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Anywhere in between. (Art).

In the seventies, when I was a fledgling curator, any gathering of artists inevitably led to at least one acrimonious exchange about the exhaustion and imminent demise of figurative painting. At some point during these years, perhaps spurred by those discussions, a large, multi-gallery exhibition was organized to survey the current state of representational art. In spite of a selection that seemed determined more by a desire for quantity than quality, the show easily proved that news of the death of figuration, like that of Mark Twain, had been greatly exaggerated. You'd think that would have settled the question, but opinions on both sides remained entrenched and the arguments continued. Somewhere along the line, however, the emphasis shifted. Over the next decade or so, with the rise of postmodernism and its requirement that art tell stories and convey explicit political, sociological, or autobiographical messages, debates on the vitality and even the necessity of figuration were replaced by inquiries into the health and viability of abstraction. The issue was complicated by the fact that abstraction was somehow equated with formalism, paternalism, and, by extension, Clement Greenberg, so, both before and after the cantankerous critic's death, discussions of the significance and importance of abstract art in aesthetic terms were often confused with recitals of old resentments and hurts. (Few people seemed to remember, or care, that Greenberg frequently said that if he'd had his "druthers," the best art of his time would have been figurative, "but it didn't turn out that way.")

More recently, as younger artists have become increasingly fascinated with what art schools used to call "alternative media"--which now look more and more mainstream, but that's another matter--the conversation often centers on the survival of painting itself. For present-day artists who continue to paint seriously and ambitiously--and there are still many--the difference between figuration and abstraction can seem less important than the characteristics of the medium itself. Working abstractly, these days, does not exclude the possibility of reference; discussions often revolve around the implications of degrees of allusiveness, rather than, as they once did, about polarities of approach. What seems more in question are the physical characteristics of the medium. An alarming number of younger practitioners who still apply paint to flat supports of some kind (that's not a stilted circumlocution, but an effort to be faithful to the evidence) seems either to be oblivious to the particular properties of their materials or to mistrust them; often their work looks as is they would prefer to make photographs, if only they could figure out a way to make the images they desire, abstract or otherwise, by using a camera. You frequently wonder why they don't explore the possibilities of photography, as many other inventive present-day practitioners do, often at a scale that equals or surpasses anything painters produce. Perhaps the indifference of these younger painters to their materials is the key, since the best of the photographers are acutely attuned to the specifics of their chosen medium, exploiting its ability to capture enormous amounts of ephemeral optical information, without ignoring its formal capabilities, its tonal range, or, despite photography's seeming fidelity to appearances, its ability to mislead or deceive.

The paintings of the photographer-wannabes sometimes bear a superficial resemblance to the deadpan transcriptions of photo-based images into deliberately uninflected paint of--say--Gerhard Richter, but I think the motivation is different. Richter's bland, sleek surfaces are said to be signs of his quest for anonymity and indications of his doubt about the entire enterprise of making pictures "by hand." I suspect, though, that rather than musing on the nature of their discipline, young artists who use paint without enthusiasm are simply demonstrating the effects of a lifetime's exposure to disembodied mass-media images, television, and film, and a childhood of handling nothing but plastic. An intelligent artist-critic friend, in his early forties, thinks that the thin, expedient appearance of the work of so many young artists results simply from their "not wanting to spend too much time on it." This could be related to Hans Hofmann's famous dictum that "a picture must be finished in one sweep," but I'm willing to bet that it isn't. (Greenberg, who learned a lot from Hofmann, often advised young painters with a tendency to overload their work to stop after an hour and "let it cook"--that is, not look at the result for couple of days in order to shake free of established habits.)

Happily, there are still mature, thoughtful painters of various persuasions whose work bears eloquent witness to the fact that time-honored, traditional media can still be used to potent effect, as several outstanding exhibitions of the past season made clear: a survey of Thomas Nozkowski's drawings and works on paper at the New York Studio School Gallery; shows of recent canvases by Pat Lipsky simultaneously at Elizabeth Harris Gallery and L.I.C.K., and exhibitions by John Walker and Helen Frankenthaler sequentially at Knoedler and Company. (1) It's difficult to imagine a more diverse list, in terms of formation, conviction, intention, reputation, or acquaintance. (For the record, Nozkowski, Lipsky, and Walker were all born just before the beginning or just before the end of World War II; Frankenthaler is slightly more than a decade older.) Their approaches range from unequivocal abstractness to variable allusiveness. What unites the four is their whole-hearted trust in the discipline of painting and its materials, and their belief that art that addresses the eye, without irony, explication, or modish subtext, also addresses the intellect and the emotions. What unites them, too, is that their art both demands and rewards serious attention. More time devoted to looking at the work of these four artists reveals more subtlety, more pictorial intelligence, more unexpected associations. That it should be necessary to point this out is an indication of just how thoroughly Duchampian suspicion of what he called "optical" art has permeated current aesthetic values. That all four exhibitions were enthusiastically received is, perhaps, an indication that other notions are asserting themselves. It's probably too soon to tell, but it may be cool, once again, to mean what you say or do. Certainly, these four painters do.

Thomas Nozkowski's enigmatic, intimate abstract pictures have near-cult status among those who care about painting. A shared liking for his modest-size canvases, with their delicate surfaces, odd palette, and ambiguous shapes, cuts across generations and, among artists of my acquaintance, apparently cuts across opposing aesthetic positions. Nozkowski's pictures satisfy because of their intelligence and inventiveness, but they also tantalize because they tease our perceptions, like half-remembered dream fragments. His evocative, elusive images remind you of something, but resolve themselves, as you watch, into wordless confrontations of paint, stroke, line, and color, without losing their associative powers. Since Nozkowski says that his imagery is provoked by things he "read or said or did or saw," and since some of those things seem to have been deliberately chosen because of their improbable relationship to anything visual, the inherent strangeness of these works is not surprising. (One series, Nozkowski says, had its genesis when he found several years' worth of the Journal of Architectural Historians at a library sale in upstate New York and "decided to do one drawing for every article.")

The drawings at the Studio School, which spanned nearly three decades, revealed both Nozkowski's single-mindedness and the gradual evolution of his personal cast of characters from essentially diagrammatic, relatively crisp floating shapes to a series of notably various, unnameable configurations. These quirky protagonists, some woolly, some spiky, some amoeba-like, some like lumpy starfish, and more, include the moody and the cheerfully cartoon-like. Mostly, (vaguely) organic, they are only occasionally geometric, but are frequently enmeshed in geometric grids or rows of parallel lines. Or they shatter the grid, leaving disconnected tatters. Or they float in pools of color or tone. On paper, Nozkowski deploys a large arsenal of materials--ink, gouache, colored pencil, graphite--now puddling, now brushing roughly, now furiously hatching, now layering elements, now carefully separating them. This fluent vocabulary of surfaces and touches reinforces the shifting associative power of the shapes themselves and may, perhaps, even generate some of the images; the irregular "left-over" zone between wildly different concentric bands, the inner a warped star and the outer like a necklace of fat beads, for example, appears to have spawned the "figures" of subsequent works. Whether this is true or not, such specific connections, like the larger familial resemblances between works, persuade us that Nozkowski's paper works allow us a glimpse into the evolution of his world--not that it makes his pictures easier to interpret or less demanding. In the end, his works in any medium remain resolutely abstract, but charged, like stills from some ravishingly photographed but impenetrable film noir. Nozkowski's mysterious narratives are both beautiful and unsettling.

Pat Lipsky's recent paintings initially appear to spring from motives quite different from Nozkowski's. At first acquaintance, they seem to be primarily about themselves and the history of their evolution, and only coincidentally about how economical, surprising combinations of hue and tone can engage your emotions. There appears to be no subtext. Everything seems revealed. Stacks of generously scaled, rectangular blocks are arrayed across the canvas like the columns of a classical facade. But this deceptively simple structure is animated, even disturbed, by thoughtfully calculated variations of color and tone. Individual blocks prove to be delicately inflected by repeated touches and superimposed layering. Symmetry gives way to syncopations of chroma and near-blacks, while oppositions of saturated hues and luminous pastels set up a kind of polyphony. "Escapes" of other kinds of color between the blocks (either vestiges of earlier states or imposed, assertive lines), sound still other notes, which are intensified by the runs and drifts of the paintings' revealed edges.

Before going any further, I should state that I am not an impartial witness here, since I wrote the Harris Gallery catalogue text. But my having contributed to Lipsky's catalogue does not change the fact that her work assumes that abstract painting matters and that contemplating considered intervals, shapes, placements, colors, and surfaces--like listening to harmonically complex music--can be nourishing and stimulating. For those of us who share this assumption and are willing to put some effort into looking, Lipsky's recent pictures become more and more interesting over time. The differences between apparently similar reds or a gamut of closely related blues intensify; "blacks" turn into nameless warm and cool darks, and fragile, sugary pinks and tender blues reveal themselves as both varied and slightly more acidic than they once seemed. Small irregularities that announce the presence of the hand begin to assert themselves. How deeply coloristically or tonally related (or opposed) blocks penetrate becomes enormously important; so does where and how they touch.

These are wholly non-allusive pictures, with no vestiges of depiction or symbolism, entirely self-sufficient, implicitly disdainful of explication or of artist's statements. Yet in this instance, knowing more about the artist can affect our reading of her work. Lipsky has spent a good deal of time in France in recent years, closely studying medieval stained glass, and knowing this can make us look at her paintings in new ways, especially when we discover that the result of that study is a series of figurative works on paper based on specific stained glass images. (Some of these were hung at Elizabeth Harris, in a back room.) Yet even these prove to be the work of an unrepentant abstract painter. As she tells it, Lipsky was first attracted to the windows because their color and luminosity reminded her of the Fauvist painting and the American color-based, post-war abstraction that she sees as her heritage. Only much later, after she had been drawing the windows and using her annotated drawings and recollections of their color as the basis of paintings on paper in the studio, did she become interested in iconography. Knowing this, it's tempting to seek echoes of her experience of the startling blue and red lancet windows of Chartres--say--with their silhouetted leading, in her contrast of off-black and full-bore blue in one recent painting or in the superheated scarlet and warm darks of another. Undoubtedly, those echoes are there. But so is a lifetime's accumulated experience of all kinds, including experience of looking at many other works of art. That, of course, is what all art worth taking seriously, whether abstract, figurative, or somewhere in-between, is supposed to address--or at least it was, until politics and cynicism began to take precedence.

The English-born John Walker, like Nozkowski, is a kind of cult figure, a painter's painter with a following of loyal students and admiring colleagues. For years he has tested the limits of abstraction in complex, richly inflected pictures that explore the associative possibilities of a changing cast of arcane images, some vaguely tribal, some perhaps archaic, others weirdly anthropomorphic--and so on. About four years ago, Walker began to allow more or less explicit but brutal landscape references into his pictures--specifically to the ragged tidal zones between sea and land, the mudflats and rocky shore of Maine, where he has spent extensive periods over the past thirty years--using these deliberately unpicturesque points of departure with the same freedom and inventiveness that he did repeated "vessel" and "shield" shapes, some years ago, and, more recently, a symbolic sheep's skull. The paintings in his spring exhibition, "Changing Light," invoked what is described as "a muddy cove with a tidal pool." I suppose a more accurate way to describe these compelling canvases would be to say that Walker invents equivalents in paint for the light, textures, space, mood, and possibly even smell of the seacoast, without ever ceasing to think that a picture is (to paraphrase Maurice Denis) an autonomous, flat object covered with viscous stuff.

In Walker's most recent pictures, crusted surfaces, ferocious brushstrokes, drips, spatters, and emphatic drawing focus your attention on the two-dimensional expanse of the canvas, while hovering discs, scribbled boat shapes, and assertive horizon lines play on your awareness of a particular, but ambiguous, landscape, without describing it literally. Aggressive floating circles read as the marks left by the clam diggers. Diagonal slashes conjure up reflected moonlight. Staccato strokes become ripples or the corrugated surfaces left by the retreating tide. These multivalent associations are vivid, but you are equally absorbed by the material presence of Walker's pictures, fascinated by the subtleties of his nocturnal palette with its abrasive grays, browns, and ochres, or by the way he uses small notes of blue to clarify incipient murk. (Similarly, you can become perplexed by the way a relentless cadmium red can flatten a picture into inertness.) You become absorbed by the way space shifts from implacable flatness to a suggestion of the enterable and back again.

It's difficult to pin down just how these pictures function or just why their double reading of insistent surface and unstable illusion should be so potent. It may have something to do with the ample scale of Walker's gestures. Each mark reads as itself--an energetic record of the artist's presence and not a description of anything else, no matter how powerfully it may suggest other phenomena. One of the most surprising pictures in "Constant Light" was Clammers' Marks I, a palimpsest of giant scrawls, dashes, and dots, with everything, including patches of brilliant, but transparent ultramarine, shoved back into some equivocal space by an overlay of rough black-brown discs, Velazquez-like in their velvety opaqueness. The layered drawing was reminiscent of an earlier series of calligraphic pictures that incorporated poems, but the density and instability was new. I'm still not at all sure why this peculiar, uningratiating painting is as good as it is. I suppose the most economical way to describe it would be to say that it, like the rest of Walker's best recent pictures, while looking only like itself, also suggests what a combination of Marsden Hartley and Albert Ryder might be painting if he were an abstract painter working in the first part of the twenty-first century.

One of the first to walk the tightrope between improvisatory abstractness and resonant allusion was, of course, the very young Helen Frankenthaler, improbably enough a little more than half a century ago. As just about everyone knows, her famous painting Mountains and Sea (1952), announced new material possibilities for abstraction with its transparent, luminous stains of color and its sweeps of generous drawing--possibilities that were soon assimilated and inventively redeployed by colleagues older than she was. What these artists, good as they were, didn't--or perhaps couldn't--pick up on were the other, more idiosyncratic implications of Frankenthaler's work: her way of distilling perceived actuality into apparently spontaneous, unpremeditated pools and touches of color and her willingness to permit, perhaps even to encourage, unexpected associative images to emerge from her manipulation of materials, as though she were allowing dream images or remembered associations briefly to consolidate before they subsided once again into "pure" painting. Throughout her long and distinguished career, Frankenthaler's work has swung between these extremes of poetic, nonspecific evocation and meditation on the fact of painting itself, between alert response to the way paint behaves and the imposition of a strong will. In her most recent show--her first to include canvases, as well as monumental works on paper, for some years--these oppositions have fused, with impressive effect.

For several decades, Frankenthaler has lived and worked near Long Island Sound, and the changing light and shifting atmospheric effects of that strip of water, with its extended horizontal punctuation of Long Island itself, have suffused her pictorial lexicon. When she painted Mountains and Sea, she had just returned from a trip to Canada, where she had been painting watercolors from nature; "the landscape was in my arms," she later said--which helps to explain the uncanny presence of the picture's exuberant loops, puddles, and whorls. A similar, almost subliminal, sense of particularity informs her recent work; landscape allusions pulse in and out, like reverberations of deeply felt perceptions.

Yet in contrast to the richly chromatic pictures that established and maintained her reputation over five decades, many of Frankenthaler's newest paintings explore what she has called her "darker palette," as she terms her on-going preoccupation with "non-colors"--unnameable black-browns, off-purples, shimmering grays, and more, all mixed by the artist out of more brilliant colors in order to retain vibrancy, while tempering heat. As a result, the recent paintings are no less luminous and intense, no less unexpected, in terms of hue, than you would expect of this master of color, but, with some exceptions, they are dark, mysterious, and operatic--Romantic, perhaps, rather than Classical or Rococo, with complex harmonies that seem both inevitable and surprising. And they are all pared down to essentials, as though Frankenthaler were testing how much she could eliminate and still end up with a picture that couldn't be ignored.

No single description is adequate, nor is any single reading. Frankenthaler often talks about her perceptions of weather and light across the water, as seen from her Connecticut home, in relation to her paintings, but it is plain that she discovers such affinities in the course of working, rather than setting to work with the intention of recapitulating those experiences. If a few iconic pictures in her recent exhibition evoke the big divisions of earth, sky, and water with broad zones of subtly inflected chroma and a few emphatic horizontal strokes, they also announce themselves as demonstrations of how exquisitely adjusted sheets of color and superimposed bars can insist on--and keep--your complete attention. And if Frankenthaler's resonant abstractions play on our experience of places, times of day, and weather, they also test our knowledge of the history of art. A radiant rose-pink canvas that shifts through mauve to lowering pewter gray is at once like an abstracted version of Manet's Woman with a Parrot, and a powerful invocation of rain at sunset--without abdicating any of its impact simply as a non-specific surface of ravishing paint. Warming Trend, a miraculous blue painting that moves seamlessly, but with constant variations in density, from clear cobalt to near-purple, carries a multiple load of associations: Matisse's saturated blue backgrounds of the Teens, brilliant skies, Monet's waterlilies, and more. Mostly, however, it is about Frankenthaler's acute visual intelligence, about her faultless placement of a flick of dull brick red, a hint of green, the touch of a finger tip--which is not to deny the pleasure of the picture's associative powers. The rest of the works in the exhibition could be described in similarly ambiguous terms. Cumulatively, they are evidence that Frankenthaler is painting with undiminished strength, that if the landscapes are still "in her arms," there are five decades of making, looking at, and thinking about art in there as well, and it shows, in these uninhibited paintings.

Some years ago, at one of those artists' gatherings that turned into an argument, I listened to a group of young sculptors passionately declare their surprisingly rigid ideas about what sculpture could or could not be. Things became more and more heated until the senior member of the group, the British sculptor Anthony Caro, announced: "The pendulum can be all the way over here (pointing to his extreme left) or all the way over here (pointing right) or anywhere in between." The argument stopped. Just how right Caro was is increasingly visible, at least in the hands of some dedicated, whole-hearted, non-cynical artists. What is also increasingly visible is how inadequate the usual categories are, in light of the new blurring of conventional distinctions between abstractness and figuration, reference and reticence. Art, of course, gets along just fine without criticism, but critics ought to keep up. Perhaps a new vocabulary is needed.

(1) "Thomas Nozkowski Drawings" was on view at the New York Studio School Gallery from January 23 to March 1, 2003. "Pat Lipsky" was on view at Elizabeth Harris Gallery from March 13 to April 12 and at L.I.C.K. Ltd. Fine Art from March 21 to April 17, 2003. "John Walker: Changing Light" and "Frankenthaler: New Paintings" were on view at Knoedler and Company from March 13 to April 26, and May 1 to July 18, 2003, respectively.

Karen Wilkin is the editor of Ascending Peculiarity: Edward Gorey on Edward Gorey (Harcourt Brace).
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Author:Wilkin, Karen
Publication:New Criterion
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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