The Fussy Eye: Exile on Main Street

Who is Nicolai Fechin? The Russian figurative painter (1881–1955) was belatedly associated with the Munich Secession movement, which later inspired the Fryes to start collecting European art. Fechin was also one of the lucky few to attract American patrons and a visa in 1923, after the Russian Revolution. Here he enjoyed some success with his thick-daubed oil portraiture; he was basically a society painter who dabbled in rustic and ethnographic scenes, especially after relocating to Taos in 1927. Then came divorce and two decades of obscurity in L.A. What had seemed innovative before World War I was old and forgotten after World War II. Fechin lived through the toppling of the czar, the A-Bomb, and Milton Berle. Yet he was also, briefly, a figure of the American avant garde, admired by Gorky and a slinger of wild, unruly paint. If you squint within inches of one of his crusty canvasses, the smiling girls, Mexican landscapes, and peasant scenes fall away. You’re left with the pure interplay of color, divorced from form. Step back again from, say, Portrait of a Young Woman (1912), and the girl regains her beauty. Pollack and de Kooning, young men when Fechin was living and teaching in New York, would later reject that step back. To look at some Fechin paintings up close is like seeing their work at a proper distance. But they were the new thing, Abstract Expressionism, and Fechin the footnote; he’s a transitional figure who never quite transitioned to the emerging art scene of his adopted homeland. Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., 622-9250, frye Free. 11 a.m.–7 p.m. Thurs., 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sun. Ends May 19.

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