BARDO TOURS: The Old Cedar Bar 40 Years Later
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October 10 to October 17, 1998
by E.J. Gold
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Forty years ago, the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism met at the Cedar Bar on the corner of Broadway and Eleventh Street in Manhattan. In the words of the feminist writer Margaret Randall (a Cedar Bar habitue), “the Cedar was what happened when the sun went down”.
Of course, it was never the same after Life Magazine wrote it up as an artists’ hangout and middle America came to gawk at the bohemians. And it died as an institution when the New York School, revolutionaries all, became the new establishment and moved their works to the uptown galleries.
But in the beginning, it was a second home to the “greats”: Elaine and Willem DeKooning, Franz Kline, David Smith, Alice Neel, Jackson Pollock. As Randall writes, “we were voluntarily poor because the work came first”. They talked about the representation of art, of ideas, and of themselves. They talked about the picture plane, and the freedom to invent the languages they needed. One night Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher just happened to drop by. On other nights, there was a fist fight or two.
This is the world a 17-year-old E.J. Gold entered in 1959. Once inside, time fell into a dark well. Radical ideas about art distilled slowly out of the endless conversations, seeping into the atmosphere and seedy surroundings, settling like a fog on the shadowy denizens. In a few years, the people moved on. But Gold has captured the enduring space of these timeless encounters, when the minds of talented artists explored formlessness as a means of expression.
In Bardo Tours, Gold revisits the Cedar Bar, re-creating the timeless mood of dark hours spent deconstructing ordinary reality. Painting on black canvas suggests the atmosphere.
Featured in these canvases are: sculptor Noguchi (“Starting To Disintegrate”); painter Franz Kline (“Me and My Habits Apres Three 2 Many ”); painter Hans Hoffman (“Seeing Through”);
painters Elaine and Willem DeKooning (“Soul Mates”); photographer and friend Shep Sherbell
(“Bardo Town Bar”); artist Al Leslie (“Implacably Here”); and art critic J.J. Sweeney (“No Escape From Here”).
The titles refer to that other great school of reality deconstructionism ... Tibetan Buddhism.
The inhabitants are “Voyagers In The Night”, “Longing for the Solid State” while waiting for a “Call For Rebirth” and “A Friendly Guide” to lead them to “A Safe Place”. But as “Hungry Ghosts”, they are “Betrayed By Appearances” and “Facing The Terrible Clarity” they find “There Is No Escape From Here”. Caught in an eternal loop consisting of their own thoughts and perceptions, they circle round and round within the space of the Old Cedar Bar.
by Fred Herscovitch
September 19, 1998
E.J. Gold’s recollections of the Old Cedar Bar in Manhattan are captured in 30 acrylic paintings at Gallery Arcturus in Toronto. This is the artist’s boldest and strongest work I’ve seen thus far, and it serves as a fitting testimonial to the Abstract Expressionists who haunted this local hangout in the late 50's. Not that you are likely to recognize any of the faces in these paintings, as all the figures or groups of figures, have been rendered in black silhouette. Instead, the artist’s intention was to give us a glimpse of an underlying reality which is referred to as The Bardo by Buddhists, a topic which has been exhaustively described in their sacred teachings. For those who have practiced some form of meditation, the alternative reality alluded to may already be a familiar one, and some of the paintings here will remind them or even lead them into the altered State. The Spanish verb “seguir” (for which there is no exact English equivalent) comes to mind, for it means: “to lead into”. These canvases may very well lead the observer into the Bardo.
In a world which is being rapidly consumed by a conflagration of Materialism – some say at an accelerating rate – E.J. Gold must be congratulated by his integrity. Having forged a personal philosophy, he has avoided art fads and steadfastly painted his Reductionist vision. The tenets of the Reductionist School are rigorously self-imposed ones amongst which a limited palette plays a prominent role. All the paintings in Bardo Tours use few colours, but use them well. First a black ground was put down on the canvas, then the colours are overlaid in such a way that some areas receive no colours at all: these are left to show through as black lines or shapes. Where colour is put down thinly some of the black ground is allowed to peek through, a process called scumbling. But aside from this, there is no attempt made to modulate the “value” – lightness or darkness of each colour – by adding various shades of grey to it.
Relying upon “monovalues”, to coin a word, is a severe restriction indeed since the history of painting has been staunchly based upon modulation of values. I am left wondering whether or not this additional constraint forms an integral part of Reductionist philosophy, or if it has been adopted solely for this series of canvases. Gold has done it the hard way for Bardo Tours, but it works.
In these paintings, figures, or grouping of figures, are combined into one shape which reminds me of melted wax, and except for the black colour, suggests ectoplasm. Some areas are outlined with soft, crumbly black line which expresses the natural hand of the artist.
One of my favourite works in the show is Crowd Attraction/Dillon’s 60"x36", which boasts a palette of light and dark green, maroon, red, pink, purple, white and grey. The colours are well-balanced, and the spaces beautifully thought out which results in a very sold design.
Longing for the Solid State/John at the Cedar, 60"x36". In this large canvas the strong diagonals of the earth-red bar lined with its black bar stools pull the viewer magnetically into a tunnel-like environment. The green and purple checkerboard floor emphasizes these diagonals, while the wall surface behind the bar is layered up with red and blue textures over pink.
No Escape from Here/J.J. Sweeney, 20"x12". Shown in black silhouette, this profile of Sweeney is the closest any painting in the exhibition comes to figurative work. Standing at a distance from the canvas, the shirt or sweater appears to be the same as the head – black. But it is shinier! What’s the difference? When I approach the painting to get a better look the mystery is solved: the artist has brushed a very low value of blue over the black which accounts for the different degrees of reflectivity. A stark white shirt collar, purple tie aglow with big pink polka dots, and lemon yellow shirt complete the figure. At the left of the composition the head is seen framed against a red door which is surrounded by light green.
Bardotown Bar/Shep Sherbell Outside the Cedar Bar, 24"x20". This little painting is another of my favourites. It’s a sophisticated design in which a light yellow shape bordering the right edge of the canvas counterpoises white windows in the left background. The colours are so well played off and satisfying that I found myself returning to the painting again and again.
Facing the Terrible Charity, 30"x20". A black figure outlined in pinky-red is standing at the right of the composition. To the left of this imposing figure a converging grid suggests storefront mullions in which the upper window lights are painted hot orangy-pink which spills out of their frame to form the ceiling. A white triangular shape, where the floor ought to be, surrounds the bottom portion of this personage, making him or her stand out starkly. The strength of this design lies on its simplicity.
Bardo Tours is well presented with its many different sized canvases staggered on the gallery walls in pleasing configurations. There’s plenty of room between the paintings allowing them to be appreciated without distractions. E.J. Gold’s work provokes quiet contemplation.