PRINT May 1968

Robert Irwin, Gene Davis, Richard Smith

IN HIS CATALOG INTRODUCTION to the Jewish Museum’s simultaneous showing of three independent painters, Curator Kynaston McShine points to the collective energy, innovation, quality, and anticipation which are asserted in the work of Robert Irwin, Gene Davis, and Richard Smith—even though their achievements represent differing creative approaches and esthetic premises. The purpose here is to explore why, after viewing the selections from current work, one is left with a sense of tremendous and valid ambition stopped short or deflected in mid-career, or with the feeling that the promise and seriousness seen in the earlier works has somehow been diverted and compromised by the most recent efforts. There is no pretense made that the exhibitions are full retrospectives (which is fortunate), nor that the artists are at present registering their final, completely resolved statements—so that any evaluation is tempered by this recognition. Yet this makes the matter of impasse all the more curious, since one expects at least the excitement and open ended suggestiveness of ideas and works in progress.

There is no doubt that all three artists have directly faced the issues which are relevant to painting today, and all bear the stamp of an originality which has, significantly, developed and matured outside of the New York scene. Irwin is a well-known figure in Los Angeles; Smith, although English, has kept close contacts with American art in the past decade (he showed at the Green Gallery in New York in 1961, ’63, and ’64, and thereafter at the Feigen Gallery); and Davis is one of the most noted color painters to emerge in Washington, D.C. since Louis and Noland matured there in the late 1950s. As McShine notes, all three artists first worked in Abstract Expressionist styles, and have since moved far from these sources formally, though they still retain a certain romanticism in terms of subjective responses to color and light. Both Smith and Irwin have renounced traditional pictorial illusionism in order to focus on the painting as an object which has a unique and specific relationship to the spectator, while Davis has concentrated on a more purely optical treatment of space. Withall, the solutions offered by these artists in their most up to date works—while not without an arresting presence—are oddly lacking in the vitality and special generating charge which was felt in perhaps half a dozen other gallery or museum shows in New York this season.

In his color field paintings of 1961–63 (known as the line paintings), and in a series of dotted paintings which date from 1963–65, Irwin already revealed his preoccupation with a range of coloristic subtlety and spatial suspension, which work to eliminate a consciousness of the paintings’ actual physical limits and surfaces. Only one of the line paintings from 1961–2 is shown, a rusty orange field on which two parallel and narrow horizontals of a darker, glossier orange are stopped short of the framing edges. It is convincing and impressive evidence of Irwin’s ability to create a quiet radiance and hovering expansiveness out of the simplest pictorial means. The influence of Barnett Newman or Ad Reinhardt is clear, but Irwin makes of their precedent an independent and original expression. In the dot paintings, Irwin began to bow the surface of his square canvases, which were then hung slightly forward from the wall. A pale grid of points dissolves the concreteness or literalness of the picture plane, diffusing the image around the edges, and giving the sense that this almost invisible, stippled veil floats somewhere in front of the actual white surface of the canvas.

The new works carry this projection away from the wall even further. Shown are four slightly convex aluminum discs, 60 inches in diameter, all presented in the same manner. They are sprayed with a matte acrylic paint which is granular and reflects light, and are attached to the wall on a concealed tube which extends them about two feet from the white wall surface. Four low-intensity spotlights are played against the discs from above and below, to form an interlocking roselle pattern of shadows on the wall behind. Typically, soft concentric haloes of pale tints surround the disc’s center, which is a whitish grey and approximates the color of the wall. The dominant color schemes vary from warm green tones and subdued lavender blue greys to suffused pinks and yellow tinges—and the passages from one ring to the next are so atomized that one is never quite sure whether or not the color is really there at all. The wall shadows, however, are grey, and as such, their intensity (especially where they intersect) may read as more positive than the colors or the discs themselves. As the discs curve back, their circumference edges are meant to dissolve and fuse into an ambiguous aura, but to my eye the contrast is rather strong between the overlapped areas of the grey wall shadows and the colored edges of the discs. That the centers are usually the same color as the wall, makes a reading of their convexity especially ambivalent—at times they appear flat or even concave.

One doesn’t perceive, from a distance, how these works are made, with what kind of pigment, or on what material, Their illusoriness and elusiveness, visually and physically, is all an attractive mystique. I find them incredibly beautiful and finely nuanced; it is, in my experience, very easy to yield to their lovely, even perfumed charm, but with certain important reservations at the same time. The question one immediately must pose is—given the fact that the paintings are not treated as separate things, but are meant to be seen in relation to the wall and the cast shadows—does one necessarily have to defer to this special, very theatrical presentation, in order to perceive or appreciate their quality and beauty? Somehow one feels that the discs do not require the gratuitous dramatization to: which they are submitted, and by setting off their subtlety in such a manner, Irwin is thereby vitiating what is that most unique and important feature of his work—its evocative delicacy or muted quality. I do not object to the projection out from the wall: if they were flush against it, the discs would begin to shape the wall in a sculptural fashion (a New Yorker, Ian Wilson, has done this with interesting results at the Bykert Gallery). But the lighting setup compromises that whole appealing mystique of facture, obtruding upon the discs rather than enhancing them. This calls more attention to a means of presentation which may be simply incidental to the paintings themselves. One wonders if, indeed, head-on lighting would drastically alter or lessen the impact of these works (I prefer to think not). By getting himself more and more involved in the notion of a virtuoso performance, one senses that Irwin is side-stepping his own considerable talents, and that he is not only trifling with his sensibility, but making his works more accessible by their decorative, stagy contrasts, rather than more demanding of the viewer’s perceptions. One can only speculate a certain insecurity here—a doubt that the spectator will be able to withstand the amount of time necessary to fully apprehend or contemplate such sublimely intended works.

The work of Gene Davis, as represented here, is not always a clear cut case. With this in mind, one approaches nearly all of his works not as wholes, but in parts—which is to point out their most noticeable failing, a lack of real unity. Since 1960 (the earliest works shown) Davis has fluctuated frequently between a light liveliness and a heavy handed dryness in his use of color. The latter tendency became more evident once he adopted his now standard format, the edge to edge, vertically striped, mural-width canvas. There is no denying that Davis has reached a level of crisp competence in the most recent hard edged and brightly painted pictures, all the while enlarging his ability to cope with more complex color combinations. Theoretically, these equal width stripes should allow a much purer role for color interaction than they actually do in his hands. Despite attempts by the viewer to overcome the very compulsiveness of the repetitive framework, one sees the stripes not as anonymous vehicles for chromatic expression which open up the design, but as definitely separate elements of that design, the linear containers which only serve to close it in. Even if certain sharp value contrasts and vibrant fluorescent complements enliven the surface and belie the static format, Davis has not yet found a way to make his color really transcend the almost inevitable compression of the design. The multiple variations of color become so numerous and finicky that one finally gives out, rather than gives in to their effects—a feeling of relief rather than release. The colors, and the particular kind of constriction (not just restraint, which is often admirable) to which Davis has recently subjected them in his extremely narrow stripings, too often deny the expansiveness for which he aims with a mural scale.

Although Davis applies color in a sequence which is intuitive, and develops as he goes along, the choice of these colors has, in many cases, a bland predictability. The chalky thick grey, airless red, and citric yellow of the 1964 Black-Grey Beat are quite dull; with its awkward relation between the overall scale of the picture and the measure of the three-inch wide vertical bars, this is one of the least successful works exhibited. Fortunately, this gives way to more pleasantly aggressive color dynamics and to more intelligently varied hues in current work. The formal rhythms (as opposed to a merely optical flicker) are still cool and contained though, and one rarely feels a radiantly breathing source of light in a Davis painting. I say rarely, because in two cases at least—and quite early (1960), Davis had arrived at an advanced solution, which he has apparently abandoned since that time. Sweet Hopscotch alternates wide and narrow areas of bare canvas with thin soaked in ribbons (oil, rather than acrylic), and Color Needles, although less open in its spacing, obtains a lyrical freshness and lightness, which one wants to discover in the later paintings. Only the 1968 Niagara Knife seems to have recaptured this airy, delicate quality, and in it there is also a more obvious ordering of areas. Expanses of lavender grey and cadmium orange, or of purple and cobalt blue couplings may truly be said to phase the surface in a cohesive manner, making for a less confusing or distractingly jumpy color experience than in other recent canvases, such as Klondike Calendar (1965).

Richard Smith began making shaped canvases in 1963, in which depicted shapes or imagery were extended beyond the illusionistic space of the picture into three-dimensional projections of these images, attached to the surface of the canvas (Piano, Gift Wrap). Since then Smith has eliminated the specific or representational aspects of this imagery from his work. The Pop references to cigarette packs and film-strip close-ups have been expunged in favor of a more primary conception of the paintings as packaged objects in themselves (“The stretchers are packaged in canvas,” says Smith), forming modular sequences or graduated progressions. Casting aside pictorial illusionism like many of his American contemporaries, Smith has developed a more literal approach to structure, where edges and forms are all actual, rather than depicted. Single colors are used to identify single forms, and in these large scale “origami,” as the artist has called them, drawing is limited to the activity of the stretcher itself. Vestiges of his earlier, expressionist brushwork are still apparent however, both in the application of paint, and in the casualness of Smith’s craftsmanship. His color, too, with its engagingly artificial, fruity palette openly refers to the range of hues found in advertising photography.

The less successful attempts to fill the space between painting and sculpture are the 1965 Sphinx series or the large and clumsy Gazebo of 1966, which is a painted and inflated tent-like structure sitting unsurely and awkwardly on the floor. One recognizes the new works more as paintings because of their obvious attachment and alignment to the wall, and because they are simply painted canvas—but it is not that simple. Works such as the Clairol Wall (1968), an eight part serial of sunny yellow (referring to the multi strip hair coloring ads) have an unavoidably large and flimsy mass, and an unsupported hollowness which makes them more like precarious relief than painting. The upper right corners of the joined canvas panels flap down like envelopes, pulling the fabric out at their points. The sequence develops from a tiny triangular dog ear to a volumetric pyramid which hangs off the wall self consciously. One has the distinct feeling here that more attention has been focused by the artist on the protruding and positive canvas shapes, and on the sequential activity of the flaps, than on the intruding notched areas of the wall space or the shadows cast by the warped canvas. These latter factors set awry the visual and physical balance of the piece in a most unsettling way. The very forms that Smith uses call for a greater precision and awareness in structuring, and for a more rigorous consideration of all the elements involved than he is wont to bring to them. Anxious to work out an idea, he seems to overlook the necessity for a well knit product of that very process—the making of painting—which he wishes to objectify.

Another problem is that Smith settles for a very easy, almost pat conception of form: he is not a startlingly original designer or manipulator of shapes. This becomes clear in the work A Whole Year and Half a Day l-XII (II was missing—perhaps unobtainable), which consists of 12 square canvases sliced diagonally at the upper right corners in progression, so that the cut finally almost bisects the field. The colors move from pale ochre yellow through turquoise, cherry red, cadmium orange, and back to a golden yellow, with the repeated accent on the surface of the slice, a greenish turquoise (the back and side edges of the slices are aluminum—a fairly unappealing and irrelevant addition). As one non partisan British friend suggested, the effect of the whole is rather more like a series of dull thuds than a succession of precise, ringing notes. Furthermore, one doesn’t know if the sloppiness of the painted execution (some passages of the single colored canvases are runny or blotched) in a few of the pieces is intended in opposition to the flat surfaces and clean edges of the others, or whether this is just careless inconsistency. Of course one is wary of overly fussy inspection, but an accumulation of such noticeable slips in treatment, or indications of loose ended intentions tends to disappoint one as to the ambition and achievement of all the works.

Emily Wasserman