Opinion: Charlotte Park Packs a Wallop

The show is at its best on the quieter days of autumn
Charlotte Park in the doorway of her first studio, in Montauk, around 1954 Maurice Berezov, AE Artworks, Inc.

   Now is a wonderful time to go see the 1950s paintings by Charlotte Park on view at the Pollock-Krasner House in Springs. The show is at its best on the quieter days of autumn when there is less hustle and more time to contemplate the compositions and their place in the greater whole of the art of the era.

    It is also a time when the legacy of Park and her husband, James Brooks, or any of the other working artists who moved to Springs in the 1940s and 1950s, hangs in the balance. Their house and studios, in a state of disrepair, could be demolished by the town, which has purchased their land for preservation.

    While the Pollock-Krasner House has served that purpose well for decades now, it was the home of two legends, modest, but it was repaired and restored with the fruits of their success. The Brooks residence was the home of more typical artists who had the recognized talent to support themselves but who never left the middle class. This is the story of so many more of the artists who settled in Springs and remained there throughout their lives.

    Park was not just a middle-class artist; she was married to one and decided to put all of her support behind her husband for several years, leaving behind painting to aid his career. Before her break, she showed at Peridot Gallery, Stable Gallery, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in group shows and had a solo exhibition at Tanager in 1957. Brooks exhibited at the Kootz Gallery for many years and had a retrospective at the Whitney in 1963.

    The show at Pollock-Krasner is of Park’s work before she took that hiatus, when the work of the late 1940s by the group of artists who became known as the New York School or Abstract Expressionists was maturing and reaching its height.

    As I noted in a 2010 review of her work at Spanierman Gallery in New York City, the couple’s efforts during World War II took them away from the New York art scene of the early 1940s. In the postwar period, Park and Brooks took classes with Wallace Harrison, who also worked with Helen Frankenthaler, and began hanging out at the Eighth Street artists’ club, where they “caught up to the prevailing ideas in abstract art and what would become described as ‘The New York School’ of painting.”

    Park as a painter is no frail flower. Her paintings are forceful, brooding, exuberant, and even macho at times. She did not back off of a fight. She made several compositions in gouache on paper and seemed to prefer that medium’s opaque flatness, using it in her approach to oil as well. Rather than play up that paint’s natural glossiness and yummy texture, she used flat color and flat surfaces to achieve a more cerebral and grounded result.

    In her black-and-white series from the early 1950s, she might appear to be channeling Pablo Picasso (could that be a Minotaur in one of them?), Robert Motherwell, or Franz Kline, but she remains resolutely true to her own version of imagery, never making it pretty, just powerful.

    “Initiation,” a painting on a prominent wall in the house’s main room, packs a wallop of color and geometric abstraction that could also easily be seen as two seated figures drinking tea, if tea drinking happens in hell. The oranges and reds are fiery, the blacks a deep charcoal. Behind what could be one figure’s head is another flame-like appurtenance, denoting a hearth or maybe a fiery passion between the two, subsumed by the subconscious but breaking out all around them.

    There is a lot of orange in these rooms, in paintings like “Aztec” and “Parade” from the mid-1950s. “Aztec” seems totemic and hierarchical, with the interruptions of red not diminishing the underlying structure of the horizontal planes.

    “Parade” is another story. Black lines and skeins move through the canvas, sowing disorder and volatility along with the implied giddiness of the title. A dusky shade of purple is quite somber, prompting the question as to whether it is indeed a parade of celebration or lamentation.

    Cooler and dreamier is “Zachary,” in blue, green, and white, still a tangle of linear color both utopian and apprehensive. All of these works exhibit the tendency of that generation to channel the dread of the nuclear age through the medium of paint, to vaporize and atomize any firm construction of composition, creating chaos out of order.

    Park’s “#10,” another outing in the realm of the cool and blue registers, has the feeling of an approaching storm, with much black mixed with the white and the blues too piercing to be serene.

    The show contains one work from 1960, a departure from the previous decade’s embrace of black and brooding colors to explore — dare I say it — an almost pastel palette. “Tara” is one of the true pretty paintings in the exhibition and heralds the arrival of a decade that would eschew much of the preoccupations of the previous one.

    The exhibition will remain on view through Oct. 31. The Pollock-Krasner House is open Thursday through Saturday for hourly guided tours by reservation only.