Gene Beery

September 11 – October 16, 2010

Gene Beery is the most surreptitious of artist’s artists. After a successful exhibition of his paintings at the Alexander Iolas Gallery in New York in 1963 Beery left town to take residence in San Francisco. Several years later the artist moved into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains outside Sacramento where he continues to live and work.

Born in Racine, Wisconsin in 1937, Gene Beery came to New York in the late 1950s. Working as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art he was befriended by James Rosenquist and Sol LeWitt, his Hester Street neighbor. In 1961 Beery’s ramshackle hybrid paintings incorporating words and figures were selected for the Modern’s Recent Figure Painting U.S.A. where they caught Max Ernst’s attention. The surrealist was so impressed he awarded Beery $100 on the spot. This windfall was followed by another award from the William and Norma Copley Foundation. Clearly, Beery’s art had struck a chord within New York’s still extant surrealist community. Duchamp, who upon meeting the artist for the first time awarded him a cigar, was soon a fan and must have seen in Beery’s art many of the same qualities he found in the art of Louis Eilshemius; paintings that were eccentric, direct, primitive, and archetypically American.

Gene Beery’s conceit, that words and the ideas they convey could alone account for a work of art, attracted the attention of fellow artists. His work was iconoclastic, funny and smart. Seen in art world hindsight it was also ahead of its time, prefiguring the language-based conceptual art of the late 1960s, from John Baldassari to Lawrence Weiner and Robert Barry. Beery’s free-wheeling humor and graphic flair also align his work with that other then-developing style, Pop Art. Over the years Sol LeWitt remained Beery’s greatest champion; rescuing works from his abandoned New York studio and making these a foundational part of the Sol and Carol LeWitt collection at the Wadsworth Athenium, as well as underwriting the publication of Beery’s many artist’s books.

The current exhibition includes work both new and early, including major figurative pieces from Beery’s 1963 exhibition at the Iolas Gallery that improbably invite comparison with Robert Ryman’s contemporaneous exploration of painting’s reification- the means by which an artist’s idea becomes a thing. One of these, What is beyond so what?? of 1960, is the very first of Beery’s word paintings. Lemon Job (Not feeling well), a painting of a note to his employer of the time, shows his paintings becoming more straight forward and minimal by the late 1960s, while such 1970s works as Ideational Tryptych and The ethical crisis playoffs, exemplify the distinctly conceptual funk Beery perfected in the 1970s. Since the 1990s the artist has again reduced his painting to succinct black and white epigrams, many of which, like Still Champions!!! and We still have wild birds here, are laconic takes on his life in the Sierra foothills and at the edge of the art world.