The Afterlife of an Ideal

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Summer fashions are unkind to abstract painting.We get so used to felicitous arrangements of stripes and cheery colors that a similar painterly motif can make the canvas feel like a mere extension of the viewer’s wardrobe.

“Neoplastic Redux,” the group show put together by the new director of the Elizabeth Harris Gallery, Miles Manning, makes a plea for the rigor and seriousness of abstraction. Acknowledging the high-minded, hardedge geometry of Mondrian, Mr. Manning has selected artists who eschew representation and embrace crisp delineations and sharpish right angles. The only thing, though, that actually looks De Stijl is the show’s announcement card, with its red, yellow, and blue rectangles artfully arranged on a white ground.

The 10 artists on display range from a grand master of color-field abstraction (Gene Davis) to a novice in abstraction – Helen Miranda Wilson, who surprised devotees of her landscape painting with her turn to the nonobjective world in a solo exhibition at DC Moore Gallery last year.

Davis (1920-85) belonged to the generation of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, to whose work his own was naturally compared because of their common fixation on serial stripe patterns as a basis of daring yet stylish color relationships. His untitled stripe painting from 1961 is almost minimalist in its alternation of black and purple vertical stripes; the irregularity of the side stripes – one orange to the right, a violet and lime to the left – ensure that the striking feature is color rather than pattern.

Ironically, Davis stands out as one of the freshest painters in the show. In his moment he was genuinely cuttingedge, unlike the majority of his newfound peers.

Erik Saxon, for instance, is a constructivist whose iconic arrangements of squares and rectangles, such as the cruciform “Red and Blue Cross” (1983-84) look like straight pastiches of Malevich. Joanne Freeman’s “Blue Bonneville” (2006) – which places vaguely alphabet-like zigzags in dark blue against a lighter blue ground, with occasional red shadows that double the forms – recalls Sonia Delaunay and her disciples among decorative artists in interwar France.

Ms. Wilson’s grids also have precedents, but they don’t seem affected by the same kind of postmodern, quotational urge. In “Brute” (2005), her offkilter, horizontal rows of squares and rectangles have the feel of Klee without literally referencing him. Painting in oil on panel, she produces colors that have an intuited, empathetic warmth and vibrancy. A sense of chromatic specificity relates her to Pat Lipsky – the dedicatee of a painting at Ms. Wilson’s DC Moore show.

Ms. Lipsky is represented here by “Proust’s Sea” (2006), a gorgeous, uncharacteristically nocturnal set of color relationships within her familiar format of alternating double columns. Each vertical reads like a tube halffilled with its color. The title refers the viewer to the passage in “A la recherche du temps perdu” where the narrator observes the play of marine reflections in his hotel bedroom at dawn. Despite initial impressions of a hardedged serialism, Ms. Lipsky’s painting is deliciously out of step with the prim, anti-representational purity of this show’s professed theme.

***

Where “Neoplastic Redux” alludes to the afterlife of an ideal, “Action Precision” charts the fate of a gesture.The nine-person group show at Lennon, Weinberg is at once critically tighter and formally more diverse than the somewhat spurious Harris ensemble. What these artists have in common is neat spontaneity: They devise systems within which crisp results are uncompromised by wayward yet trusted inflections of the hand.

James Nares takes action and control to fetishistic extremes. In his tasteful “It’s in the Books” (2005), a blue totem is built from a fluent yet jerky sequence of broad brushstrokes. You wouldn’t know it, but his modus operandi entails an elaborate rigging up of mountaineering ropes to enable him to be suspended over his canvas. Ongoing public relations ensures that one savors the double sense in which he is an “action” painter, Franz Kline meets Spider-man.

More spectacular results are to be had on terra firma. Three examples from Jill Moser’s “Blues for Orange” series (2006) build richly dynamic abstraction from frenetic, overlapping lassoes against a light ground. She always maintains a sharp figure-ground distinction, but the ground is animated by fallout from the gestural events. Sam Reveles’s linear agitations are more intense: In “English Canto-Dragonfly” (2006), dense accumulations of scribble form a field that is just kept short of filling the whole of his tall, thin canvas.

Craig Fisher exploits blind chance to crystalline effect. He is an inveterate recycler, working on drop cloths or the reverse of failed canvases, building up fugal relationships between marks and stains from the right and wrong sides. The result in “Untitled” (2006) is a suave nonchalance that recalls cool jazz.

Temperature and intentionality alike heat up in Melissa Meyer’s masterful “Regale” (2005) a loose, erratic grid of multicolored glyphic squiggles. Both the individual elements and their coordination are a high-wire act between meaning and intuition, freedom and system, abandon and control.

Peter Davis shares Mr. Nare’s attraction to the squidgy section created by the point at which a brushstroke changes direction. He exploits a contradiction in speed by capturing gesture as if photographically, emulsifying his brushstrokes in a technique that mixes gloss paint and baked acrylic on a wooden support. Despite the means by which it is recorded, the slick gesture comes across as spontaneous.

Jacqueline Humphries also seems intent on containing wayward gesture within some kind of structural discipline. Her untitled 2006 canvas presents an explosive, translucent splurge of silvery white over steely grays in a virulent, uncouth assault whose sense of precision is defined by its clarity.The paint remains thin and light.The gesturalism seems clamped into place by a superimposed L-shaped section filled in by irregular stripes and drips of orange; this contrastive reality signals circumspection, the precision that keeps watch over her action.

Neoplastic Redux until July 21 (529 W. 20th Street, between Tenth Avenue and the West Side Highway, 212-463-9666). Prices: $1,600-$150,000. Action Precision until August 11 (514 W. 25th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-941-0012). Prices: $4,000-$65,000.


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