12.13.17 — One for the Deep End

David Hockney was not the only artist entering the 1970s by poolside. True, he was swimming in attention, while Michael Hurson had yet to make a splash. Hockney had also come to California from a seamy but swinging scene in London, while Hurson was from the Midwest, native to the unfulfilled promises and turmoil of America in the 1960s. His colors are earthier or just plain absent at that, with nary a watery blue in sight—not even for a series of Palm Springs swimming pools. Paintings look much like sketches, with firm indications of place and sunlight still to come. Yet he, too, was having fun.

He could always count on himself to get up and dance—or, if not, on his eyeglasses. They move across schematic but fiery landscapes, several pairs at a time, and down a pillar-shaped canvas. They stand in quite well, thank you, for academic nudes as the artist, then entering his thirties, no doubt could not. One might take their side pieces for legs and their frames for musculature. They turn their lenses on nothing in particular, least of all the viewer, but they earn a second look. They could well be about the space between looking and acting.

They and the swimming pools placed Hurson at the forefront of New Image painting, like Susan Rothenberg or his friends Jennifer Bartlett and Robert Moskowitz. He had already had solo shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and MoMA when he exhibited with them at the Whitney in 1978. Those pools and dances are (if you know Bartlett) his Rhapsody. He has, though, sunk more into the past, and one can see why at Paula Cooper, through December 22. A show spanning thirty years clusters near its start, as curated by Dan Nadel. It also had me thinking of the problematic brilliance and shallowness of Hockney.

Like Hockney, he never verges on Minimalism or darkness like Rothenberg or Moskowitz, and he never explodes across a room like Bartlett or teases apart the sheer possibilities of painting. Yet both have a teasing emptiness. A single figure lies on a blanket to the side, as if unable to enjoy a dip or a deck chair. The pool takes on a peculiar mass, like a truncated pyramid. Like Hockney, too, Hurson keeps looking away to distant mountains. A drink and cactus in the foreground of one chasm parallels the Brit’s still-life with landscape in homage to Japanese art.

Like Hockney as well, he found a supporter in Henry Geldzahler, the curator, but he grew closer to Modernism as Hockney never could. A third series contains portrait sketches with a flatness and density akin to Cubism. The eyeglasses as bulky nudes may deserve comparisons to Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso after all, although the swimming pool lacks for bathers. They could offer a bridge from the early twentieth century to Pop Art. The show ends six years before Hurson’s death from heart failure in 2007, at age sixty-five. One may never know whether he was every quite ready to dive into the deep end.

As the show opened, the gallery’s space across the street was exhibiting a younger artist who is. Cecily Brown again packs quotations from art history into a contemporary Abstract Expressionism, through December 2. Can you spot the borrowings from The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault? Me neither, but an enormous mural has everything else you might wish, including faces, bodies, and shards of color. It and other paintings look brighter than humanly possible with barely a hint of red or blue. Like Hurson, she keeps the threat of water at bay.

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