Lois Orswell, David Smith and Friends
Knoedler & Company
The current show at the Knoedler Gallery is a concise version of a larger exhibition at the Fogg Museum, Harvard: The collection of Lois Orswell, a patron of the arts who died in 1998 at 94. The collection as a whole was primarily amassed during two intense periods. From 1944-46, Orswell looked to Europe and purchased a superb collection of brightly colored, emotive pieces from the first half of the century, including works by Klee, Rodin, Cézanne, Moore, and Calder. The second phase of collecting took place during the 1950s when Orswell turned her attention to contemporary American sculptors and Abstract Expressionists. This rich show is culled from this later group and despite bumps, it is a rare opportunity to have a delicious taste of mid-century modernism in an intimate setting.
The show takes a friendship as its starting point and aims to illustrate through text and image the relationship between the collector Lois Orswell and the artist David Smith. Smith’s work is brilliantly set into context by its juxtaposition with pieces by his contemporaries and examples of his correspondence. The tender notes on display are a real treat for anyone who enjoys thinking about biography in relationship to an artist. The letters themselves are fairly mundane and brief, touching mainly on progress and payment, yet they are gentle and full of shared affection between artist and patron. Occasionally, wonderful sketches of the works under discussion appear in the margins and one imagines the mutual excitement at the drawn-out evolution of each work. A relationship, which could have been marred by the uncomfortable subject of money, seems not to have been. In fact, what the letters and accompanying catalogue suggest is that Smith and Orswell filled a place in one another’s life that was based on mutual need: money and creative trust, in Smith’s case, freedom and inspiration, in Orswell’s. Moreover, for both the relationship was an exception in their lives, which are presented as solitary and removed from the rest of the New York art world.
The work itself is superbly installed so as to invoke the mutual influences and relationships between Smith and his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries. The rear room where Smith’s pieces are housed is dominated by three of his large sculptures that anchor the space: the commanding horizontals of the green bronze "Terpsichore and Euterpe" (1947), the electric cadmium red steel "Fish" (1950-51) in the front, and the towering height of "Sentinel IV" (1957) in the rear. These horizontal and vertical fields are repeated in the two-dimensional works that crowd the wall. By placing complimentary structures together, two distinct visual fields emerge to create a physical environment for the viewer that is similar to the linear vibrations of the works themselves.
A remarkable series begins with the "Terpsichore statue," behind which the work’s study is hung. To its left, a commanding Franz Kline painting from 1950 has strokes whose forms echo the perspectival lines of the sculpture’s plan, but give the added intensity of a completed work. These strong linear sweeps continue along the wall in the tenacious marks of two more drawings, one by Kline and the other by Philip Guston. The result is a pulsating reverberation of gesture and form, as well as an articulate illustration of how three contemporaries used superficially similar markings to vastly different ends.
As this room creates a palpable feeling of inspiration and movement between the works, it visually convinces what the curator claims Orswell’s collecting policy to have been: namely, to purchase instinctively, those "exceptional objects" whose "vibrations" drew her viscerally to them. However, it also represents Orswell’s concurrent desire to collect the "complete" artist. To these ends, she bought many of Smith’s later spray paint paintings, including three hung here, two of which are large, elongated rectangular canvases. Weaker pieces, they are reminiscent of x-rays because the white forms represent the trace of an object removed, rather than a constructed representation of it. They share the centered energy and formal balance of Smith’s sculptural work, but lack the dynamism and charisma of the three-dimensional forms.
Despite the inclusion of some outstanding pieces in the smaller front gallery, notably a tiny Louise Nevelson, "Figure" (1947) made simply from a circle, square, and triangle, and a tiny painting and mixed media on paper from 1956 by Michael Goldberg, there is little cohesion. This is because there is no single force guiding the flow of energy the way Smith does in the rear. The exhibition teaches us to understand Orswell through her correspondence with, and purchases from, Smith. Without him, there is a void that is her background that we are not given: Did she pursue other "complete" collections? Was she friend or patron to other artists? What was the driving force for these purchases and why?
Like the relationship between Orswell and Smith, which is never really put into perspective, her relationships with other artists remain murky and the show— positioning itself through the lens of biography and reminiscence— suffers from it. By including the wonderful works in the front, the absence of connection and narrative, which could offer context for the collection, is more profoundly felt. In a Catch-22, had the show consisted only of the rear room, the story would be clearer but without exquisite art.