“My work was always instinctual. I believe in chance, thrift shops, found objects. In crafting records, for instance, I might hear an old Harry James riff and weave it into a Freddie Cannon song. The sound of someone slamming the studio door might become the hook. I view art the same. In the fifties I was close to Otto Fenn, the fashion photographer, who introduced me to Andy Warhol. We had an ongoing canasta game–Andy, Otto, Johnny Ray and myself. Andy was decorating the windows at Bendels and displaying his wonderful shoe sketches. I was working with linen and burlap, applying resin, molding, hardening and covering it with sand, beads and shells. Very organic, very physical. Andy considered my stuff edgy and arranged a show at the Bodley Gallery. Reviews were strong, interest high, but in the sixties the music business shot even higher.” — Bob Crewe, 1968
The following critique below was taken from a catalog of Bob Crewe’s opening at the Earl McGrath Gallery, 1991.
BOB CREWE: VARIED FIGURES, UNIFIED FIELDS
Since returning full time to the studio in the spring of ’91, Bob Crewe has generated a body of work whose forms, tones and textures root him solidly in a postwar tradition of abstraction. The surprising thing about this abstract heritage evinced by the decidedly American painter is that its stylistic earmarks are at least as European as they are American.
Less surprising is the fact these earmarks hark back to a third of a century, to a very different artistic period than the current one. As the vitality and self-assuredness especially of Crewe’s most recent pieces demonstrates, postwar vanguardist did not exhaust the possibility of assemblage in painting, of texturally variegated, tonally tenuous monochrome, or of the ambiguities of form that result. The artistic era into which Crewe was “born” was one of the richest, and most problematic, in art history, and its manners and ramifications, while no longer shockingly “new,” still seem particularly compelling. What is remarkable in historical terms about Crewe’s recent work is that it factors solutions and paths of investigation which bespeak more a European than American context. Crewe addresses, and overcomes, not just superficial anachronism(s) of his style, but its geographic anomaly as well.
To what can we attribute the fact that Crewe’s current work grounds itself primarily in European art of the 1950s and 60s? It simply seems as if his personal sensibility tends in this direction, and that particular characteristics of postwar European styles manifest themselves as much by accident as by model. Crewe paints–and sculpts, and assembles–as he does, not because he seeks a European “flavor,” but simply because he needs to explore some of the same devices investigated by painters and sculptors a generation older in France and Italy, England and Spain–explore them and make them his own.
The artist did spend several formative years in Europe, studying art and meeting artist; but Crewe is very much a product of America. More specifically, he is a New Yorker, born in the area of the city, educated at one of its most prominent art schools, and nurtured, before and after his European stay, on the phenomenally rich cultural ferment that characterized New York after the Second World War. Crewe’s current work does serve to renew the artistic debate that followed the demise of Abstract Expressionism, capitalizing on his first-hand experience of that debate and on the fact that, just as with their European counterparts, many of the issues and approaches proposed in that debate were never exhausted.
Although he had explored Abstract Expressionism gesturally in his own works of the 1950s and early 60s, Crewe even then preferred the implicitly iconic centrality of the image–or of the object, as in his reliance on assemblage techniques, especially in the later ’60s and ’70s. The restrained palette and richly-worked surfaces that predominate in the current painted constructions, however, that Crewe has been realizing the full potential of these particular tendencies–tendencies which are identified not so much with Abstract Expressionist in whose milieu Crewe grew up, but with their European contemporaries, the tachistes.
If we can situate Crewe’s aesthetic in a specific prefiguration, however, it roots less in the alternately gritty and luscious art informel of tachistes such as Pierre Soulages and Georges Mathieu than in abstract-surrealist forebears of the tachistes, notably Jean Fautrier and the underrated German-French intimist known as WOLS–who, like Crewe, evolved out of Klee-like fantasies into a more non-objective visual language; in artists contemporary with the art informel painters but interested in a less purely formal aesthetic (Jean Dubuffet and Antoine Tapies being among the most prominent of these); and in the tachistes’ rebellious successors, the Nouveau Realists. Just as Abstract Expressionism gave way to Pop Art in the United States and Great Britain, the texture-and-field approach of art informel yielded on the Continent to Le Nouveau Realism, with its own emphasis on the incorporation of real-life items and its simultaneously critical and enthralled grasp of the postwar consumer society.
Crewe’s relationship to these manifold stylistic predecessors is hardly epigonal, however. To cite the rough-hewn, often fantastical work of Fautrier, Dubuffet, or Tapies, or the alternately droll and mystical, beautiful and homely concoctions of Nouveau Realistes such as Daniel Spoerri and Arman, in connection with Crewe’s new work is not to claim a direct, conscious heritage for it, nor certainly to belittle it as imitative. Crewe may have come in to contact with such work during his European stay, and it might be said that Crewe’s aesthetic now generally focuses and refines the continental Zeitgeist he experienced in the mid-1950s. But he imitates none of it.
Crewe does not profess the influences of both Dubuffet and of the mercurial Surrealist (and proto-Tachistes and proto-Nouveau Realiste) Max Ernst. He plays virtual homage to these influences in his series of Visages. These playful assemblage sculptures and reliefs reiterate the fascination with found objects and natural textures that Ernst and Dubuffet shared. In his Visages Crewe picks up on the human tendency Dubuffet and Ernst both exploited, that of finding visual reference to things–especially human presences–in such material.
Crewe’s heads and faces consciously recapitulate Dubuffet’s own personages, both the French master’s earlier assemblages fabricated from found (usually natural) materials and his later jigsaw-puzzle-like Hourloupe paintings and constructions. But, in their reliance on a cruder physical immediacy, a greater compositional simplicity, and more painterly, less contoured approach to the definition of form, Crewe’s creatures evolve away form their Dubuffesque forebears. Where Dubuffet concentrated on the emergence of the figure form the material–that is, on “finding” the figure in the stuff, as the surrealists, most notably Ernst, were wont to do–Crewe’s is a more consciously active intervention. He is as willing to build on an image as find it, although his is careful not to overwork the substances and their combinations. In this, Crewe emulates less Dubuffet than Francis Bacon, the great postwar English expressionist with whom Crewe was in personal contact during his European sojourn. Bacon’s tortured images and highly focal, even hieratic compositions influenced Crewe even then; and their impact continues to resound in Crewe’s current art, including his entirely abstract pieces.
Even the most rigorously geometric, even minimalist of Crewe’s works painted, and assembled, on canvas, linen and wood, Bacon’s focalized composition makes itself felt. And Crewe utilizes this focality to much the same end as Bacon did, to establish formal tensions among discrete powerful elements that underscore and even amplify those elements’ inner turmoils–not, interestingly enough, the turmoil of their relationships to one another, but the agitation that each bears within itself. These “figures”–literally figures in Bacon’s pictures, but abstract forms foregrounded in Crewe’s–determine open, often symmetrical but not often rigidly fixed compositions that bring our attention back to the “figures” themselves. For all its rough-hewn angst, the figure, in essence, asserts its identity in an environment that is alternately antagonistic and uncaring. Just as the spaces occupied by Bacon’s figures offer only hostility or anomie, the fields in which Crewe’s forms are set serve only to de-define those forms, the forms existential claiming identity despite all.
An important distinction between Bacon’s formal approach and Crewe’s is that this struggle between “figure” and field is effected through compositional means in Bacon’s pictures, but in Crewe’s it is realized mostly through color–that is, though the restraint of coloristic variety. The employment of a uniformed monochromy in the rendition of figure and ground alike, prompting one to blend into the other, has its antecedent, for once, in contemporary American rather than European models. The earlier work of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns was known to Crewe by the end of the 1950s, and has been reconsidered by him since as work, especially by Rauschenberg, not previously exhibited has come to general attention. John’s and Rauschenberg’s work not only reaffirmed Crewe’s own preference for assemblage but provided him examples of texture-enhancing–and thus, ironically, form-revealing rather that form-suppressing–monochromy.
While Rauschenberg favored first white, then black, then a collage paper-bag or street-dirty brown in his empty palette, and while John’s rendered his flags in various hues form white to red to green, Crewe has chosen to paint–or, perhaps, dye–his formulations in various intensities of a pale, luminous blue-white. Sometimes this tends to brown, sometimes to red, more often to gray; but most frequently it stays that ethereal, milky–and remarkably familiar–blue. What is so familiar about that one tone and value? It has double associations, one natural, one synthetic. It is the color of the sky when the moisture in it has not coalesced into clouds–or, conversely, when those clouds cove the entire heavens with a thin, misty blanket. And it is the of washed, beaten denim, now almost as universal as the sky itself–and, it should be noted, a material associated the world over with American culture (despite its origins in southern France, as bleu de Nimes.)
The suggestion if the sky enhances the sense these works convey of a certain elusive depth. This depth may be shallow or it may be indefinite; but it has air in it. Thanks to their compositions, their modulations of tone, and the physicality both of the often literally attached “figures” and the variegated grain of the grounds, Crewe’s pictures have their own atmospheres. The works are called Texturologies as much ironically as factually; their emphasis on surface texture, in concert with their monochromy, serves ultimately to create a nebulous bur strongly felt space within them.
Beyond the peculiarities of his assemblaged figures, Crewe has engaged a restricted vocabulary of shapes in his compositions, wanting to investigate fully the complexities of each particular form or compositional language. He does this not in series, however but simultaneously, applying lessons and discoveries gained in one work or group of works to a contrasting work or group. The most traditionally schematic paintings are those which posit irregular–you might call them “organic”–shapes against a field. Rather more radical in their gentle instability, the works whose figures are orbs and circles also frequently suggest, porthole-like, that it is a figure itself, not the ground, that contains recessional space within it.
Even more ambiguous in their compositional dynamic are Crewe’s geometric–sometimes minimalist, sometimes more complexly “constructivist”–paintings. The power of this ambiguity is heightened when these geometrically determined works are shaped into higher relief. In contrast, the grid compositions are at once the most stable and the most unstable, the most lucid and yet the most mysterious and provocative, of the entire Texturology series. They dissipate composition, dividing the field without truly breaking it up and multiplying the field into a de-individualized mark–all without losing the picture’s sense of surface, of space, and of an almost object-like solidity.
All these various compositional strategies are familiar to the audience for contemporary painting; certain of them (the grid format, for example) have enjoyed period of almost voguish popularity. Crewe is himself an astute and discriminating observer of new art, but in using and combing ideas and approaches proposed or first exploited by others, he makes evident his lack of interest in their trendiness. As would any artist genuinely committed to the elaboration of vision through development of craft, Crewe seeks to synthesize those visual concepts which strike a resonant chord into coherent unity. –Peter Frank, 1991