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Charlotte Park

October 21-November 27, 2010


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The East Hampton Star - Charlotte Park

Charlotte Park at Spanierman: Refreshing, Rich, and Bold

By Jennifer Landes

Published: November 18, 2010

What do we know of Charlotte Park? A neighbor in Springs, wife of the painter James Brooks, she, too, is a painter who kept a studio in Montauk and then Springs for years. She moved to New York City after World War II with Brooks, who died in 1992. They had both been working in Washington with the Office of Strategic Services.

Charlotte Park - Untitled (Red, Pink, Orange, and Black)
Untitled (Red, Pink, Orange, and Black),” an oil on canvas by
Charlotte Park
from around 1955, carries hints of a Cezanne still life.

Unlike their contemporaries in New York who painted through the early 1940s, both artists were taken up by the war effort during that time. As others laid the groundwork for what would be important breakthroughs to come, they found themselves in need of both a home and a new context for their artwork, which both had neglected.

Ms. Park, who still lives in Springs at the age of 92, married Brooks in 1947 after they had lived in New York for a few years. Both artists took classes with a Cubist-inspired instructor, Wallace Harrison, who also worked with Helen Frankenthaler. Hanging out at the Artists’ Club on 8th Street, they soon caught up to the prevailing ideas in abstract art and what would become described as the New York school of painting.

Charlotte Park - Blue Warning
Charlotte Park’s oil painting “Blue Warning,” from about 1953,
has strong contrasts of black and white cut through with various tones of blue.

Despite her undergraduate work in fine art at Yale University and despite holding a number of teaching positions, Ms. Park was somewhat marginalized by the same male-centric art world that left many women artists out of the mainstream, even as her work gained positive notice.

In the 1950s, she showed her work at cooperative galleries and at Peridot, a contemporary gallery that also showed her husband’s work. She was also included in a Whitney Museum of American Art annual show of contemporary artists.

But instead of being one of those artists who were part of the nexus of influence and success in that era and later fell out of favor with the art establishment, Ms. Park has actually gained in stature and attention over time. She has had a series of well-received solo shows in recent years. Her work has also been included in influential group retrospectives of postwar-era art and in group shows of work by artists who settled on the South Fork.

Spanierman Modern in New York City, which has been showing her work since the mid-aughts, has held several exhibits featuring her work and has helped bring her to the attention of a national audience who has eagerly received it. Its latest installation of her paintings, from the 1950s to the mid 1980s, is richly colored and multifaceted with oils, gouaches, collage, and other artistic expressions. Perhaps because Ms. Park liked such saturated colors, her black-and-white gouaches are particularly striking, offering a stark respite from the fiery oranges, ice-cold blues and greens, dingy mauves, and other manifestations of her palette.

This latest group tends to favor orange, which is appropriate to the season and also captures the richness of color one sees in the trees of the South Fork at this time of year. We have “Aztec,” “Departure,” “Hot Spur,” “Initiation,” “Jubilee,” and “Resurgence” to consider.

It might be that such a color-saturated series of paintings, all credited to be from about 1955, would somehow weaken its value, making such a striking, emotional color appear trite or tamed by the treatment. Instead, the exact opposite happens. Color builds upon itself from one canvas to the next, often growing in size as her canvas and vision expand. Long planar swaths of color on one or two canvases can become more isolated and globular, as if she was defining discrete worlds.

I tend to be drawn to the works with the softer edges. Those, to me, seem to define the more feminine view that makes looking at women’s work during the period so refreshing in balance to that produced by men.

Many of these works also seem populated. It is always tempting to see people, places, and things in Abstract Expressionism, whether it is warranted or not. Although her other work is far more geometrically abstract, it is in these paintings that one can see figures occupying predominantly rational space with even a slight degree of perspective. “Departure” is the most obvious example, but an argument can be made for similar forms in the others as well.

The artist uses orange in one other painting ascribed to the same time; however, it is more as a highlight than the main feature. In this untitled work, with a subtitle based on its colors “(Red, Pink, Orange, and Black),” the work still appears grounded in figuration, this time an homage, perhaps, to one of Cezanne’s apple still lifes.

At the time, this clinging to the figurative within an abstract idiom was likely to be seen as antediluvian among the die-hards. In retrospect, however, its presence is refreshing and ties in neatly with currents of figuration that flowed in and out of Willem de Kooning’s work around the same time. He, too, was taken to task for this, but in the end, his unique style stands out among his peers and has helped ensure the place of his artwork at the top of the canon for late-20th-century art.

Ms. Park’s hotly colored works are surpassed only by her bold and cold paintings in blues and greens. Making those colors plural seems an overstatement as the hues seem either straight from the tube or mixed to a similar value that she used repeatedly. There is little variation, except for the addition of a little white or a little black. Instead, she seems to prefer to modify her tones with the color rather than the opposite.

If these cooler works represent anything, they seem much more about place. The gouaches are striking, but an oil such as “Zachary” is a pretty blend of sea, sky, and earth in the form of grassy brilliance. “Blue Warning” has a striking imbalance of black and white, mitigated, and often invaded, by a rich dark blue that meets the lighter and darker tones halfway or more in stunning blends. The canvas’s relatively smaller size helps concentrate the work, harnessing a quiet authority more powerful in its own way than the showier large canvases.

In getting away completely from color, particularly in her gouaches, Ms. Park’s art becomes something else again. Structured and Symbolist in spirit, they have a passing resemblance to a Franz Kline painting that hasn’t quite let go of its references, while absorbing some Adolph Gottlieb in the mix. Still, they are entirely her own, whatever the reference or meaning. Their imprecise clues and ultimate mystery result in intrigue and fascination.

The later work has some bright moments as well, but it is the earlier pieces that really linger in their vibrancy and expression. The exhibit is on view through Nov. 27.


Read this review on the East Hampton Star website.

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