It may have been unwise for the Burchfield-Penney Art Center to mount the exhibition "Abstraction" at this particular moment. At any other time this thoughtful selection of abstract works from the center's collection would be an appealing project containing minor revelations and interesting asides about the history of the region and its noteworthy abstract artists.
But in the white-hot heat streaming off the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's "Extreme Abstraction" exhibition, this is a show that seems barely able to strike a spark. It's patently unfair to compare the two shows: The center is a limited, regional collection; the Albright-Knox an international institution.
If you can forget "extreme," you will find quality enough here. There are many smart, well-conceived and executed works on hand, some quite beautiful and affecting. The trouble is, the quality can sometimes come in the form of a display of knowledge, a kind of demonstration of artistic expertise like a great fiddler going through the paces. This can be spellbinding and invigorating, but it doesn't necessarily lead to meaningful art.
For example, Harriet Greif, who died in 1988, possessed a secure command of a complex, lyrical painterly technique and her mastery of the fragile, melancholy-tinged emotional material so prevalent in painting in the wake of abstract-expressionist extremes is impressive. And yet "Brown and Gold Landscape" (1963), for all its skill and concentrated effects, suffers from a predictability in composition and paint handling. It is learned art of a high order, but nonetheless learned art.
Greif's husband, Seymour Drumlevitch (1923-1989), ultimately out-shot his equally formidable learned knowledge by the sheer scope of his intellectual inquiries. However, in 1960 when he composed "Gutted Ark, Flowering" he had yet to develop the more rigorous, individualized abstract style of his maturity. This collage is masterfully handled, but it is also overplotted, each torn patch snuggled too neatly into the rather cozy brown composition.
Lawrence Calcagno, on the other hand, manages to transcend his academic training in "Rose Black," a watercolor from 1956. In this brooding painting, a dark, pulsating field is cut through by a strike of horizontal light -- a kind of horizon upon which landscape features are represented by a slow dance of calligraphic marks. In the '50s, Calcagno had a lively reputation as a painter of "abstract landscapes," and this little piece shows why: It is ripe with unfettered, authentic feeling.
Magda Cordell McHale, now in her 80s, was a prominent member of post-World War II British art scene who pursued a vigorous figurative style. In her huge "No. 8" (1960) the "figure" is reduced to a 9-foot-tall "stem" painted a brilliant red and enclosed in a loose oval. Its stumpy appendages reach out into the surrounding area where poured-paint shapes look like veined and mottled membranes struggling in a pool of viscous fluid. McHale, applying just enough control to keep this flood of pigment from falling into chaos, releases an ominous topography in which all organic life seems to share human angst.
I don't mean to denigrate art made by strictly rational means. Good art can come from anywhere, and some of the more cerebral work is among the best on view. Geraldo Tan's 1992 shaped painting, with a small red square off-set to one side balancing a big, black rough-textured rectangle, is calculated from start to finish. Yet is a forceful work. In a similar vein, Herta Kane's 1980 work, made up of a pair of black trapezoids, one taller, the other squat, successfully bridges the gap between mental construct and expressive paint. And Sheldon Berlyn's stridently colored "Homage to Caravaggio," though regulated down to the last flip of the squeegee, has a radiant presence and imposing internal rhythms.
But there's little to say about the late Walter Prochownik's tidying up of Clyfford Still in a big painting that strips the energy out of Still's angry streaks of light, except to note how technically well done the painting is. Eugene Vass' take on Brancusi's columns is also technically sharp but not much more than a pleasant formal exercise. Worse is Kenneth Patrick Payne's 1986 "Siekem," in which the artist uses an assemblage of industrial materials -- the very source of the vitality of much post-World War II sculpture -- to make a pretty, pseudo-art deco product.
Despite the overweighted competition from across the street, the Burchfield-Penney's "Abstraction" retains its revelations and interesting asides. Peter Byrne's "Highs and Lows" applies a smeared pattern of oil paint to a New York Times spread, picking up on a history of newsprint in abstraction that runs from Picasso to De Kooning and Jasper Johns. Paul Sharits (1943-1993) performs an oddly potent translation of film strips to formal abstraction in a painting made up of horizontal lines of tube-extruded paint.
And a big painting by an artist I was unaware of before this show was impressive for its quiet and unassuming lyricism. I don't know the career of Sally Potenza, who died at 41 in 1976, but "Yellow Edenwald Field" (painted about 1974) is a free, calligraphic work in the vein of Cy Twombly alive with looping brush strokes that look like an old Palmer method handwriting exercise that gets winded in the final lines and slowly fades away into a delectable lemon-yellow light. It is a sweet and casual painting, a work that makes abstraction seem less a labor and more a joy.