ART REVIEW : A Compressed Lesson in Modern Art

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a pleasure to see Michael Goldberg's 10 paintings from the 1950s at Manny Silverman Gallery. As a group, they present a compressed lesson in Modern Art history.

More instructive than many full-dress retrospectives, Goldberg's focused exhibition is true to the risks taken by American abstract painters. This mini-survey offers a lucid, step-by-step demonstration of the artist's struggle to take possession of a dynamic, wide-open style.

The unevenness of Goldberg's paintings clarifies the fresh, experimental nature of Abstract Expressionism's first decade. Large-scale oils that have the tense, physical presence of impacted explosions hang next to smaller works that seem to fizzle out before capturing the visual urgency they sought.

With almost 40 years of hindsight, it's not difficult to distinguish the 70-year-old painter's knock-outs--the frenetic "Madame Recamier," the lyrical "Still Life with Onion Rolls" and the foreboding "Casserine Pass"--from his less stunning works, such as "House of Medici" and "Snow Walk."

It's also easy to see that Goldberg followed no formulas when he painted, instead taking chances and improvising. The two earliest works reveal his attentiveness to European abstraction, particularly Cubist facture and the palette and substantiality of Leger's simplified forms. The rest of the paintings swiftly build in ambition and decisiveness, if not always in strength and resonance.

Over the decade, Goldberg moved away from rapid-fire, gestural flourishes indebted to De Kooning's fluid brushwork and toward his own signature style, in which composition bears an architectural weight. A vivid green field interrupted by a fractured double-cross embodies the crisp impact of the artist's best works.

Goldberg's rambunctious paintings from the 1950s link his recent mixed-media abstractions (which include vibrant, eye-popping stripes and star-bursts) to the original impulses of the New York School. For the last 40 years, he has loaded abstract, visual energy into his pictures, pushing beyond his sources into a lively realm all his own.

* Manny Silverman Gallery, 619 N. Almont Dr., West Hollywood, (310) 659-8256, through Dec. 10. Closed Sundays and Mondays. *

Silence Is Golden: Alan Wayne's multi-panel monochromes are some of the slowest paintings being made today. At first glance, there's not much to see and even less to look for. After a bit of time, it becomes clear that his resoundingly silent installation at Newspace is the most beautiful show the gallery has mounted in recent memory.

Wayne's exceptionally understated paintings intrigue because they eliminate the distance on which contemplation is ordinarily predicated.

Standing before any of his single or multi-part oils on canvas invites all the responses normally associated with attentive gazing. Thoughtful deliberation, careful consideration, quasi-mystical or spiritual musing and the serenity that sometimes accompanies these heightened mental activities are some of the experiences Wayne's art gradually and generously elicits.

However, when you are looking at his deep blue, buttery white, intense red and nearly black canvases, it doesn't feel like you are scrutinizing external objects. As Wayne's graceful paintings slip out of focus and into your memory, your sense of objectivity diminishes.

Detached observation and painstaking study slowly give way to introspective meditation. You find yourself in the middle of a participatory drama that is potentially endless.

Wayne juxtaposes nearly identical canvases in groups of two, three or four panels. Since it is impossible to distinguish one rectangle of saturated color from the next, it is impossible to establish any sort of chronological or narrative sequence.

As a result, time physically comes to a halt, drawing viewers into individual face-offs with their perceptions, expectations and prejudices. Wayne's adamantly passive paintings don't provide any answers, only more focused questions.

* Newspace, 5241 Melrose Ave., (213) 469-9353, through Dec. 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays. *

A Fastidious Craftsman: Richard Baker's odd little still lifes floating in fragmented landscapes are painted in an academic style that is dry without being lifeless. At Louis Stern Fine Arts, the young, New York-based artist's studies of fruits, tools, rocks, fish and face masks manage to be charming despite the well-worn territory they trod.

Baker lavishes a lot of attention on the surfaces he paints, fleshing out the objects he depicts with palpable textures and occasionally juicy details. To his credit, his fastidious craftsmanship never gets fussy or precious. On the contrary, a stubborn sense of mere approximation or perfunctory adequacy infuses his well-worked pictures with a toughness that borders on indifference.

Baker's backgrounds are rendered with an equally perverse insistence on inconsistency. Their jarring shifts in perspective are so awkward, programmatic and studied that they appear to be the ham-fisted exercises of an unimaginative student.

Nevertheless, the disjunctive backdrops in Baker's paintings cannot be described as standard attempts to exploit figure-ground ambiguity. His lumpy paintings save themselves from such cliched conventions by maintaining a deeply ambivalent relationship between haplessness and inevitability. In these endearing pictures, details seem to fall into place despite the artist's best intentions.

* Louis Stern Fine Arts, 9002 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (310) 276-0147, through Dec. 3. Closed Sundays and Mondays. *

A Spin on Surrealism: Bay Area artist Jay DeFeo (1929-1989) puts a delicate spin on Surrealism in her drawings and photo-collages from the 1970s. Best known for "The Rose," a 2,300-pound painting that devoured seven years of her life (plus the remnants of her jewelry-making business and an entire wall of her studio), DeFeo's small works on paper at Kohn Turner Gallery reveal a more intimate, subtle and sexy side of her art.

Her fine drawings depict partial views of tripods, swim goggles, tape-dispensers and other gracefully curved forms that seem simultaneously organic and mechanical. The objects fade near the edges of the paper, suggesting that these anthropomorphic forms belong not to the world of concrete substances but to an intangible realm of fragile, crystalline memories.

DeFeo's collages also eschew real-world specificity in favor of dreamy associations. The slight dramas of her often abstract pictures evoke moods, textures and drifting reveries, rather than eliciting direct messages or describing shocking scenarios.

Unlike her one-ton magnum opus and much of the flamboyant Beat poetry of her generation, DeFeo's works on paper enter consciousness on tiptoe. They reverberate like musical jingles you can't get out of your head, but never know why they got stuck there.

* Kohn/Turner Gallery, 9006 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (310) 271-4453, through Dec. 17. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

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