PRINT January 1969

Edward Avedisian’s New Paintings

EDWARD AVEDISIAN’S NEW PAINTINGS, made between May and October of 1968 and shown in November in New York, fulfill his early promise as one of the most arresting and inventive color painters working today. An increased confidence in the possibilities of pure color manipulation have enabled him to resolve a sense of conflict between figure and ground which at times tended to limit the effectiveness of the color in earlier paintings. A broad simplification of format, a breakdown of the clear figure-ground relationship, and a looser, more lyrical handling of the surface produce pictures free to operate with an enhanced optical and emotive vitality.

The pronounced freedom of the new paintings, the textural loosening of the paint and the atmospheric radiance of color reveal Avedisian’s relationship to the explorations made by Jules Olitski and Larry Poons in their recent work. Both Poons and Avedisian (each in his particular manner) have responded to Olitski’s achievements in allowing color maximum fullness and liberty within the format of the stretched canvas. These painters are all involved in expanding the possibilities of color while freeing it from dependence on strict geometric support (shapes) or containing image.

The new paintings confirm a gradual shift in Avedisian’s work away from structured arrangements of color and figure as image toward an interest in the more painterly and optical properties of color as light and space. In discarding the disc (or circle) and its variations, which served as characteristic image or figure in his work since 1963, and adopting the simplified, all-over lattice format of the new paintings, Avedisian has completed a process of abandoning the more traditional, centralized layout with its emphasis on a relationship of depicted figure to colored ground.

In effect, the figure has usurped the field in the new pictures. It first appeared in paintings of 1963 as a biomorphic shape (faintly reminiscent of the early figurations of Noland and Olitski) made up of different colored, wavering rings or shapes surrounding nucleus-like spots which were centered in fields of one highly saturated, relatively tightly painted color. This image served to direct and fix the field color. It also set up a determination of the canvas shape: all the pictures of this period are square. In a painting such as Normal Love Series One, the asymmetrical, centered image creates a paradoxical confrontation between itself as a colored shape and the color of the field, which refuses to remain as background to the figure because of its sheer intensity as color. Avedisian further explores this double role of image operating as shape and color simultaneously in subsequent paintings of 1964. No Snow presents a closer and more subtle orchestration of color structured by a constellation of scattered, individual discs which have replaced the more loosely drawn, target-like forms. The edges of shapes have hardened, but the shapes themselves seem to float more ethereally and successfully in an enlarged field. The wide stripe within each circle adds an ambiguity and liveliness to the disc as shape and increases the identification between the color of the disc edges and the field color since it is in contrast to them.

As the demands of Avedisian’s increasingly original and subtle color force a reconsideration of the compositional arrangement and the total format of the pictures, the rather reserved and arbitrary arrangements gradually loosen and grow softer. In the paintings of 1965 and 1966, Avedisian radically adjusts the scale of the figure and abandons the convention of its central location. He also experimented with the canvas shape as it dictated the color field. In Cost Plus the square has been doubled to provide a vast rectangular field. The striped disc hovers, pushed uncomfortably toward the edge and reduced in size and importance to an accent for the field. This attempt to liberate the field color tended to threaten a breakdown in tension and definition of the surface: these paintings succeed, when they do succeed, on the virtuosity of the resonances of color handling alone.

In subsequent pictures, the image is enlarged, multiplied, and begins to outgrow the field. The inner stripes of the discs operate with more importance to indicate direction and to imply motion. In the Untitled painting owned by the Guggenheim Museum, the stripes of the double discs act as color to satisfy the implicit demands of the field color. As shape, they reinforce the format of the picture. This picture is particularly impressive in the sophistication and complexity of its color as it is worked out through shapes which have ceased to act merely as motif. The staining, which Avedisian had begun to use more fully by this time, enforces the flatness of the picture and discourages a three-dimensional reading of the discs which might be suggested by the stripes.

The problem of a possible conflict between a reading of figure as shape and perceiving it as flat, interacting color ultimately forced Avedisian to alter the image itself. The paintings of 1966 and 1967 have forced the scale awry. Only fragments of the striped discs remain, the stripes grown huge, as giant arcs or four-sided figures which rest hazardously against the edge of the frame like setting suns. The ambiguities of shape and scale allow colors to interact without being perceived as discrete shapes, as in Untitled, 1966.

The movement away from the structured figure-ground relationship of earlier pictures with its difficulties of motif and space was made possible by Avedisian’s increasing ability to invent color and to rely on the textural possibilities of staining and loose brushwork. Avedisian’s attempts to resolve successfully the dilemma of the relationship of figure to field advanced mainly in terms of sheer color until the pictures done in late 1967. In these paintings, the disc has disappeared, or rather it has grown into the whole field to become the painting. These pictures are composed of broad diagonal bands of color whose edges bleed and overlap. The edges comprise any residual figure remaining in a painting such as in Untitled Painting, 1967. These interlocking edges reinforce the sense of atmosphere and flow created by the loosened texture of the paint itself. The colored bands progress from darker to lighter in closely keyed shades of tans, browns and yellows. The color creates an optical sense of space without any perception of form as drawn shape.

The new paintings are large, horizontal rectangles, roughly twice as long as they are high. Diagonal stripes or beams of color scan the surface like searchlight beacons. These beams of varying widths and transparencies are superimposed to create dense, random lattices or crosshatchings of color which engage the entire surface of the canvas equally, since they seem to imply continuation beyond the canvas rim. The colors partake of the brilliance and transparency of natural light. They are lush in hue (aquas, golds, magentas, browns, deep reds) and lavish in variety. Each picture is composed of approximately equal distributions of from four to seven colors. The interpenetration of the stripes permits each stripe of a single color to undergo maximum variation in both hue and transparency as it covers, and is covered by, other stripes. Color itself now creates shapes rather than being contained by any predetermined or predrawn shape. There is no sense of drawing, since the color is applied with rollers or large brushes and stains into the canvas to make its own unpredictable edge. Because each streak of color may run, spread or bleed at the edges (and even in the center) and pool or blot anywhere, there is a minimal sense of the stripe as figure or as a geometric structure. The veil-like overlap of colors creates a luminous and atmospheric space whose sensuous impact prevents any consistent reading of the stripes as overlapping planes. The density of the color also makes it difficult to pinpoint the background color, since it too becomes stripe or a section of a stripe. Because the eye does not rest on any one passage and is forced to follow the predominantly vertical direction and the spatial interplay of the stripes, one receives a continuing optical sensation of spatial vitality and motion as a kind of energy rather than as simulated movement. The painting Aqua Dream serves as an example of Avedisian’s increased concern with the possible interactions of juxtaposed colors in terms of freeing space. The horizontal shape of the canvas is roughly bisected by two different shades of blue-green which also divide the color changes of the stripes. This division of the canvas creates a kind of spatial and atmospheric trompe l’oeil since the stained color seems simultaneously to be in front of and behind the stained stripes.

Avedisian’s color sense has gained in vividness and invention. In Friedel’s Porsche, for example, the color has expanded in range and brightness. Yellow and ochre are crossed by reds and browns, resulting in an extremely complex range of other, interrelated colors, both opaque and transparent. The spatial complexity of the picture, with its illusive and evocative quality of atmospheric richness, results from this symphonic color. A virtuoso handling of the paint as if it were watercolor incorporates both the ephemeral qualities and the luminosity which one associates with that medium into these large-scale pictures. One is reminded of the watercolors of Kupka by the clear impression of privacy given by these pictures.

In these new paintings, Avedisian allows this extraordinary and romantic sense of color to create an optical space of fullness and sensuousness while no longer limiting the organization of the surface to the relationship of a given figure to field. This new freedom of structuring the canvas surface has produced paintings of impressive quality.

Alexandra C. Anderson