Among Friends: 1958–63, the exhibition of Mimi Gross’s paintings and drawings from the early 1960s at Eric Firestone Gallery, is not only a sheer visual pleasure, it also adds to our understanding of American modern art. Like so many “re-discovered” bodies of work, usually by women, it reveals dimensions of artistic practice that were always present but never given critical attention within certain over-determined narratives of 20th-century art.
Practically overflowing with radiant portraits, “Mimi Gross: Among Friends, 1958–63” at Eric Firestone Loft should be of the major crowd-pleasers of the moment, but it feels like it’s flying under the radar. Channeling a rare, quicksilver sense for detail, Gross was only in her late teens and early 20s when she made these pieces in crayon, paint, and pastel, working in New York, Provincetown, and Europe, where she and friends traveled northern Italy by horse-drawn carriage, doing shadow-puppet shows in small villages. (To think that young artists today believe a night at Berghain is bohemia!) Two highlights of many: Grand Street Boys and Grand Street Girls (both 1963), whose many young sitters look interesting enough to sustain a few seasons of prestige television about the Lower East Side during the Kennedy years. The show depicts an artistic life that was just getting started, and already being lived very well.
The exhibition Mimi Gross: Among Friends, 1958-1963 helps to set the record straight: Gross was a strong, confident artist when she met Red Grooms at the age of 18, and that her work continued to grow right up to their marriage in 1964.
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Martha Edelheit is yet another indication that 20th-century art history is still under construction, with large areas unfinished or invisible. Ms. Edelheit was included in last year’s “Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952-1965” at the Grey Art Gallery, which featured several artists unfamiliar to wider audiences. Now “Flesh Walls: Tales From the 60s” at Eric Firestone is devoted to Ms. Edelheit’s work from that era. She was part of the downtown, artist-run Reuben Gallery, where she had her first solo show in 1960. The “Flesh Walls” title is not metaphorical or accidental. Ms. Edelheit’s meaty, sexy paintings and drawings iterate tales of the sexually permissive ’60s. She approached the human body through the skin, inspired initially by the writings of the anthropologist Claude LeviStrauss, who suggested that the body was the original canvas for painting, in the form of tattoos.
Joe Overstreet’s experimental paintings from the early 1970s were made to be suspended from ceilings and tied to floors using a system of ropes and grommets. As a result, they occupy a good deal of three-dimensional space, and by design their shapes change every time they are installed, depending on how they are stretched out, draped, or crumpled. In some works, such as St. Expedite II and Untitled, both 1971, and Untitled, 1972, Overstreet has painted squares of canvas in solid colors-red, green, navy blue, deep purple-edged in contrasting stripes. Other works, such as the enormous Boxes, 1970, play with vibrant patterns of geometric abstraction but, at the same time, appear haunted by the ghosts of earlier, more figurative gestures.
“Abstraction represents self-determination and free will.” So avowed the painter James Little at a recent panel discussion held in conjunction with an exhibition of works by his fellow painter Joe Overstreet, but with the broader purpose of examining the question of “Black Artists and the Abstraction Idiom.” Little’s ringing declaration of aesthetic independence was couched in a language both explicitly political (self-determination being a right underwritten by the United Nations in its 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which held that “All peoples have the right to…freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”) as well as theological (though the problem of free will has earlier roots, it became urgent when Christian thinkers had to explain the origin of sin and damnation in a world created by a perfect and benevolent God). The implication of Little’s statement is that abstract art, by eschewing the forms of representation through which political and religious narratives are conveyed, enacts and exemplifies a kind of self-emancipation.
In a 1989 interview, the artist Miriam Schapiro discussed her admiration for “heroines” like Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Frida Kahlo. Noting their rather fraught lives, she said “that doesn’t stop you from expressing your point of view in whatever manner you choose to do it.” In the 1970s, Schapiro herself chose to make craft works that she termed “femmages” (a portmanteau of “feminine” and “collage”), which staked a claim for women, both in the art world and outside it, by centering the home as a site of resilience and subversion. And she certainly lived by these principles of resistance, deliberately situating her practice against artistic norms of her day.
The history of postwar American abstract painting remains a work in progress. We are barely beginning to understand its sheer multiplicity in terms of the artists’ races and cultures and the works’ physical character. New information arrives in regular and humbling batches. The latest is Joe Overstreet’s stunning exhibition “Innovation of Flight, Paintings 1967-1972” at Eric Firestone. With 20 rarely seen works, it covers a brief period when Mr. Overstreet’s disavowal of painting’s usual standards and practices was unfolding rapidly in several directions, alongside efforts by Sam Gilliam, Harmony Hammond, Alan Shields and Howardena Pindell, among others.
New York artist Marcia Marcus (b. 1928) emerged mid-century as a promising painter of portraits and figurative tableaux, depicting herself, friends, and acquaintances in scenes that often have a mythological or theatrical feel. In the early 1950s, she studied painting at Cooper Union, where her peers included Alex Katz and Lois Dodd, and shortly thereafter attended the Art Students League, where she absorbed the lessons of Edwin Dickinson. She collaborated on Happenings with Allan Kaprow and, in 1960, showed a series of self-portraits at the Delancey Street Museum, an alternative space run by Red Grooms. Despite an impressive exhibition record and a peer group of downtown luminaries, Marcus eventually fell into obscurity. The recent show at Eric Firestone included twenty-four paintings she made between 1958 and 1973, amounting to a small-scale retrospective for this audacious and fascinating artist.
Marcia Marcus Through Dec. 2. Eric Firestone Gallery, 4 Great Jones Street. Art history is in constant flux, as you can see by the recent rise of artists who were left out of earlier narratives. This year, the exhibition “Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952-1965,” at the Grey Art Gallery, featured many overlooked artists whose contributions to mid-20th-century art are noteworthy. One of them is the painter Marcia Marcus, whose work is currently on view in “Role Play: Paintings 1958-1973” at Eric Firestone Gallery.
The twenty-three paintings by Marcia Marcushere deliver one knockout after another. In the oval portrait Nude with Mirror, 1965, a woman languorously appraises her own reflection. In Florentine Landscape, 1961, three ghostly, pale figures and a pumpkin patch appear like holograms beamed into an ancient garden. In Frieze: The Porch, 1964, three distinctly different pictures—a double portrait of the critic Jill Johnston and the painter Barbara Forst, a self-portrait of the artist in a billowing floral robe, and a picture of her as a child with her father—are all crammed together in a way that feels weirdly spacious.
“The California Years: 1967–1975” documents a momentous shift in Miriam Schapiro’s practice, from the wry, abstract feminist-futurism of her hard-edge paintings to the busy decadence of her mixed-media “femmages.” For her handsomely mod paintings in the former category, she used computer software to model and manipulate three-dimensional geometric structures. While the exhibition’s press release notes that these images are often “coded depictions of yonic forms,” we’re not talking about seashells and split melons here. In the pristinely painted Keyhole, 1971, a fiery red-orange and rose-colored mother ship approaches from a cloudless blue sky. The chic all-blue Horizontal Woman No. 2 from the same year slyly references a reclining nude with its blank virtual architecture. A kind of landscape, the painting depicts something resembling a compound of modernist bungalows built into a featureless hilltop.