POP-UP OP ART . . . SORT OF 

The McNay showcases a Charles Biederman retrospective

On a recent visit, all three members of our party - two writers and one gallery director, people familiar with museum etiquette - were at one point or another admonished by a zealous member of the staff, on guard to see to it that no human hand comes within 12 inches of a painting.

That's a hard rule to follow, because one of the most fascinating things about the painter is the evolution of his surfaces from wild, free brush strokes at the beginning of his career to nearly machine-like perfection at the end, with intermediate works in which he took

 
click to enlarge culture_mcnay_677_330jpg
#24, Constable painted aluminum.
fine shading to almost compulsive lengths; you really have to get up close to the work to see this, and heaven help you if you try to point out a detail to your companions - a constant temptation, since the most noteworthy work in the show literally reaches out at you from the wall.

Midway through the show's first large room, which mostly finds Biederman flirting with Cézanne and Cubism, are a pair of abstract works that hint at the direction his work will eventually take. One, from 1934, is a collection of colored forms rendered in raw, unhidden brush strokes; the next, made just a year later, translates similar forms into realistically shaded objects appearing to float in space. In the latter canvas, the painter downplays the painted surface in service of illusion, and his involvement with his imaginary three-dimensional world foreshadows a comment a French critic would eventually make about his work, that it "is sculpture, not painting."

The show's final room shows that the remark was prophetic. Here, brightly colored rectangles jut

CHARLES BIEDERMAN: ABSTRACT MODERNIST
10am-5pm Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5pm Sunday
Through June 22
The McNay Art Museum
6000 N. New Braunfels
824-5368
out from smooth surfaces in arrangements with complicated symmetries. The rectangles are cut from aluminum and coated with paint, then joined one to another with hidden screws or glue. They seem to be immobilized in space by sentient magnetic fields, little mutant descendants of Mondrian, beckoning you to join their ordered but mysterious world of color and shape. Whatever you do, though, don't take the invitation too literally - the guard is watching you.

`Postscript: Lest we seem too snide about overzealous security guards, it should be noted that the perfect aluminum surfaces of Biederman's late work are particularly easy to damage. Even clean hands would probably leave lasting marks, so don't fondle the sculpture.` •


More by John DeFore

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