (March 21, 1970).
Leslie Powell, “Rhino—Art at New School,” The Villager (April 16, 1970).
Alberta Collier, “Works of N.Y. Artists Will Go on View Here,” The Times-Picayune, 31 October 1971, Section 3: 18.
Walt McCaslin, “No Op, Pop, Color Field for Rebel N.Y. Artists,” The Journal Herald, Saturday, April 3, 1971, Page 27.
Luba Glade, “Rhino Horn’s Humanity,” Vieux Carre Courier, 5-11 November 1971, 11.
David Rive, “Eccentric Gallery Owner Opens Window onto Art,” The Times-Picayune (March 3, 1991).
John Levin, “Reward Lies beneath Rhino Horn,” Ledger-Star (April 24, 1974): A7.
Dick Cossitt, “Rhino Horn Exhibit Aggressive, Exciting,” Virginian-Pilot (April 28, 1974): C7.
John Levin, “Reward Lies beneath Rhino Horn,” Ledger-Star (April 24, 1974): A7.