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Marvin Israel’s

Black Paintings
June 28 - September 3, 2005
Tues-Sat 10am - 6pm
Cheim & Read
547 West 25th Street

Written by Wendy R. Williams
Photographed by Mary Blanco

On Friday, August 19 th, New York Cool photographer Mary Blanco and I went to a part of Manhattan where very few cats would dare venture - the Cheim & Reid Art Gallery where Marvin Israel’s “Black Paintings” were on exhibit. Now the art pieces we saw were neither paintings (they are done in charcoal) nor black (they are done in charcoal). But the mood was most definitely “black.”

Here is a quote about the show from the Cheim and Read website:

“A highly respected and influential art director, a designer and teacher, collaborator with, and guru to, Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus, Marvin Israel was first and foremost a painter. His one-man exhibition at Galerie Arnaud, Paris, 1952, preceded his exploits in the New York magazine world, and painting continued to be the creative bedrock for all his other activities. But while they reflected his interest in gestural abstraction and other current modes, his paintings could not be claimed to be significantly innovatory - until 1971. This was the pivotal year in Israel's career, the moment when he appears to have seen how to forge an individual style, an expression based partly on inspirations (for example, Goya or Daumier) he had absorbed long before.

And later in the website:

”Some viewers found the imagery in Israel's 1974 exhibition shocking, and Hilton Kramer's description of the encounters between pairs of dogs as "vicious" was typical of a more widespread reaction. Kramer did, though, recognize that Israel's artistry was "utterly astonishing", and that the "draftsmanship and the virtuoso rendering of light and shade are the work of a master". The perception that the dogs were engaged in acts of violence is redolent of the generalized responses to the work of an artist Israel greatly admired, Francis Bacon; it is similarly misplaced in the case of Israel's drawings, which in most cases depict aggression only as a subtle undercurrent. In fact his canine alter egos (he called his own dog Marvin and admitted that the dogs in his paintings were metaphorical self-portraits) are equally capable of conveying more complex and ambiguous emotions, something closer, perhaps, to a rough, equivocal affection.”

Now I have seen Neil Selkirk’s excellent documentary about Israel, Who is Marvin Israel, twice – once when it premiered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (as part of the Diane Arbus Revelation Show) and once at Anthology Films. (See my review of the documentary in New York Cool: http://www.newyorkcool.com/archives/2005/May/arts_2.htm).

The Marvin depicted in Selkirk’s documentary was a droll frumpy little fellow who loved dogs (he named his dog after himself) and who also had a prickly love for talented humans. But I can’t help but think he may have just needed a vacation. Sometimes, we can stay in this city too long. Maybe we all need to start wearing meters on our wrists to measure how long we have been exposed to the toxic influences of this city – just like the ones radiation technicians used to wear. If the number goes too high, the meter would turn red and off you would go on a forced vacation or someone official-looking would pack you off to get some therapy. Or on another thought, perhaps these Black Paintings were Marvin’s therapy. He did say they were autobiographical.

Rock on!



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