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Monday, February 03, 2003

greekart

Jean Xceron: Light from a Distance

Jean Xceron: Paintings and Works on Paper, Kouros Gallery, New York City, January 16 -February 22, 2003




What role do artists play in American art when they have been born in another country and have spent at least part of their formative years there? To whom do they owe allegiance? Is their response to art in a city such as New York always complicated by a sense of double allegiance — to the American tradition, often avant-garde, and to the sometimes classical, but at the very least foreign, past they bring with them? In the case of Jean Xceron, who came to New York at the age of 14 from a small, mountainous village in the Peloponnese, Greece was not merely a misty origin, a place to be romantically sought out, for a person of hyphenated (ethnic) background, it was a real part of his experience. The particular problem, then, facing Xceron — deciding to what extent prior experience should play a role in an artist’s ongoing esthetic — would also be faced by New York’s immigrant artists, many of whom embraced the New York School while at the same time attempting to maintain ties to their originating cultures. In fact, New York’s art world has for many years played host to foreigners, who have taken America’s penchant for the new and rendered it vigorously expressive in art; one has only to look at the work of Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning to see how rich, and by now established, the tradition of the artist émigré is in American painting.

Alien art, or just alienated?
Indeed, it is fair to say that much, if not most, of the best art now made in New York is made by artists with foreign accents. The ahistorical tradition of America, however, with its notion of a continuous present that owes nothing to what has preceded it, poses a problem to the artist who derives from a classical culture. When the language of the moment — the best example is abstract expressionism — is used to support an experimental, or nontraditional, esthetic, in which a sense of the past is successfully exchanged for a jazzy, syncopated sense of urban (contemporary) form, that language relates to art in the present tense, which might, or might not, have its own set of influences. In fact, something is often lost as a new art expression succumbs to a by-now historical present, namely, a dialogue with previous art traditions that contextualizes present efforts within a continuum explicit in its lines of influence. (Even modernity has to come from somewhere.) Just how lines of influence manifest themselves is not necessarily clear; it is hard to explain the effect of the past as a specific form in the art of most modernists. In the case of Xceron, whose language is more or less resolutely abstract, the notion of influence comes from the kinds of art he saw in America and Europe, rather than from what he might have picked up from the traditions of Greece.

Clearly, modernism brought its own rules to the party of individual expression, rules that ran counter to a purely historical appreciation of its art: one doesn’t think of de Kooning referencing the history of the Dutch still life in his painting, any more than one considers the history of Armenian art in the contemplation of Gorky. It may be, however, that doing so is an idea whose time has come. Modernism, in the newness of its idiom, became a self-fulfilling prophecy of abstract form, in which the supposed denial of the past became a virtue in favor of a seemingly pure, universal idiom. Xceron was, however, classical not so much in his actual forms as in the abstract implications of his restraint as an artist, just as de Kooning’s juicy, heavily impastoed, often female forms suggested rather than stated some sort of relations with the legacy of Dutch painting. These kinds of influences are never explicit, they are rather implicit in their recognitions of historical affinity and, as such, argue for connections with the past that are more atmospheric than linear. This means that while we cannot say with certainty that Xceron’s art references a Greek past, we can hesitantly attempt to delineate certain likenesses of approach. In fact, people often point to a mysterious luminosity that inhabits his paintings, which may be the actual example of what the artist brought with him from Greece to America. Indeed, as Dore Ashton has pointed out in an article on Xceron in Arts, “The light of Greece was a beacon, often obscured during the decades of cosmopolitan life, but was never extinguished [in his art].”

Affinities of light, however, surely cannot serve as a viable concept to explain the tie binding Xceron’s art to some historic past of which he was likely unaware as a child in a village in Greece. We come dangerously close to essentialism in pointing out what it is that is Greek in his art; we come dangerously close to a sentimental stereotyping that does not throw light on Xceron so much as demonstrate our own romantic prejudices. There is something there, but what it is we can hardly be sure of, especially in a painter as determinedly abstract as this Greek artist. Xceron’s work can much more easily be explained if we recite his itinerary as an adult: sporadic academic training, over several years, at the Corcoran art school in Washington, DC; his 1920 arrival in New York, where he met the Uruguayan painter Joaquin Torres-Garcia (both of them “aliens from remote civilizations,” as Ashton writes in her essay); his move to Paris in 1927, following Torres-Garcia’s decampment there three years earlier; and his permanent return to New York in 1938. During his stay in Paris in the late 1920s and 1930s, Xceron would refine his visual language toward geometric certainties — grids and circles and squares that reflected the advances of cubism — and also the organic effects of certain Surrealists, Jean Miro among them.

Xceron in America
When Xceron returned to New York, he began to demonstrate affinities with the emotive, musical cadences of Kandinsky’s abstraction; his intuitions would proceed along lines suggestive of the Russian symbolist painter’s vocabulary, including bars of color and groups of lines illuminated by a mysterious light. One of Xceron’s bigger paintings in the show, Variations No. 329 (1949), is a good example of his considered style. Consisting of squares and rectangles of mostly darker colors against a ground of ineffable brighter light, the painting is constructed with a broad range of high modernist forms. On the bottom right, a white grid delineates green squares; above it is a small red square with green, blue, and black rectangles higher up on the plane. The piece feels vaguely constructivist, and there are three slightly curved lines in the lower middle just above an alignment of five red triangles. Other parts of the painting consist of mostly right-angled planes of color, arranged in near jigsaw-puzzle fashion, not always elaborating the overall composition but rather the particular area in which the components find themselves. Variations No. 329 is a delicate, intelligent painting, whose whimsical juxtapositions of form are perhaps more modest than the grand effusions of Kandinsky, but hold their own in comparison with most paintings of the time by virtue of their sensitivity.

One of the consequences of Xceron’s openness was his ability to attach himself to a number of styles. A much earlier painting from 1931, Violin #7, consists of a roughly synthetic-cubist treatment of a violin, with a clear frontal view of the musical instrument on the right, a suggestion of reddish wood in the middle, and another version of a violin on the left, hastily sketched in black outlines. A small painting from an even earlier period (1919), Adam and Eve #9, is painted in brownish contours, with the figures hiding their sex and the Tree of Knowledge rising up between them. It is clear from these figurative works that Xceron was moving through different styles as part of a maturing process that would lead him to the relatively rarefied, refined abstract expression of his later paintings. In the works of the late 1930s, there is a rational approach to painting that links Xceron to similar art being made in France at the time; clearly, he was internalizing influences distant by far from his upbringing in Greece, where his visual education would have been limited to what he saw around him in the countryside. In Composition #215, for example, the forms are displayed in apparent order; most of the shapes, including flat bars, rectangles, and parallelograms, are geometric, arranged in reasonable groups and relations with each other. Even a looser, more brightly hued watercolor and ink on paper, an untitled piece from 1939, has a grid in the middle of the drawing, offset by what looks like a table and a chair on the right. These works have been painted in a purely modernist idiom, one closer to the streets of Paris than to the dusty roads of Greece.

Xceron’s works of late maturity seem more open, looser in both their concept and expression. As has been noted, an organicism reminiscent of the work of Kandinsky comes into play; the sense of whimsy, that is, the sheer joy of form, becomes paramount in Xceron’s art. In the exhibition, there is a small 1959 gouache, entitled Composition #545A, which consists of what looks like three abstracted figures painted in yellowish brown against interlocking rectangles of blue, white, and red. Its conception is entirely more free than that behind the works of 20 years previously. A small watercolor, Composition #568 (1960), is composed of stripes and squares and rectangles of color against a mostly blue background; it is an ethereal and joyous work, all the more exquisite for its small size. Eclipse (1959), another small watercolor, is dramatic in its use of black and white and bits of red. In the center is a black circle outlined in white, with a small red sphere, outlined in red, occurring within the black circle. It is a powerful work despite its small size, suggesting worlds and constellations beyond what we know, in a black mass of darkness. One of the nicest pieces in the show, Chinese Sticks (1962), composed of watercolor and ink on paper, shows a series of straight black strokes, set at angles to each other and shadowed by tan lines similar in orientation, length, and width. The composition seems perfectly balanced, taken as it is with the moment of poise that hangs motionless before everything starts to fall apart. Rather than mixing disparate geometric elements, Xceron here sticks to one kind of shape, and so there is a winning unity to the work.

Clearly, Chinese Sticks is a great distance away from anything we might conclude as classically Greek. It is interesting to speculate, then, about the notion of influence. On the surface, it is easy enough to think through — influence in visual art manifests itself as a similarity, formally speaking, whereby the effects of other art are incorporated into the language of an artist’s own production. Yet this is only one kind of influence: the visible kind. When Dore Ashton speaks of “light” that “was never extinguished” in Xceron’s painting, she is praising him for a metaphysical alliance with something that cannot be quantified and yet is nevertheless real — an influence in Xceron’s work that is communicated in his appraisal of luminosity, surely experienced as something actual in his memory of the landscapes and seascapes of Greece. This luminescence is linked to an idealism that strikes the viewer as inherently classical, and also visionary.

Xceron, a man of many homes and travels, may have found his most compelling parallels among the French painters active between the two wars; however, there is something deeper that one also experiences in his art. It is a sense of order and light that may be intuitively construed as Greek, with implications that move the painter’s audience in the direction of the seemingly universal language of an abstract idealism. I say “seemingly” because the international idiom of modernism doesn’t necessarily mean that it speaks to everyone, only that it was used in many places at a more or less similar moment. Perhaps the radiance illuminating so much of his art came to Xceron from beyond any personal recollection of the past; it is hard to say. It is clear, however, that we interpret this suffused light as belonging to Greek culture, and that we value Xceron’s art for its inclusion. And it is just as well that we do so. Sometimes we redeem our sense of art by ascribing to it aspects and possibilities that suggest affiliations of fancy more than they prove influences in fact.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to greekworks.com.
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