- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 11, 2001

The American modernist Francis Criss created his extraordinary "Astor Place" in 1932. It shows two nuns talking on a New York City sidewalk in front of a strange Italian Renaissance-looking building.
Mr. Criss (1901-1973) reduced the two women to simplified conelike shapes and pared the surrounding buildings and pavements down to rectangular and squarish shapes cut by horizontals and verticals.
He set a quirky detail in the center of the street, a low signpost topped by an arrow that says, "Keep-Right." It was one of the images that earned him an admired reputation in the New York art world of the 1930s. It also placed him in the prestigious First Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
"Astor Place," later bought by the Whitney, is the earliest painting by Mr. Criss in the Corcoran Gallery of Art's current show of his 1930s work. The exhibit should restore Mr. Criss, a largely forgotten artist, to his rightful place in the history of American modernist art.
Guest curator Linda Lichtenberg Kaplan amassed 21 paintings by the artist for "Restructured Reality: The 1930s Paintings of Francis Criss." She says her intention is to show the many elements of the artist's style and how they meshed for his hybrid art.
Using a cooking analogy, the exhibit illustrates how he "cooked" his ingredients for the highly original "recipe" of his art.
"Astor Place" allies him with precisionists Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth. They stylized and organized objects into pure forms and structures while keeping the objects recognizable, as Mr. Criss did in the paintings in the show.
The precisionists, and Mr. Criss, adapted the Marcel Duchamp-Francis Picabia expression of the Machine Age by making inherently geometric-looking subjects such as barns, windows, grain elevators, factories and machinery into an American take on the French artists' aesthetic.
Precisionist subjects were quintessentially American with their focus on cities, factories and landscapes. Two works in the show, "Sixth Avenue 'L' (Mural, Williamsburg Housing Project, New York)" and "Melancholy Interlude," show Mr. Criss' precisionist preoccupation with crisp lines, stark geometry and pure color.
Mr. Criss added the sometimes shiny paint surfaces of other precisionists in "Melancholy Interlude." One of the best paintings in the exhibit, it's from the fine collection of Mr. and Mrs. Barney A. Ebsworth of St. Louis.
"Sixth Avenue 'L'" and "Melancholy Interlude" would be called "cool" in today's lingo.
There was nothing cool about most of Mr. Criss' art after he went to Italy on a fellowship. The artist said he intended to study the work of the Italian primitives, the Renaissance masters and fresco painting.
Mr. Criss did that, but he also looked long and hard at the surrealist work of Giorgio de Chirico. The surrealist painted the idealized architecture of 15th-century Italy but turned this ordered, rational world into a dislocated, irrational ambience.
De Chirico's modeling in the round created the illusion of 3-D forms.
Exhibit visitors will see these approaches, as well as De Chirico's paradoxical combining of objects, in Mr. Criss' "Why the Line?" (1934).
The artist placed what were then a contemporary man and woman against a Renaissance-looking female statue. An arched Italian building and bridge provide the background.
It asks more questions than it answers. Why is there a broken line from the woman to the statue? What has given the man his horrified expression? Why is there a white area around his head?
Like De Chirico, Mr. Criss combined disparate objects from the Renaissance for a puzzling, even shocking, image.
"Alma Sewing" (1935) is another enigmatic work. At first glance, it's ordinary enough. A realistically modeled black woman leans into her sewing machine while sewing a piece of white cloth.
But certain elements — the upper tie of her apron that goes nowhere; a pink curved piece behind the machine; the tiny, kicking ballet dancer sitting on the wall; and the reflection of the artist in the lamp — make it intriguing in a bizarre way.
Probably unwittingly, Mr. Criss combined paradoxical currents of 1930s art. The artist imbued much of his work with De Chirico's dream world, what critics have called "the landscape of the unconscious."
He combined this kind of world with the precisionists' machine-inspired, dehumanized distillations of America — what could be called "the landscape of the rational."
It is the tension between these diametrically opposite approaches that makes his work so fascinating.

WHAT: "Restructured Reality: The 1930s Paintings of Francis Criss"
WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Avenue and 17th Street NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesdays, until 9 p.m. Thursdays through Oct. 13
PHONE: 202/639-1700

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