DeNiro, De Kooning, Olitski?

Referencing Abstract Expressionism from the 1950s to the early ’70s, the current exhibit at Asheville Art Museum features artists (or at least names — like actor Robert DeNiro’s father, painter Robert DeNiro Sr.) that are familiar to most.

But a closer viewing unearths a more personal-to-Asheville angle: A number of paintings are by artists associated with Black Mountain College, including three impressive works by Emerson Woelffer, who was hired by Buckminster Fuller to teach painting at Black Mountain during the 1949 summer session. In an interview with Paul Karlstrom for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in 1999, Woelffer recalled his students taking every opportunity to get into Asheville to buy buckets of house paint, because their next class was to be taught by Willem de Kooning.

He later learned of their disappointment when de Kooning set up a simple still life and insisted they spend the rest of the summer drawing it with a 2H pencil.

The local exhibit shows two small de Koonings, both early. “Untitled,” from 1947, is an abstract done in bright pink and red with charcoal drawing and drips of shiny black paint. “Woman,” from 1948, is very small, only 14 inches tall. The model gazes directly at the viewer, a look reminiscent of Manet’s “Olympia.” The figure is executed confidently in white, and drawn into with graphite or charcoal. It hangs next to a huge painting by Manoucher Yektai. Titled “Pat #1,” it is rendered much the same as the de Kooning, but lacks presence and the emotional pull of the small work.

Of the 30 artists represented, only two are women. Nell Blaine shows two flower paintings. “The Corner of the Studio” is loosely expressed in soft colors: It is a welcoming and comfortable space. “Aix Bouquet” presents summer flowers with strong color and brushwork. Sonia Gechtoff’s “Painting #1,” done in 1956, is quite different. A large canvas made up of short brushstrokes in drab colors, its surface is heavily impastoed, yielding a tremendously fluid movement.

Creating the biggest buzz, naturally, are the six paintings by DeNiro, who studied with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College in 1940-41. Albers is reported to have told DeNiro (who was, after all, only 18 years old) that his work was too emotional. Always an independent, strong-willed painter, DeNiro continued to use the figure throughout his career. His “Still Life with a Plaster Cast,” the smallest of his works here, was painted, richly and beautifully, in 1954. The white statue of the Venus figure is structurally solid; the same still life is repeated in a larger and more abstract rendition in his “Mantle with Plaster Cast and Black Fan,” done the same year.

But the show’s most dynamic work comes courtesy of Franz Kline. Kline taught at Black Mountain in 1952, and was appointed by Charles Olson to the school’s advisory board in 1953. The untitled painting from 1951 is executed in Kline’s signature black-and-white rectangular format, with the two colors miraculously receding and coming forward in equal measure. Jack Tworkov, who taught at Black Mountain in 1952 with Kline, explored figuration and abstraction simultaneously. An early work of his, “Still Life” from 1945, is shown.

A survey of American painters from this period would be incomplete without a nod to the works of the minimalists. The exhibited examples get a blink, at least — they seem cramped and a little uncomfortable in their space at the back of the gallery. The Jules Olitski is particularly memorable, its orange and yellow forms floating far above its bright-blue surface. It, equal among the Kline and de Kooning’s “Woman,” is a painting not to be missed.

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based artist and writer. Her work is currently showing as part of Road in Sight: Contemporary Art in North Carolina at Duke University.]

The Most Difficult Journey: The Poindexter Collections of American Modernist Painting shows at Asheville Art Museum (2 Pack Square) through Sunday, Aug. 14. $6/general admission. 253-3227.

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