PRINT February 1966

Deborah Remington’s New Work

DEBORAH REMINGTON’S NEW PAINTINGS ARE mysterious, and romantic. With this admission no one would expect that the description could continue and successfully relate her to the new suprematist color painting faction of the avant-garde. Isn’t their color preoccupation almost a study of light wave physics? Aren’t their formal improvisations on symmetry and the near-symmetrical equilibrium mechanistic? And aren’t these words antithetical to such words as mysterious and romantic? In these paintings the methodical approach of the “Vibes” has been applied to the expression of esthetic ideas very similar to the objective of gestural Expressionism. But the automatic gesture has been x-rayed, examined and reformed into paintings of finish and refinement in which only the contours of the gesture are still present. Those who saw her last exhibition of Expressionist paintings will recall that the image was becoming more central, the gesture more deliberate, and the resolutions more formal. She did not abdicate from the objectives of Expressionism when she turned her attentions to the new experiments in method; she was seeking a more rigorous means of pursuing the same ends.

The artist has used black as the primary color in these pictures, and the other intense hues used in lines, and the brilliant fields of stark white and silvery grey have a dramatic effect in their black environment. (Surely one may call black a color when its relationship to other colors causes them to pulse, vibrate and flicker.) There is a machine-like form in the paintings that is entirely contained in an ambiguous and mysterious place. It is a ruined machine, blasted and spent, or it is a machine that has been opened or cut away, like a demonstration model. The large white sections are sometimes like windows into an infinite space. At other times the silver-white is like the inside of a cylindrical form. The large objects which are seemingly machines also form mask-like shapes, thus providing still another level of meaning. And still another level is an almost surreal allusion to sexual and fetishistic symbols. The image suggests a machine which is coming to life, or perhaps a life which is becoming a machine.

For Deborah Remington the process of painting is a solitary and secret act. Within her studio she aspires to become an occult adept, an artisan perfecting the tragic mask. Alas, only the finished painting satisfies her ambition. Each painting is a chore and seeking the perfection of the painting’s image leads her to work on paintings which seem to her to be the worst paintings on earth. But she works against the odds of seemingly impossible dilemmas until, when finally the way to completion is made clear, it is like a discovery. Only past successes could lead her to such arduous labor. With each completed painting she has completed another episode in the existence of a mysterious and foreboding machine which she will serially recreate in another aspect in the next.

When the artist was cleaning a chimney in her studio she found a rich lode of pure black soot which she used to make two small pictures, using a fixitive to hold the black, as one would in a charcoal drawing. Both have Japanese fan motifs, recalling the time she spent in Japan teaching and painting. From this experiment she found the expressive mystery of black and also the symmetrical form, with its hypnotic evocativeness, which were to become her preoccupations.

The transitional paintings from Remington’s gestural action style to the new sharp focus, with its modeled and deliberately organized style is “Statement,” 1964. The machine-like form has not, as yet, asserted itself. Instead the form in the dark brooding environment is like a cloak, the cassock of some dark order. The paint quality still bears the mark of the brush. The white portion does not lead back into a luminous space, but sits flatly on the two dimensional plane. The source of light is from the top, whereas in the later pictures this light seems to emanate from the bottom of the object itself. The picture is divided down the center as are many of the succeeding paintings; on either side of the stripe are white mask-forms facing the center, as if the two sides of a face were analytically devised, as in the carvings of the Northwest Coast Indians, to show not a front face view, but a full scheme of the face from ear to ear laid out flat.

In “Haddonfield” the central stripe becomes a tube, clearly metallic, with an analytical cutaway of the end, exposing an interior which might be designed as the thrust port of a rocket, but can also be seen as a rodent-like face. The rest of the form also seems like a cutaway to better examine the interior of a machine, but the contours of the cutaway form a pelvic unity, with the tube as its phallic completion. (When we find that the artist was born in Haddonfield, New Jersey we are further assured of the generative significance of the image.)

The black is replaced by very dark Prussian Blue in “Antietam,” though the blue performs as a very rich black, and is only seen as blue when viewed beside one of the truly black paintings. This picture is a cutaway of a canister in which the metallic grey-white expresses a vast interior volume. The blue and grey colors probably suggested the Civil War title, but there is also a man-like form integrated into the machine complex, a man completely devoted to a machine function, unable to exist except as a part of a machine. The central stripe is crossed. The overall image is also a mask expressing power and dumb certainty. Though there are mechanical and metallic suggestions of arms and legs, the only truly organic form is a lump at the center.

“Decatur” is also crossed at the center, and at the center of the cross is a small square which is also dead center in the painting. The machine-like form, aside from the cross, is asymmetrical, but has been blasted by the direct hit: the form has been rent or exploded open in this picture, not neatly cut away; the cross might signify the sight on the weapon that demolished it. The mask formed is the most destroyed of all the masks. (The mask image precedes the machine image if the picture is viewed from a distance.)

Deborah Remington’s machine image is always ambiguous. Perhaps the actual machine which it suggests (without actually resembling it) is a TV set. The TV set is a luminous object in many peoples’ darkened rooms. It forms, reforms, and in some cases deforms the perceptions and apprehensions of a considerable audience. It is the source of drama, violence, tragedy and even sexual release in many lives which are otherwise mundane and routine. But certainly other machines figure in this complex image, too: batteries, projectors, pumps, tanks—possibly even time-machines. All machines are in a sense projections of man’s hands or senses. And in our era of statistical, programmed, automatic, and almost sentient devices, many artists have become obsessed with the relationship between man and machine. The more usual expression of this modern concern is the production of an actual kinetic device, or the production of an artistic object that looks machine-made. Deborah Remington has put the machine off at arms-length and has expressed a psychological insight into the machine culture in which we live. The result is an individual and poetic vision of a subject which is usually treated unemotionally and without attempt on the artist’s part to define his attitude about the subject. But we should also realize that these images were not the result of any conscious intellectuality or speculation: this imagery grew under the hand. It is quite apparent that the artist was most concerned with the act of painting: to tighten the very tense equilibrium that demands the viewer’s attention.

Knute Stiles