Melville Price (1920-1970) was one of the younger members of “The Club,” the association of New York artists that organized the historic 9th Street Art Exhibition of 1951, which announced the arrival of the New York School. Some members—Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Willem de Kooning—became iconic brands in American art. Others, like Price, had to take teaching positions around the country to make ends meet.
This exhibit is mostly about one painting: “Black Warrior II” (1962-1964). At seventy-two-by-115 inches, it is the largest piece in the show and arguably the best. The title is a translation of “Tuskaloosa,” a sixteenth-century Native American chieftain whose name was adopted for the city where the University of Alabama is now located. (Price served on the faculty there.)
Heavy black lines enclose spaces of luminous, colorful complexity. The powerful lines recall the work of Price’s personal friend, Franz Kline. The colorful areas between them are like stained-glass windows in medieval cathedrals. It’s a delicious contrast, making the piece feel sensual and transcendent as well as defiant and dynamic. It feels like a locomotive, full of unstoppable energy and emotion.
Flanking the piece are four small studies, where apparently Price experimented with applications of color with dry or heavy brushes. Absent is the sense of exhausted delirium achieved in the larger work. Instead, these pieces have a sharpness and freshness that is just as delightful. All five could go into any exhibition featuring the very best of American Abstract Expression, even though they remain in the artist’s estate fifty years after his death.
The rest of the show is not as thrilling, but builds up to what he would finally achieve in the early 1960s. A near-monochrome oil-on-paper from 1960 dives deep into pictorial space instead of rambling across the surface. A 1953 oil-on-canvas, “English Creek,” looks like a softer, more tentative version of “Black Warrior.” The strength of the lines and the luminous color between them would eventually be reached ten years later.
But in the late 1960s, the artist went in a different direction. Abstract Expression was no longer fashionable, Franz Kline was dead, Modernism was fading into history. Robert Rauschenberg’s combines had announced a new direction in American art, and that’s where Melville Price was heading in a sixty-six-by-seventy-four-inch untitled collage from 1967.
I’m not sure that he was throwing in the towel as an heroic painter, but he hung a real towel in the center of this piece. He also added a classic female torso, a photographic nude from a girlie magazine, and the printed labels pulled from the cans of two different brands of cooked beets. Hung near “Black Warrior,” it feels like a cheerful surrender to the mindless banality of ordinary American life. Welcome to post-modernism.
Throughout the show, there’s a feeling that Price was deeply committed to the New York art world into which he had been accepted. This could explain why he appears oblivious to the segregated campus on which he worked in the early 1960s. In fulfillment of his campaign promise, “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” George Wallace, governor of Alabama, blocked the door of the university enrollment office. In response, then-President John F. Kennedy federalized the National Guard to push him aside. While that happened nearby, Melville Price was working on something called the “Black Warrior” series, which had nothing to do with black people at all.
That coincidence hardly makes these paintings any less powerful, but it might make one regret that social realism had been so thoroughly banished from what might be considered contemporary in American painting. It still is. (Chris Miller)
“Melville Price: In Search of the Black Warrior,” McCormick Gallery, 835 West Washington, through August 3