The New York gallery Ryan Lee now represents Rudolf Baranik, the painter of politically engaged abstractions who died in 1998 at the age of 77. The gallery’s first Baranik show will be “Napalm Elegies,” opening March 29, which takes its title from a series that the artist produced between 1967 and 1974—they’re dark, brooding paintings, reminiscent of works by figures like Alberto Burri and Lee Bontecou, that feature collaged images of napalm burn victims in Vietnam War.
“We feel this is the perfect moment to reintroduce this body of work,” Jeffrey Lee, a partner in the gallery, said in an interview, noting special resonance with the recent Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary on the Vietnam War and a show at the New-York Historical Society on the conflict that will run through April 22. Baranik was one of the first artists to become involved in opposing the war, New York Times critic Roberta Smith noted in her obituary for the artist, and was later involved with Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America.
The Ryan Lee gallery’s plan to represent Baranik came about naturally, Lee said, since it already shows the artist’s wife, May Stevens, now 93, whose work takes the form of poetic and sometimes wry paintings that can also often have an incisive sociopolitical edge. (Fun fact: Baranik and Stevens had a two-person show together at P.S. 1 in Queens back in 1982 as part of a series of exhibitions called “Art Couples” that was exactly what it sounds like.)
Although Baranik’s work is in the collections of institutions as august as the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum (which included it in its ongoing show “An Incomplete History of Protest”), and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, this will be his first major exhibition since 2004, when the late-lamented Jersey City Museum did a show of his “Napalm Elegies.” Those on the hunt for more Baranik knowledge, take note: on May 9, at 6:30 p.m., the gallery will host a panel on Baranik at its West 26th Street home with Alejanrdo Anreus, Matthew Israel, Lucy Lippard, and Patricia Hills.
At a moment when many artists are trying to expand the activist potential of their art, it does indeed feel like a moment that is ripe for revisiting Baranik’s example. As Lee put it while describing the “Napalm Elegies,” Baranik was using “black not purely as an aesthetic form but also as a political tool.”
Update, February 15: An earlier version of this post omitted Lynn Novick as co-director of the recent documentary about the Vietnam War. The post has been updated.