ART REVIEW : An American Boulevardier

TIMES ART CRITIC

All persons with lips should prepare to feel them curl upward upon encountering the 100-odd paintings and prints by Maurice Prendergast just put on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Not everyone will remember Prendergast. He is one of those artists known to aficionados. Even they will have their image of him widened by this rare, heartening retrospective organized by the Williams College Museum of Art. Here it has been fleshed out with a dozen works added to the show by curator Michael Quick.

Prendergast's work hovers on borders between several pigeonhole categories, likeably unwilling to be stuffed into any of them. He was an American born in 1858 on the doorstep of La Belle Epoque, but of all American painters he is perhaps the easiest to mistake for a Frenchman. His dappled scenes of parks, seaside resorts and boulevards will paint him as an Impressionist to a careless glance, but he was more imaginative than that.

He lived until the middle of the Roaring Twenties. Informed scrutiny will reveal that he revered Cezanne and admired Matisse. At times his later work puts one in mind of the young Wassily Kandinsky painting fairy-tale landscapes with strokes shaped like fat hyphens. But Prendergast was never a modernist either. He was just himself. He couldn't help it.

Born in St. Johns, Newfoundland, he had a twin sister, then a brother, Charles. Their father was a grocer who soon moved the family to Boston, where they fell on hard times. The boys had a minimum eight-year public school education and went to work at age 14. Maurice's twin died when she was about 18. Such glum beginnings have been known to fuel budding artists with grist for a troubled, neurotic aesthetic vision.

Not Maurice.

He and Charles made their first artistic pilgrimage to Paris in 1891. Maurice studied at the fabled Academie Julian. He made some art friends but avoided showing at the Salon with them. He worked in the streets and his little paintings of Parisian life sold briskly--sometimes to passersby who purchased them on the spot. No wonder. One little frieze of sketches in the exhibition has all the wit and brio of the young Bonnard.

After that easy launch, Prendergast just went from success to success. In 1898 the Boston art patron Sara Choate Sears bankrolled a long trip to Italy for him. In 1908 he exhibited in New York with the rebellious Ashcan School painters, considerably widening his growing reputation. He had little in common with "The Eight," save a shared interest in getting away from stultifying artistic convention, but they remained lifelong friends. It seems everybody liked the Prendergast brothers. Charles became an ace frame-maker. One acquaintance described them as, "odd, wonderful people, clean and jaunty," with a touch of Peter Pan about them. Prendergast never married, and he and Charles traveled together and shared quarters frequently.

Maybe the painter had an illicit love life like his friend Arthur B. Davies, but catalogue essays by Nancy Mowill Davis don't suggest that. Neither do the paintings. If Prendergast's dreary beginnings marked him and his art at all it was with a conviction that it is better to keep things at a pleasant remove and communicate with life through the medium of detached charm.

Except for rare images like "La Rouge, Portrait of Miss Edith King," everything Prendergast painted begins with the middle distance. There is virtually no foreground. If he hadn't put so many people in his pictures he would have been a pure landscape painter and a good one. But he liked people.

He liked kids. In "Children on a Raft," he empathizes with a gawky boy in itchy stripped trunks and smiles at little girls whose bathing costumes make them look like big muslin flowers. He got a kick out of formally dressed people walking the beach wearing hats and carrying parasols as if his own leanings to new ideas made him know they were already quaint.

But if you keep life at a distance--even an affectionate distance--it does something to the way you see. Things take on the quality of a decorative pattern and they seem to fuse. One of the best of the early pictures is "Rocky Shore Nantasket." It has a wonderful cellular dappling that makes figures and rocks seem to soften and run together like clouds. Prendergast loved to paint clouds.

He also made monotypes. The technique causes forms to lock into the paper and images look as inevitable as a water stain on wallpaper.

One of his best Venetian pictures is "The Clock Tower, Venice" where the vertical format wittily hugs the sides of the famous structure. He was clearly most interested in St. Mark's Square when the whole familiar scene was repainted abstractly in rainwater reflections. "Fiesta del Redentore" is a night scene of gondolas and lights that reads as an almost pure abstraction.

Prendergast's detachment gives the work a slightly dreamy, visionary edge that some observers find naive or childlike. That's not wrong but it might call up an inaccurate mental image. If Prendergast was an innocent about some things he was a sophisticate about art. Some critics found him mannered and he was, but he always knew how to avoid mere stylization by keeping his eye on the real world.

You can see admiration for French posters in his flattened forms but you can tell he thought about real light and atmosphere as he endlessly reworked his paintings. When he painted the beach at St. Malo, the pictures fill with sparkling Mediterranean light. When he painted Central Park, the air is honeyed the way it still is today. When you see the park full of horse-drawn carriages and ladies in long dresses there is nostalgia for a time none of us is old enough to remember, a time when the patterns of life were clearer and more graceful.

In 1907 Prendergast returned to Paris after a long absence. He was pushing 50 but that didn't stop him from being bowled over by the new art he saw there, Cezanne, the Fauves, the painters of the Nabis. He went home rejuvenated, filled with what he called "a new impulse." He trumpeted advanced art to his colleagues and, being respected, it had an effect.

The catalogue makes much of the fact that Prendergast was the first American artist to promote the European avant-garde. He was ahead of Alfred Stieglitz and his breakthrough exhibitions at Gallery 291. Prendergast's gang actually organized the famous 1913 Armory Show that introduced modernism to the American public. His friend Davies spark-plugged the whole thing and Prendergast had seven works on view. It was an act of remarkable generosity on the part of the American artists since the show automatically made their work look old hat.

Prendergast acted on his "new impulse." Paintings became larger and more symbolic. He leaned to ancient myth in works like "Sea Maidens" where every female figure seems to be a goddess of a different culture. But the truth is his work didn't change that much. If anything it became stiffer and slightly muzzy. A new thickness of paint punches up the pictures' dreamy otherworldliness.

Historically, the artist played a role not unlike that of Pissarro when he turned from Impressionism to support Seurat or Puvis de Chavannes when he became a hero to the Symbolists. He was the patriarch that gave youth permission to be itself.

Artistically, Prendergast endears himself by his unforced openness and utter inability to be anyone but himself, graceful, humorous, wistful and just a little dotty.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., to April 22. (213) 857-6000. Closed Mondays.

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