A painting's sense of tactility disappears in photographic reproductions and on computer monitors. But in wildly differing ways, that quality is crucial to two current exhibitions of paintings that synthesize a Pop sensibility with a penchant for pictorial abbreviation that teeters on the brink of abstraction.
Scott Richter achieved notice in the 1980s for witty and elegant wall-mounted sculpture in materials such as beeswax and Fiberglas, but he may be best known for more recent pieces in which great piles of paint, mixed with silicone medium to hasten drying, are mounded on palette tables. Their amusing conceit is that they are not so much sculptures as paintings that never advanced beyond the preliminary pigment-mixing stage. With his current show at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, Mr. Richter returns to the wall with 20 small, new paintings that refer to the human head.
Most of them are about 17 inches by 13 inches, and up to 2 inches thick, painted on a slab made of several thicknesses of wool carpet. A preliminary drawing is mounted on the slab, then worked over with gusto in oils and medium. The head is a template, a pretense to explore formal problems like contour and contrast, as well as issues of identity, and the elusiveness of narrative. There is no clear reason, visually or conceptually, for the eccentric choice of support. It vaguely suggests domesticity, echoing the intimate scale of the private devotional image. In only one piece, "Smacker" (2007), is the texture of the carpet evident, and indirectly at that; the mottled, lipstick-red head, scraped over with a knife, has picked up the pile beneath the paper before being flecked with greens and blues.
Mr. Richter is a funny fellow. "On Having Smelt" (2007) depicts a head nearly devoid of detail except for a huge nose. Some are slathered in paint, such as "Punchinello Goes to Texas" (2007), wherein the big-nosed clown is seen in silhouette against a spatula-broad sunset, wearing a 10-gallon hat and leaning into the frame like a rugged cowboy. Others allow the sheet to show through layers of almost colorless medium, as in "Portrait of Liar B" (2006), in which the head is daubed with blackish blotches and enclosed in an aggressively blank, white ground. Simultaneously brawny and delicate, Mr. Richter's work emerges from a limited, high-contrast palette, a sophisticated graphical vocabulary, and abundant wit. Essential to the mix is an affinity with comics, particularly in his liberal use of black.
These attributes are also present in the bustling yet expansive canvases of Nicholas Krushenick, now on view at Marianne Boesky Gallery. Krushenick, a New York painter who died in 1999 at the age of 70, devised a Pop response to abstraction, eschewing Pop's brand-name-dropping in favor of veiled figurative references and a streamlined palette that evoke the funny pages. Krushenick focused for nearly four decades on the visual dynamics of the picture plane, having digested Hans Hofmann's doctrine of chromatic "push-pull" as the key to activating space. Krushenick's assiduously featureless surfaces were an affront to some, superflat when it was a radical gesture to disguise facture rather than parade it.
At 7 1/2 feet high, the earliest work in the show, "Electric Soup" (1969), is also the biggest, and the only one that looks seriously dated. Twin explosion shapes, rimmed with yellow and filled in with orange and blue, converge from left and right on a red ground. It's a high-impact image with little staying power. The last and best painting, 1999's "Pumpkin," shows how far Krushenick traveled. A band of high, clear blue encases a jumbled grid of black-on-white hatching, infiltrated by perspectival areas of yellow. This enigmatically distilled painting is one to linger over.
Krushenick was celebrated for his unbridled colors, and he knew a black outline could pump up the volume. But several paintings from the mid-1970s bring grays into play. In "Pont Neuf" (1976), they form a bristling openwork lattice like an erector set gone haywire, steely against a hot orange field. Matters of figure and ground preoccupied Krushenick as they do Mr. Richter; likewise a potent relationship between interior and edge that activates the entire surface. And both have attended closely to their paintings as physical objects with meanings bound up in the particulars of surface, which is fundamental to the language of painting. It is a language that these two practitioners speak in very different dialects but with equal fluency.
Richter until July 20 (529 W. 20th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-463-9666);
Krushenick until June 16 (509 W. 24th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-680-9889).