The reign of youth on the Bowery may be coming to an end, as octogenarians square off against Millennials. The Don King of this match is BLT Gallery, which has been aggressively promoting "Wiser Than God," its hotly anticipated rejoinder to neighboring New Museum's "Younger Than Jesus." Prizing experience over age -- a dwindling concept in the art world -- BLT's "Generational" showcases works, both old and new, by living artists born in or before 1926, making them 83 at the absolute youngest. The unlikely herald of this epochal rivalry is a spindly aluminum sculpture by William King (b. 1925). Perched atop BLT's second-floor fire escape and directed at the New Museum's facade, this tragicomic figure searches inside his cloth red shorts, as if to "size up" the competition. That gesture sets the tone of the exhibition -- and it may be a friendly fight after all.
Compared to the year of preparation undertaken by the New Museum, the curators of "Wiser Than God," critic Adrian Dannatt and artist Jan Frank, cobbled their show together in a matter of weeks, scouring galleries and the web for artists that fit their criteria. Some are obvious choices: big names like Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923), Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911), and Lucien Freud (b. 1922). Others were surprising, even to the gallery. Just days before the opening, the wife of artist Nathaniel Kaz stumbled in (while leaving the New Museum, ironically); upon learning the show's premise, she volunteered the work of her 91-year-old husband.
Refreshingly, the exhibition includes some important artists that history and the market have largely forgotten. In a recent painting by Hyman Bloom (b. 1913), Still Life With Pink Coat (2009), a titular garment eerily hovers on the canvas, floating above a kaleidoscopic selection of vessels. The work continues the artist's seven-decade-long investigation into mysticism. Once regarded the "greatest artist in America," by the likes of Clement Greenberg, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning, Bloom regained minor attention in the last ten years with shows at the National Academy of Design Museum and Danforth Museum in Massachusetts. Despite this, his work will likely be new to most eyes.
If a victor must be crowned, The Party (1966) by Herbert Brown (b. 1923) easily takes the cake. A juxtaposition of advertising posters with nudity rendered in broad cartoonish strokes, nothing by any artist in "Younger Than Jesus" feels as fresh, funny, and revolutionary. The shows, however, both gain when viewed together, seeming less like a competition and more like a family tree. A printed collage of newspaper clippings by Richard Hamilton (b. 1922), chronicling the trials and tribulations of the Rolling Stones from the late 1960s, is a perfect foil for Matt Keegan's explorations of the Reagan Era across the street. The 2008 color etchings of Krishna Reddy (b. 1925) with their trippy, electric webs echo the oil paintings of the young Jakub Julian Ziolkowski, and the raw, sometimes ghoulish faces in Tala Madani's paintings at the New Museum might commune in the fiery, chaotic canvas of Arnold Mesches (b. 1923), or vice versa.
Megashows, like "Younger Than Jesus," tend to breed minor cousins that often trump the main event, think Lesser New York and the multitude of Whitney Biennial spinoffs. "Wiser Than God," which is more of a feisty grandparent, certainly does its part to expand the conversation taking place right now on the Bowery. One can't help but wonder, amidst the imposed categorizations, "Can't we all just get along?"
[From the top: Hyman Bloom, Still Life With Pink Coat (2009); Herbert Brown, The Party (1966). All images courtesy the artists and BLT Gallery.]