This Art’s Not Kosher


Boris Lurie, Big No Painting, 1963, oil and paper on canvas, 65 1/2 x 85 in. Boris Lurie Art Foundation, New York © Boris Lurie Art Foundation, New York.

This art’s not Kosher, and that ain’t a bad thing either for the spectrum of artists in the Jewish Museum’s exhibition titled Unorthodox. To quote Jens Hoffmann the museum’s Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Public Programs:

Unorthodox does not comment on Jewish religious orthodoxy or critique it, but takes its inspiration from the Jewish tradition of dialogue and debate to investigate the impact of unorthodox concepts on orthodox systems. Unorthodox aims to break with a cultural and artistic uniformity that has developed over the last century among artists and museums, proposing a nonconformist engagement with art as a means to disrupt the status quo.”

So just how does one define the status quo these days where the art world is not as clear cut as it was during the 20th century and centuries prior? For me it is defined by two separate yet equal courses, academia and economics. Art School and the Art Market are the driving forces of dogmatic art discussions today. In some cases, rebellion and “unorthodox” approaches are rewarded. For example, the Hairy Who as well as Peter Saul are enjoying a honeymoon within the art establishment. Their work was hard to digest during their time, but today it is revered, as it well should be, for its forward thinking and groundbreaking aesthetic vocabulary. However, there are many times when the rebellion and maverick nature of an artist or a group of artists is the disdain of academic and institutional tastemakers. Often times, the disdain comes from the fact that the work is non-linear to the canon of Western Art or seen as too grotesque.

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An Artfully Awesome Brunch

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Jay Milder’s paintings pre-installation view. Courtesy of Amstel Gallery/Gregory de la Haba.

Mark your calendars for Sunday, December 13th, 2015, because Amstel Gallery is presenting a kickoff brunch for the The Judy Rifka Project and The Jay Milder Catalog Raisonné Project (1950’s-1970’s). The epic pairing of two renowned New York artists is curated by Gregory de la Haba inside of an incredible venue with a large 21 foot high ceiling.

Both artists’ work is driven by an empirical process that entices human consciousness and pushes the boundaries of painting beyond material forces.  As noted in my essay “Unblotting the Rainbow”, Milder came of age during the Second Generation of the New York School as a seminal Figurative Expressionist.  Jay was one of the pioneers of the SoHo loft scene and participated in some of the first happenings with Red Grooms. He’s exhibited worldwide and is considered an inspiration on graffiti art and Neo-Expressionism. Judy Rifka emerged in the 1970s in downtown Manhattan, particularly Tribeca and the Lower East Side. She has been the subject of over 50 solo exhibitions and numerous prominent group shows such as The Times Square show (1980) and the 1975 and 1983 Whitney Biennials.

Come celebrate from 1-4pm on Sunday, December 13th, The Yard, 106 W. 32nd Street, New York NY.

The Yard, Herald Square

Maryan S. Maryan

Personnage from the Napoleon Series, 1974

Personnage from the Napoleon Series, 1974

As this blog reflects on the past and present artists whose work is/was largely expressive and full of socially charged Humanist imagery, one perfect candidate for discussion is Maryan S. Maryan. I first heard of Maryan through discussions with both Rhino Horn co-founder Peter Passuntino, and the late Figurative Expressionist Irving Kriesberg. Passuntino had brought up his name immediately as the first response to a question I had posed while I was initially interviewing the members of Rhino Horn. The question was “which other contemporary artists would you have included in Rhino Horn?”  While Maryan never did become a member, Passuntino always held his work in such high regard. While his unabashed paintings are a sight to behold, Maryan’s biography makes for just as remarkable of a story.

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National Cat Day – Bill Barrell

Today in observance of National Cat Day is a 1977 expressionist painting by former Rhino Horn artist Bill Barrell. Barrell’s monochromatic painting depicts his nephew Tad inside of the artist’s “cat room.” The story behind the painting is a whimsical tale that begins with the artist looking for a way to pay the rent on his studio and living space when he moved back to New York City. His solution: to board cats inside of his Long Island City loft. This proved to be a profitable endeavor for Barrell and he was able to move back into Manhattan on Lafayette Street in SoHo. Once back in SoHo, Barrell built an even bigger room for boarding cats! If that’s not a New York story, then I don’t know what is! The painting itself is a strong precursor to the Neo-Expressionist movement that would sweep through New York City in the 1980s.

Bill Barrell, Tad in the Cat Room, 1977, Oil on canvas, 47 x 65 inches

Bill Barrell, Tad in the Cat Room, 1977, Oil on canvas, 47 x 65 inches

The following is a personal account from Bill Barrell’s blog published on 8/22/10:

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From the Archives: Counter Currents

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Click on the image above for a look inside the exhibition catalog.

A few months before the 1974 publication of his seminal text New Humanism: Art in a Time of Change, the social psychologist Barry Schwartz curated an exhibition titled Counter Currents: The New Humanism at the Center for Humanist Art at the Aida Hernandez Gallery at 99 Spring Street in SoHo.

The exhibition consisted of thirteen artists: Miriam Beerman, Jacob Landau, Arnold Belkin, Anthony Conger, Peter Dean, Michael Faurbach, Leonel Gongora, Cliff Joseph, Richard Karwoski, Jay Milder, Alice Neel, Philip Sherrod, and Nicholas Sperakis.  Each of these thirteen were also included among a great spectrum of artists in Schwartz’s book. While some of Schwartz’s theses and statements in his book unabashedly walk the line between agitprop and objective criticism, Schwartz is one of the few that have deeply analyzed contemporary Humanist art.

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NY Loves Karl Wirsum

 Magnet Hands, 1972, crayon and ink on chipboard, 84 x 72 inches

Magnet Hands, 1972, crayon and ink on chipboard, 84 x 72 inches

For an artist who eschewed the New York art scene with subversive art, Karl Wirsum has been getting a lot of love from the Big Apple these days. Chicago based Wirsum, along with James Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, and Suellen Rocca became known as the Hairy Who, after a show in 1966 by the same name was co-curated by Don Baum at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. The Hairy Who as well as their precursors, the Monster Roster (which included Robert Barnes, Don Baum, Fred Berger, Cosmo Campoli, George Cohen, Dominick Di Meo, Leon Golub, Theodore Halkin, June Leaf, Arthur Lerner, Irving Petlin, Seymour Rosofsky, Franz Schulze, Nancy Spero, Evelyn Statsinger, and H. C. Westermann), paved a new path for an aesthetic vocabulary that was unique to Chicago. During the 1970s these artists began being categorized more broadly as the Chicago Imagists.

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Allen M. Hart

Self Portrait at Age 87

Self Portrait at Age 87

“Art to me is an adventure in which I attempt to unearth the darker realm of consciousness with irony and the absurd.” – Allen M. Hart (1925-2014)

Allen M. Hart explored the physical and metaphysical world for nearly nine decades and has an incredible art historical account to show for it. Born in 1925 in New York City, Hart studied at the prestigious Art Students League from 1940 to 1948 studying with influential and renowned artist-teachers Frank Vincent DuMond, Anne Goldthwaite, and Jean Liberte. In 1944, Hart was included in a group show at Gallery Neuf on East 79th street and met Peggy Guggenheim, who became interested in his paintings. In 1948 Hart made his first sojourn to Mexico where he connected with the artists Ignacio Aguerre, Pablo O’Higgins, Frida Kahlo, Mendez, and Siqueros; became member of the Talle Graphicos in Mexico City; and had a solo show in 1950 at the Museum of Michoacan in Morelia. Reflecting on his experiences submersed in Mexican Modernist culture, Allen said he felt at home there and had a deep respect and admiration for indigenous people. Additionally, the politically left leaning artistic community of Mexico City had a long lasting influence on Hart’s work, which is in part, fueled by socially engaged themes and poignant Humanist metaphors.

After meeting his wife Mildred in 1952 at his solo show at the Roosevelt House on East 65th Street, the couple traveled extensively. They settled in Spain and traveled throughout Europe and North Africa. When they moved back to New York, Hart became the director of the Visual Arts Center (Greenwich Village), where he administered the Children’s Aid Society program for 30 years (1969 to 1999).

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Rhino Horn: A Lineage to Humanist Figurative Art

Had the Rhino Horn group continued on what artists would have been a likely fit? That is a question that I have asked each of the Rhino Horn group founders, and that we’ve often discussed when speaking about their contemporaries. The criteria for being in Rhino Horn was vague, and stylistically, while the majority of the work was Expressionism, there were notable exceptions (the realism of Bowman and the existential surrealism of Fauerbach). The artists were more focused on bypassing the commercially driven art scene and achieving complete artistic freedom for their work to be experienced as they intended.

Being a small group, it became a fairly big challenge for all of the members to agree on adding new ones. They ultimately agreed to enlist Leonel Gongora, Bill Barrell, Joseph Kurhajec, June Leaf, and Isser Aronovici. Some other artists who have been mentioned by the former members were Irving Kriesberg, Christopher Lane, Emilio Cruz, Pinchas Burstein (known later as Maryan S. Maryan), and Philip Sherrod. These artists were either discussed and ultimately not chosen, or they turned down the offer to exhibit with the group. Regardless, the aforementioned artists were supporters and friends of the Rhino Horn group, and are also considered seminal parts of the Humanist movement.

This question was one of the inspirations for the series of recent posts featuring contemporary figurative painters and sculptors with a Humanist element in their work (See Connecting Figures: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). I am constantly looking at the work of a wide variety of artists whose work adds to the lineage and visual vocabulary of the expressionists in the Rhino Horn group as well as other maverick groups like No! Art, and The Hairy Who. Every contemporary artist who has been featured on this blog could arguably make sense in the context of these earlier groups.

The intent is that this blog will be a subjective and ongoing survey on Humanist and figurative art from the era of Rhino Horn through today. I’ve found these artists that I have featured through a variety of sources (going to MFA open studios, gallery hopping, the internet, and word of mouth). Therefore, I am incredibly open to suggestions by artists, curators, and art historians. Feel free to comment or email me with any suggestions or links to work. If you’d like to see who has been featured, please read the three aforementioned posts as well as the following: Q+A With Jason A Maas, Reclaiming the Racist Flag (John Sims and Sonya Clark), and Dialogue with Joshua Peters.  Stay tuned for many more upcoming interviews and features of today’s artists who expand the discourse that Rhino Horn and earlier groups presented.

Reclaiming The Racist Flag

Cliff Joseph, The Superman, 1966, oil on canvas, 48 x 24 inches

Cliff Joseph, The Superman, 1966, oil on canvas, 48 x 24 inches

Iconic symbols represent an archetypal meaning and/or have a collective cultural definition. Often times due to a vast range of ideologies, these symbols become dualities.

For example, the swastika is known in Western culture as a symbol of hate and in many Eastern civilizations as a sign of peace. The two uses of the symbol couldn’t be further apart. Depending on its context and use, this symbol can be interpreted in different ways. The Nazi’s adopted an ancient symbol, sacred to Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists, and as a result have stigmatized this symbol of non-violence through the violent extermination of Jews, homosexuals, and other minority groups. In Sanskrit svastika, means “good fortune” or “well-being.”

Today, the swastika has been upheld by factions of white supremacist groups as an emblem for their racist and anti-Semitic ideologies. Similarly, many of these groups display the confederate flag, a symbol with a deeply rooted history of slavery and racism.

Artists use signs and symbols within the context of a piece as a powerful statement. Most frequently, the use of these images are interpreted as liberal or progressive leaning, however there have been some notable exceptions.

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From the Archives: Rhino Horn at Open Mind

It has been widely articulated by many who’ve reviewed the challenging exhibitions of the Rhino Horn group that a viewer must have an open mind when looking at these images of humanity in crisis. Therefore it is ironic that the group had a 1975 exhibition in New York City’s Open Mind gallery. Not much information exists on this obscure SoHo art space at 66 Greene Street, however it seems as if it was in operation during the 1970s showing artists like the Jazz producer and photographer Hank O’Neal, Paul Spina, and Satish Joshi, as well as performance art and poetry. According to O’Neal “the gallery could only be reached via a loading dock and I shared the space with the release of a book of poetry by John Giorno entitled Cancer In My Left Ball.”

Below is a review by Jessica Blake of Rhino Horn’s 1975 exhibition at Open Mind that was published in Arts Magazine.

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