It is always interesting to view the work of art critics. Most often, the soul of their criticism—its preferences and loyalties—is encapsulated in their own art. Hedy O’Beil has been a guide to the art world for close to 40 years. She contributed to Arts magazine in its heyday, from 1976 to 1985 when it was under the editorship of Hilton Kramer and, later, Richard Martin. She has lectured, taught and written on art and artists in various venues in the quarter century since. All the while, she has maintained an impressive exhibition schedule in and around New York City.
At the beginning of her career, she gave herself over to the fluid, robust moves of gestural abstraction. Tacked to the walls of Gallery 307 is a series of works on paper, many in monochrome, produced in the last five years. They could have been painted at any time since critic Harold Rosenberg coined the phrase “action painting” in the late 1950s. She never strayed from her initial attachment. to the reigning fashion of the day. It was an etiquette of improvisation and vagrant mark-making that, at the time, carried the frisson of a challenge to established norms of painting. By now, the vocabulary of gestural abstraction—its dribbles, splashes, blotches and drips—represents a vintage formalism that abandoned its germinal attitude of dissent quite some time ago. This is a very conventional exhibition.
Emulating de Kooning in the 1940s, O’Beil dispenses with color in roughly half the work on show. The discontinuities of accidental mark-making dominate the monochrome pieces. The most effective paintings here are the ones that, like “Eternal Sky” or “Orange Storm Coming,” frolic with color. Clear blues, pinks, orange and yellow bob and weave in concert, lending coherence to a surface of quick, unpredictable strokes. Where O’Beil keeps her line delicate, it tends toward calligraphy and aspires to drawing. Heavier lines, made with oil stick or a broader brush, acquiesce in the self-dramatizing, random display we have come to think of as painterliness.
Some years ago, in one of her reviews, she quoted abstract painter George McNeil, who died at the age of 87 in 1995: “There are three basic periods in a painter’s life. First studying and learning up to age thirty-five. Then consolidating until you’re fifty-five. Mature work follows to sixty-five. But, there’s a fourth period, where you don’t give a damn!” On the evidence of this show, O’Beil herself has entered the fourth period. She does not give a damn that fashion moved on.
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Gallery 307 is a project of the Carter Burden Center for the Aging. In its own words, the gallery is:
. . . designed to give an artistic voice to older artists and provide a jumping off point for an entire population of under appreciated and under exhibited visual artists. Our goal is to change the way the general public views art by allowing people to discover the wonder of works that they would not otherwise have a chance to find. . . . Gallery 307 is discovering new, older artists and giving a voice and a wall back to professional artists.
Is it just me, or does this strike you as wonderfully patronizing? The “wonder of works” hitherto unknown? If the good people at the Carter Burden Center really believe this, they might have given the elderly a more attractive exhibition space. It is housed in a down-at-the-heels commercial building catycorner to Fashion Institute of Technology, more in what is left of the garment district than “the vibrant Chelsea gallery scene” it lays claim to. The modestly sized exhibition space has that untended, rather rickety look abandoned by even old-line alternative spaces like The Painting Center. The first thing you see when you enter is a bright orange portable wall that separates the viewing area from a small, cluttered studio space.
Very bright orange! That, too, condescends to the artists who have to hang their work on it. It signals that “you-are-only-as-old-as-you-feel” swindle. Pure fakery and demeaning to boot. Between works on paper push-pinned to the walls and the raucous color of the most prominent wall, the setting lets us all know that older, less successful artists should be grateful for what they can get. Ms. O’Beil’s grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation could have been better spent.
Hedy O’Beil: On Paper 2006-2011 at Gallery 307, 307 Seventh Avenue, 646-400-5254.
This review, minus the addendum, appeared first in CityArts, April 19, 2011.
© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey