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“Restructured Reality: The 1930s Paintings of Francis Criss”

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art to Oct. 14

After a century that saw American artists transformed into something more like rock stars, it’s unusual to be reminded of an older narrative that commonly described the lives of painters. In this version of the story, the artist dies virtually unknown and his greatness is not acknowledged until years after his passing. In a variant of the tale, the work survives, but knowledge of the artist’s life does not.

Today, the demands for novelty among the gallerygoing public and arts media are so high—and the opportunities for display so varied—that living artists can, with the right amount of self-promotion, easily obtain at least a fleeting fame. Meanwhile, the growth of interest in non-Western and post-colonial art and the rise of feminist art history have led to an expansion of the project of critical rediscovery and resurrection. The distinction between works that are great and works that are simply of great historical interest now seems less clear than ever.

Into this environment comes the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Restructured Reality: The 1930s Paintings of Francis Criss,” which reclaims 20 of Criss’ paintings from the abyss of critical oblivion 28 years after his death. In so doing, the show raises a number of fascinating questions about Criss and his paintings, the nature of art-historical revisionism, and the relationship between an artist’s expansive intentions and the curator’s ability to tell a coherent story.

The task of exhibit curator Linda Lichtenberg Kaplan was to edit the less accomplished (and less acclaimed) pieces out of Criss’ oeuvre—even though that meant excluding 30 years of work that the artist himself might have thought very good—to present a narrative of his life and art that honors her contemporary art-world preferences, not those of the artist or his heirs.

“The family wanted all the work to be shown,” says Lichtenberg Kaplan of Criss’ daughters, who helped her obtain biographical details and insight into his paintings. “It would have been a very different show if I had done that.”

Born Hyman Francis Criss in London in 1901 to Russian-Jewish émigrés, Criss grew up in Philadelphia, where his family moved when he was 3. By the age of 16, he was studying art full time at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Following brief stints in Europe, he settled in New York in 1925, where he continued his studies at the Art Students League under the tutelage of Czech-American cubist Jan Matulka.

Criss received his first 15 minutes of fame in the ’30s. Only two and three years older than Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, respectively, Criss was a fully developed painter of lucid, clear, brightly colored cityscapes and interior scenes at a time when these contemporaries, who went on to eclipse him, were still experimenting with a muddy, heavy-handed art-school surrealism.

During this period, Criss showed with George Ault, Stuart Davis, and Charles Sheeler, developing a style that married the clarity of these precisionist painters—along with their interest in machines and industry—with a range of unexpected, almost fantastic shifts away from their modified realism.

The Whitney Museum of American Art included Criss’ Astor Place in its first Biennial, in 1932. Criss went on to participate in nine Whitney Biennials, the last in 1952, the year critic Harold Rosenberg coined the term “action painting” to describe the work of rising ab-ex stars Jackson Pollock and de Kooning.

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From 1935 to 1939, Criss taught and painted murals for New York City’s Works Progress Administration. He was one of 12 artists the organization selected to create murals at the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn and the only figurative painter included among the group of American abstractionists. The resulting piece, Sixth Avenue “L” (1937), remained on display in a project social room until recent years, and—except for a left border that looks as if it were retouched by a member of the residents’ council—is still in remarkably good condition. At the Corcoran, it’s shown with a small, realistic gouache of the elevated-subway station, along with another version of the painting that includes a heavily impastoed area built up with an unknown sandlike material.

About 1940, Criss began to do more commercial work to support himself, and, by 1945, he was painting for Coca-Cola, Reynolds Aluminum, American Airlines, and Fortune magazine, which relied heavily on forward-looking illustrators at the time. He also began to teach at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, moving on to the Art Students League and the New School for Social Research. In 1949, he began teaching at the School of Visual Arts, and he continued to teach there for the remainder of his life. His last retrospective before the Corcoran exhibit, in 1966, was held in an SVA gallery. Criss died in New York in 1973 at the age of 72.

The name of the Corcoran’s show comes from a phrase in Criss’ own late-in-life writings describing his artistic project, quoted in the exhibit’s catalog: “[T]he poet-artist restructures reality, the…forgotten window…which no one else would have…honored even with a side glance.” But the title could equally well describe the project of rediscovering Criss’ early paintings.

Criss’ achievement was not in the creation of a wholly new—or even a wholly integrated—style, but in melding the varied stylistic currents of his day into intriguing compositions. When abstract expressionism hit, it derailed Criss. In the ’40s, his paintings veered off into pointillist abstractions, with organic, beanlike blobs often emerging from fields dotted with color. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, he began to work in collage, using cutout figures from magazines and misprinted photos discarded by his photographer daughter. But he never really regained his artistic footing.

Criss’ works of the ’30s already suggest an artistic insecurity, an experimentalism that hints not at innovation but rather at an uncertainty about how to proceed. During his life, critics regularly referred to Criss’ paintings as “quirky” or “difficult to categorize.” Sometimes, as in Columbus Circle and Rhapsody in Steel, he seems to be reworking Davis’ flat planes of pure color and precise lines. Columbus Circle spins this tendency into a composition that is the most abstract of Criss’ early paintings, with a hint of a building in pink, a pole, a schematic subway station in brown, lattice works and circles, and three flat parallelograms of color on a dimensionless yellow background. There is no shading—just color, line, and shape. But instead of following the line from this 1935 painting into pure abstraction, Criss backtracked into a spare realism in his later ’30s paintings, and by the early ’40s, had turned to illustration-quality realism.

Criss’ careerlong devotion to reality is particularly apparent in a group of paintings depicting the Burns Bros. coal bins at 22nd Street in New York, by the East River: Melancholy Interlude (1939), Waterfront (c. 1940), and New York Waterfront (c. 1940). Whereas the first two pieces are characterized by skewed perspectives, flat, bright colors, and an absence of shadows, the third is rendered with subtle shading and a sense of sculptural solidity reminiscent of Sheeler. In the last work, the schematic clouds and hyper-real blue sky of the first two paintings become muted washes of gray, shadows and smoke are introduced, and the total effect is more serene and less stark.

Many of Criss’ paintings examine the same subjects from different angles, playing with composition and degree of detail. Pie in the Sky (1933) looks at the Burns Bros. plant from the other side. 1934’s Morning in Florence is set on the bridge visible in the background of Fascism, painted the same year. Two paintings of the distinctive Jefferson Market Courthouse—now a library—on 6th Avenue and 10th Street in Manhattan provide varying levels of detail in the foreground and background. The steps leading up to the elevated-subway line winding down the left side of the Jefferson Market paintings is a focal point in the three versions of Sixth Avenue “L.” Clocks and clockfaces, electric wires and capacitors, smokestacks, columns, statues, and finials that edge off Criss’ rectangular picture planes recur repeatedly.

Pattern for Trains is, according to Lichtenberg Kaplan, a transitional work. It graced the cover of Fortune in 1942 and lacks any of the odd touches that make Criss’ other paintings so interesting. It is, simply, a very nicely rendered painting of a train station. Alma Sewing (c. 1935) has the same sort of illustrative rendering, but its composition is enlivened by mysterious angles and flourishes in the apron of its seamstress subject, as well as a reflection of the artist—and two of his paintings—in the lamp she works beneath. The beautiful Woman With Sculpture (c. 1935) features an oddly low ceiling, as if the subject had drunk a potion that made her larger than the room—or as if the woman, so enraptured by the newness of the Calderlike artwork, had wedged herself into a narrow space between a giant box and the sculpture, intent on examining it from all sides. Pie in the Sky has the title written backward across the sky in puffs of white, as if by a skywriter glimpsed in a mirror. A blank canvas in the foreground, signed “Criss,” suggests a comment on the act of painting itself: Art, perhaps, is something we apprehend only obliquely, or only in moments of reflection.

Criss’ early work falls into the category of paintings that have become more interesting with time. Such paintings, during their own era, can seem typical, and therefore less compelling. More than half a century later, they may still seem typical, but they are made unique and interesting by their very time-bound quality. CP