Clifford Odets: Anguish of Many Colors in Paintings


FRIDAY, APRIL 26, 1996

Talented, tormented Clifford Odets (1906-1963) never lived up to his early promise. Plays like "Waiting for Lefty" and "Awake and Sing" brought their young author instant success and, briefly, the mantle of Eugene O'Neill as the great white hope of Broadway. Thereafter followed a long, painful decline dotted by increasingly infrequent, poorly received plays, and, as his journal and biography have revealed, infused with burning ambition, esthetic longing, countless love affairs and quite a bit of high-living.

Much of the last two decades were spent in Hollywood, where Odets wrote screenplays and even directed a movie or two while awaiting inspiration. (His directorial credits include the 1944 film "None but the Lonely Heart," which earned an Oscar for Ethel Barrymore.) At the time of his death, he was feverishly at work on the first episodes of "Have Gun Will Travel" starring Richard Boone for television, referring to himself as a "playwright manque."

Odets, who collected art, was also something of a painter manque. When he had insomnia or writers' block, he turned to making small, charged, cartoonishly expressionistic paintings on paper, mostly in combinations of watercolor, ink and gouache. He was especially productive during the late 1940's and 1950's, when he endured the added trauma of being named a Communist by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and blacklisted in Hollywood. More than 50 of these works form an engrossing exhibition at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. They are fleshed out by quotes from Odets's journal, as well as photographs, books, memorabilia and letters from figures like Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant and Theodore Dreiser (who had briefly hoped that Odets would direct the film version of "Sister Carrie").

One of the photographs, by Alfredo Valente, shows the handsome young playwright in 1935 in the first flush of success. He slouches in a chair, glowering at the camera while holding a cigarette to his lips and wearing an overcoat and stylish checked scarf. It's a forced, over-directed pose, a portrait of the playwright as a well groomed angry young man that, one hopes was meant somewhat ironically. A second photograph, taken 15 years later by Aaron Siskin, is less studied. It shows a jacketless, clearly sadder and wiser Odets sitting at his desk, surrounded by about a dozen of his works from his art collection, all by Paul Klee, their ethereal motifs hovering about him like protective spirits.

Odets owned art by Chagall, Picasso, Soutine, Roualt and others, but his lasting love was Klee. At one point, he had more than 60 works by the Swiss artist, the largest group in private hands in the United States. He purchased most of them from the New York dealer J. B. Neumann, with whom he maintained an intense correspondence that covered Klee's greatness and prices, the Klee dealings of Neumann's former associate and arch-rival Karl Nierendorf, and the possibility that Odets might sell Klees to his friends in Hollywood. (They declined). The on!y prior show of Odets's paintings on paper was held at Neumann's Madison Avenue gallery in 1947.

As an artist, Odets comes closest to Klee in "War Scene," a seemingly beatific field of diaphanous red punctuated with little marks of yellow and red that turn out to be exploding planes and bombs. Otherwise, he is decidedly unlike Klee. His strong suit is not line but color, which he combines with intensity and imagination. And instead of elegance and reserve, there's an ungainliness, a kind of adolescent tumult or comedic anguish that, like the voice in Odets's journal, is raw and unformed.

Odets's subjects range from women (with a lot of emphasis on breasts) to biblical, theatrical and operatic themes to portraits and self-portraits and figures. His style is less than consistent, even within individual images, and somewhat generic. His images suffer in comparison to those of other gifted amateurs whose vocations lay elsewhere, like August Strindberg and Arnold Schoenberg. One senses in them an infatuation with art in all guises, as well as an inability to form a lasting sexual bond. The figures curve and bulge, with a fun-house-mirror wooziness that can be reminiscent of those of William Gopley, with whom Odets shares an obsession with naked ladies, or the Chicago Imagists. Frequently the eye will find the most pleasure not in the central drama of the figures, but in background textures and patterns: the red dotted wallpaper that is the backdrop of "Uneasy Slumber," for example.

Especially good are a number of deliberately rendered or casually speckled landscapes, lik Swamp," "Old Cemetery," "Don Juan's Last Bed" and the poignant Shahn-like "Burning of the Jews," in which little brick ovens and tendrils of smoke soften a horrific subject. Other images that similarly eliminate or play down the figure are strong, including multi-storied interiors like "Burlesque" and "House of Evil," with their compartmentalized sexual shenanigans, and the domestic free-for-all that is "The Boy Magician." And there's a frequent penchant for wild distortions of space and perspectival mixings, most notably in "Othello, Last Act," an aerial view of the death scene framed by Othello's desperate hand, large and, appropriately, green.

But Odets's unpredictable talent shines through in a variety of motifs. It would be easy to say that the more personal ones are better. Thus the jowly, white-haired personage of "(Don't Like This Man) Politician" doesn't hold a candle to the confession that is "In Hell + Why." Here the artist mutates his nose into a woman, planting the female form smack in the middle of a red, yellow-flecked, wide-eyed face animated by a yellow background decorated with red-centered spirals. The image almost spins, pivoting around the hallucinating eyes, with help from the subject's long, twisting ear lobes, which, strangely enough, imply both excess and punishment, like something out of Dante. The jaundiced "Working at Night" gives us the lonely, late-working, slightly debauched writer of Odets' journal. Also good and possibly autobiographical is "Smoker," which suggests a send-up of the Valente photograph in bright Fauvish colors.

But just as often it is hard to say what stimulated Odets's imagination: chance encounters with real people, news stories or just good old stream of consciousness. In this free-ranging category, I would place the intense, habited face of "The Young Nun," the stone fortress with a yellow yard of "Asylum" and the mincing, high-heeled figure of "The Straight Man." Another possibility is that many of his figures may have been characters that haunted Odets from the plays he constantly meant to be writing.

"Clifford Odets: In Hell + Why" remains at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, Manhattan, through June 8.


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