Barry Schwabsky

  • Bridget Mullen, Free to Be You and Me, 2021, Flashe paint and acrylic on linen, 22 × 15".

    Bridget Mullen

    At first, the imagery in Bridget Mullen’s canvases for her show “Quitters” seemed difficult to parse; but I eventually found my way into her world by grooving to the works’ facture. Because she uses the ultra-matte vinyl paint Flashe, often in combination with acrylic or spray paint, the paintings’ surfaces look very dry, which somehow conflicts, in the eye’s mind, with the fluidity of her slyly workmanlike mark-making. The color is thinly applied in layers so that a sense of depth, volume, and plasticity coexists with an acute feeling for the flat surface—another perceptual conundrum. The effect

  • Adam Pendleton, Just Back from Los Angeles: A Portrait of Yvonne Rainer, 2016–17, video projection, black-and-white, sound, 13 minutes 5 seconds.

    Adam Pendleton

    Seeing Adam Pendleton’s exhibition “These Things We’ve Done Together” so soon after trying to digest “Who Is Queen?,” his overwhelming, densely information-laden show that filled the five-story-high Marron Family Atrium at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, came as something of a relief. “The [MoMA] exhibition presents itself as an accumulation of labor,” said Pendleton of the presentation—and the viewer’s labor, if not the artist’s, could seem Sisyphean. But the piece certainly succeeded in “successfully fus[ing] a building and a situation,” to quote a phrase from Pendleton’s 2008 Black Dada

  • Rackstraw Downes, Hudson River Sewage Treatment Plant Under Construction, 1996, graphite on paper, 12 × 35".

    A LANDSCAPE WE ALL HELP TO MAKE

    WHATEVER YOU THINK realism means, Rackstraw Downes is certainly some kind of realist—and, moreover, one whose elective subject matter is landscape. That in itself suggests a quixotic temperament in an artist born in 1939 whose immediate contemporaries include any number of abstract, Conceptual, and performance artists but few realists—at least of his stature.

    And even among painters pursuing realism in his generation, Downes looks like an outsider. Despite the fact that he edited a valuable collection of Fairfield Porter’s writings, there’s nothing in his work of the intimism and subjectivity of

  • Julia Rommel, Life Boat, 2021, oil on linen on wood, 69 3⁄4 × 83".

    Julia Rommel

    It wasn’t hard to surmise what was going on in the ten gorgeously luminous abstract paintings that made up Julia Rommel’s exhibition “Uncle.” The surfaces told the tale. It was all about process: laying down mostly broad swaths of rich color, or removing the canvas from its support and restretching it over another differently formatted rectangle before applying another hue altogether (or, sometimes, a brushy monochromatic pattern), and so on. The results of all this covering and revealing, folding and unfolding—leaving creases, rows of staple holes, varying thicknesses of paint—are geometrically

  • Hedda Sterne, Untitled, 1983, acrylic and pastel on canvas, 52 × 72".

    Hedda Sterne

    I’d never given much thought to Hedda Sterne (1910–2011) until 2015, when her painting New York, N.Y., 1955, wowed me in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s inaugural show in its then-new downtown home, “America Is Hard to See.” Prominently installed on the building’s seventh floor alongside works by more famous New York artists of her generation, the canvas stood out and apart. Its sense of speed and gestural energy resonates with Abstract Expressionism, but its architectonic construction does not. While Sterne’s mark-making felt impervious to her colleagues’ cult of personality, it also

  • Forrest Bess, untitled, date unknown, oil on canvas, 4 1⁄2 × 6".

    Forrest Bess

    Even now, more than forty years after his death and some seventy years after his first exhibition at New York’s Betty Parsons Gallery, no one really knows what to make of Forrest Bess. The alluring legend of the visionary fisherman painter from Bay City, Texas, always threatens to overshadow his intense and quite inward art. Consider his Wikipedia entry: The section on “Painting” is barely half the length of the one titled “Surgery”—referring, of course, to his painful efforts toward becoming a pseudo-hermaphrodite, which he hoped would lead to immortality. It would be tempting to put the

  • Susan Mastrangelo, Shining Lights, 2020, acrylic paint, yarn, cord filler, fabric, 60 × 48".

    Susan Mastrangelo

    Having flown mostly under the art world’s radar for decades—during which time she’s moved nimbly between abstraction and figuration, primarily in sculpture—Susan Mastrangelo is now doing what looks to me like her best work yet, and it’s painting . . . but only sort of. Her most recent pieces are rectangular and hang on the wall, and there’s even paint on them, but other materials take the leading role. (One might even call her objects polychrome reliefs, to be pedantic about it.) This show, “Safe at Home,” included three smaller works from 2021 (each one thirty inches high by twenty-four inches

  • Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, At the Studio #1, 2018, oil on canvas, 82 × 108".

    Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

    The title of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s current exhibition, “Paintings About Paintings,” seems to second poet Rod Mengham’s assertion that their canvases “exist within quotation marks . . . acts of ventriloquism, speaking as, or for, others, rather than finding and keeping a voice of their own.” But as writers of fiction know, there’s always a voice within the voice—one hears through characters and narrators, however distantly, the author.

    Painting as citation, not of particular paintings but of various ideas of painting, is evident everywhere here, but most explicitly in a pair of gargantuan

  • Wallace Berman, Untitled #120, ca. 1964–76, Verifax collage, acrylic, 6 × 6 1⁄2".

    Wallace Berman

    Wallace Berman showed  in New York only once in his lifetime (at the Jewish Museum in 1968), and his work has been seen only fitfully in the city since then. It’s surprising to realize that he was a native New Yorker—Staten Island born—given that he was central to the art and counterculture of California from the mid-1950s until his death on February 18, 1976, his fiftieth birthday. The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum’s great exhibition of 2006, “Semina Culture: Wallace Berman and His Circle”—which, luckily, traveled to New York University’s Grey Art Gallery the following

  • Geoffrey Young, Portal (for Nellie McKay), 2020, colored pencil on paper, 11 × 11". From “Colored Pencil Redux.”

    “Colored Pencil Redux”

    Do real artists use colored pencils? Not often, I suppose—it’s something more readily associated with hobbyists, dilettantes—so when they do, there must be a good reason for it. “Colored Pencil Redux” was the follow-up to a show of works in this sidelined medium mounted at McKenzie Fine Art in 2019. Judging by the nearly fifty abstractions on paper by sixteen artists in this recent iteration, the explanation might involve a desire to make space for qualities of obsessiveness, eccentricity, and self-indulgence that are all too often ironed out of professional-grade artwork. Hallmarks of most of

  • Cait Porter, Window at 11pm, 2021, oil on canvas, 24 × 20".

    Cait Porter

    Observing Cait Porter’s New York solo debut “Within These Walls,” one might have found it easy (and one wouldn’t have been exactly wrong) to peg the artist as an old-fashioned realist putting time-tested techniques in the service of contemporary quotidiana. In the paintings on view here her attention was fixed on what we could assume was her own domestic environment and its distinctly banal, insignificant details: a drain with some suds bubbling around it, jumbled clothing inside an open chest of drawers with a stray power cord on top of it, a robe draped over a wooden door. These were not