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Pluto Rising 

Recently I received an email from a friend notifying me of the pending effects of the planet Pluto as it transits the 29th degree of Sagittarius " an apparently fateful turn, it seems, portending all things Plutonic. Later that day, I visited with some nice folks from the Santa Monica Museum of Art who were in town to learn more about the Prospect 1 New Orleans International Biennial, and who in the course of conversation mentioned that they found the Ogden Museum a unique surprise, largely because serious museums that feature regional art are almost nonexistent in America. They were also pleasantly surprised by the St. Claude Avenue Arts District's unusual mix of alternative, co-op and experimental galleries.

By now you are probably wondering what museums and galleries have to do with astrology in general or Pluto in particular, and to that question there are multiple answers, one of which is an artist named Tom Young. It seems that astrology, whether you believe in it or not, is all about patterns or correspondences, and the retrospective of work by Tom Young at the Ogden Museum has resonance because of his roots in the 10th Street gallery scene in New York in the late 1950s and early '60s, as well as his years at the University of New Orleans where he helped develop the art department through faculty recruitment, visiting artists and the inception of a Master of Fine Arts degree. The 10th Street Galleries, as they were collectively known, were experimental artist co-ops for the most part, creative hothouses that gave us talents such as Alex Katz, Tom Wesselmann, Allan Kaprow and Alice Neel. One of them, the March Gallery, gave us Mark di Suvero and Robert Beauchamp as well as eventual New Orleanians Robert Tannen and Tom Young. In the odd way that historical patterns repeat, most of the experimental new art spaces around St. Claude Avenue are indirect descendants of New York's old 10th Street galleries in that many are artist-run and share similar experimental goals. That many were either founded, or strongly influenced, by UNO graduates only accentuates those historic, if asymmetrical, synchronicities.

Pluto, for its part, is all about upheavals resulting from things that lurk or develop unseen only to suddenly flare up as storms, earthquakes, financial panics and the like, so in astrology it is only natural that hurricanes Gustav and Ike share headline space with the federal takeover of troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Hurricane Katrina was a very Plutonic event, yet it is also true that without Katrina the Prospect 1 New Orleans International Biennial would probably have never happened, so Pluto can be double edged. Be that as it may, you could look at Tom Young's paintings at the Ogden all day long and never have any inkling of any of these connections " although it must be said that some of his abstract expressionist works have a Plutonic aura about them, perhaps because of his experience as a fighter pilot in World War II.

A 1957 abstract expressionist canvas titled Figures looks at least as apocalyptic as it does figurative, with blocky, structural forms seemingly shimmying and gyrating as if in the throes of an earthquake. Other, untitled abstractions rendered in varying shades of crimson suggest fiery cataclysms or volcanic eruptions, all neatly contained within the formal constraints of the laws of composition. Not all was sturm und drang, of course. His circa-1951 Black and White Sketch series of abstract ink compositions on paper spans the gap between the Zen ink drawings that inspired so many American artists at the time and the European expatriate expressionists such as Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. Tom Young was a friend and colleague to most of them, and his 10th Street legacy eventually became his gift to this city and the university that bears its name.

click to enlarge This untitled 1956 abstract expressionist canvas by Tom Young illustrates his flair for convulsive, or even cataclysmic, compositions.
  • This untitled 1956 abstract expressionist canvas by Tom Young illustrates his flair for convulsive, or even cataclysmic, compositions.


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