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The Rothko show -- how a master worked in the early stages

I have just come from viewing two exhibitions here: Mark Rothko's "surrealist" watercolors and oils of the 1940s at the Pace Gallery, and LeRoy Neiman's watercolors and drawings at the Hammer Gallery.

Both shows are highly selective. Rothko's includes a very small handful of the works he produced during the '40s -- and Neiman's includes only what he considers his best works on paper from over 2,000 made during the past 35 years.

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Beyond the similarity of medium (both shows include watercolors) and careful screening, these two shows have nothing in common, for Rothko was an exceptional artist, while Neiman is a slick and extremely facile illustrator trying to convince us that he is really an artist at heart.

The Rothko show is another matter entirely, for it is as beautiful and moving an exhibition as one is apt to find anywhere at the moment. It is a rare treat, a very special occasion, to watch a master artist in the early processes of evolving and shaping his art.

What we see here is Rothko at the moment he broke away from a specific (if still rather poetic) representational approach to painting and began to permit himself the exhilarating luxury of approaching paper or canvas with nothing but a loaded brush, a wellspring of feelings and ideas, and half-remembered and partly digested memories of images seen and sensed in the paintings of Miro, Picasso, and Gorky -- as well as in the works of certain primitive peoples.

We see him exuberantly improvising forms, colors, and patterns with the speed and abandon of a master figure skater creating patterns on ice. But his painterly form and colors also seem to echo unknown forces, totems, and taboos -- and intimations of a primal level of reality.

What is particularly impressive is how well these paintings hold up. They don't look old-fashioned, or as though they were only transitional works leading up to more major paintings. They very definitely stand on their own as works of art and would have assured Rothko a place in art history if he had not produced the larger and more amorphous works for which he is most famous.

It's a beautiful show and should, if possible, be seen in conjunction with the current Arshile Gorky restrospecive at the Guggenheim Museum. The works in this Rothko exhibition are contemporary with the last magnificient paintings Gorky produced. Both artists, through these works, helped establish standards of quality that have seldom been matched and never surpassed in the roughly 40 years since these paintings first saw the light of day.

This excellent exhibition at the Pace Gallery will run through May 30. The Neiman show

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I went to the Neiman show sincerely hoping his watercolors and drawings would prove to be more than his painted illustrations and his prints had previously indicated. I had been impressed by the fact he had risked a campaign to alert the press to his show in order to prove through his drawings (which he considers the truest measure of his talent) that his work should receive serious critical attention.

Well, his drawings arem better than his paintings and prints, but -- with the exception of possibly a half-dozen drawings which have a certain charm and elegance -- the show as a whole does little but prove once again that Neiman's work as yet shows more flash and surface than significance. The skill and the techniques, as well as the pictorial pyrotechnics derived from a superficial reading of Lautrec and Dufy, are certainly there, but they are, as usual, applied without any real concern for anything but themselves.

When all is said and done, this exhibition of Neiman's paper works is only marginally better than his previous shows of paintings and prints. It remains at the Hammer Gallery through May 16.

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