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Four Greats in Kent

Bill Morrison included four big names in his Kent gallery’s winter exhibition: Hans Hofmann, Wolf Kahn, Cleve Gray and Jonathan Prince, the baby of the group. Hofmann, who died 45 years ago, was a giant of abstract expressionism, and painters such as Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Rivers and Red Grooms studied with him; and Kahn became his studio assistant. Morrison’s Hofmanns are mostly from the 1940s, and they convey the painter’s emphasis on structure, illusions of space and dimension, and his rigorous concern for relationships of color. The pictures are small, tense, emphatic, full of meaning and allusion. Kahn’s fame rests on the surprisingly colored, abstract landscapes that reside in many museum and private collections. Kahn is a color field artist, and his works are mostly made of flat, unbroken color in flat picture planes. The paint or pastel seems to saturate the canvas or paper like a stain, and often strokes are difficult to discern. Then he will surprise, and a picture is made of hundreds of stubby slashes of color. Not everyone will take to Kahn’s colors: Sometimes it seems as if he used Easter-egg dye, all pink and yellow and orange. But then in his best works, the colors are dark, shapes harder to distinguish, the forests mysterious, foreboding. Gray, who died in 2004, was a known artist in the Northwest Corner. He bought a house in Warren in 1949 and lived there with his wife, Francine du Plessix Gray, until his death. His paintings seem spontaneous and almost calligraphic. While he relished vivid colors and a lyrical lightness of touch, some of his best pieces, two of which are at the Morrison, were made from blacks and deep grays and a pale green. Gray’s abstraction is pure, almost stark. But even in the darkest pieces, his genius for color, both expected and new, is exhilarating. Prince works in black granite and combinations of various types of steel to produce dramatic, sometimes humorous pieces. (A particularly intriguing cube of black granite with holes drilled into all six sides is on display in the lobby of the former IBM building at Madison Ave. and 57th St. The influence of Donald Judd’s famous Connecticut-milled aluminum boxes now in Marfa, TX, and Judd’s stringent minimalism are unmistakable, yet Judd’s seriousness is replaced with a lighter, gentler sensibility.) And that lighter sensibility informs a wonderful work in Kent: an egg-shaped piece of polished black granite cut into slices, like a loaf of bread, which are tumbled next to each other in a rhythmic arrangement. The slices, poised to fall over like dominoes, are shiny and light and airy, and make you smile. Another Prince is a doughnut of cortin steel with a jagged piece removed to show a shiny coated surface underneath. The same technique informs cubes and even a tall, totem pole-like column of cutaway steel. The sculptor is about mass versus surface; yet he manages to produce surprisingly gentle works. “Four Artists” will continue at the Morrison Gallery in Kent, throughApril 3. Call 860- 927-4501.

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