PRINT April 1970

An Ilya Bolotowsky Retrospective Travels the West

THE SUBJECT MATTER OF Ilya Bolotowsky’s painting is the shape of the canvas. There are other factors, such as the nature and resolution of the previous painting (perhaps that factor may have indicated the selection of the shape), but the shape of the canvas poses the problem to be resolved. The shape itself is always symmetrical, at least bilaterally symmetrical in the case of a rectangle, but often a square (usually hung from its corner as a diamond), or a circle, or an ellipse, and when they are merely rectangular, the long sides of the rectangle are closer to the square than the traditional modular size, or they are very long or tall rectangles. The resolutions of the paintings are invariably asymmetrical. He has attempted to find an asymmetrical equivalent to the basic symmetrical form, thus answering the question, what can a shape of that sort do?

To give a particular example, in Dynamic Circle (1960), the circle is quartered and the center is found; a single small red corner entering from the edge is vitalized by its relationship to a blue square which triggers the action; the upper left quarter is a solid cool off-white; approximately the same amount of cool off-white will be found reformed in the upper right half of the circle, pushed to that position by a rising blue (and purple, a color which is the consummation of a red and blue relationship), and is then elongated but diminished as seen along the bottom of the painting. This succession of off-whites defines a spiralling action within plastic space. Plastic space is not divisively illusionary, but is diagrammatic, like a blueprint, two-dimensional or infinite.

The description sounds utterly logical and materialistic, and if that were all it would be enough, but it is a lyrical dynamic circle, too. It is like the opening of a blue rose, the release of a fragrance; its tensions, though founded on straight lines, take the viewer on curving paths, like the contours of sound. These paintings are an appeal to the senses, through the sense of sight, but their abstractness is always non-specific. If a half-formed face or device were to appear unbidden, an accidental occurrence within the process, he would eradicate it rather than thinking of it as a Jungian archetype arising from the id and rejoicing, as an Expressionist or a Surrealist might. The beauty and interest of a nautilus is its spiralling nicety of form, not some emotional suggestion. Bolotowsky’s paintings are in a similar category: formal harmonics.

In Dynamic Diamond (1960) the progression is very similar to the action as described in Dynamic Circle, except that the cool off-white is replaced by white, and the rising blue purple by black. The succession down the spiralling motion is more abrupt, louder, more dissonant, in keeping with the sharp corners of the diamond, thus revealing the serial aspect of his painting, each painting being related to its antecedent in more ways than simply being next.

Studying the dynamics of verticals and horizontals which divide the circle has continued through many phases. Rising Tondo (1965), is about as symmetrical as anything Bolotowsky has done. The small flags of white left at the bottom and top and which move in opposite directions contrast with the whites which move in either direction; the two black lines step up; the action is upward but mostly around; the reds are energetic in their relationship and the action suggestion is fast, like the blink of a camera shutter caught in the viewer on a raise. In the picture, the positive has become all-important, almost closing on the negative, whereas in Dynamic Circle the cool off-whites suggest an openness like the sky and make the painting seem panoramic, or very large; the Rising Tondo is more like a microscopic focusing in on things too large, a close-up.

In a motion which could be described as a clockwise revolving, but upward rising, there is a natural tension between the revolving and the rising. This theme was pursued through any number of Bolotowsky paintings with greater and lesser closing and opening of the negative center (not unrelated to the sort of action of a camera shutter). Rising Tondo I (1968) is about halfway open; Sombre Tondo (1966–7) is closed—almost; a thin white line runs up the center like a crack around the door. The colors are dominantly black and purple (with red and blue asserting the upward movement, gently in this closed variant, more aggressively in Rising Tondo I); in Rising Tondo II (1968), the complex has opened wider still, and the black risers have disappeared. The negative-positive is the reverse of the traditional painting in which an object is surrounded by space; in Bolotowsky’s recent paintings the positive (though non-object) has been around the edge. This is also the reverse of his own former pursuit; his first Mondrianist paintings often had a grid structure completely surrounded by space. They looked spacious, like a seascape. The latter-day Bolotowsky paintings look large, in fact huge, though their actual scale is modest; it is a looking inward. The tension of the turning and rising counter each other and the resulting image is a sort of levitation, hovering on a point equidistant between action and stillness. This is a very mystical place.

In the serial episode of which Vertical Lines (1968) is an example, the movement steps up as in stepping up stairs, counterpointed by a rising like an elevator. There is also a color act which affirms the movement up and sideways at the same time. In the variation called Vertical Yellow Plane (1967–8), the action between the vast yellow and the tall, slim red is a tension which changes the off-whites to warm and cool. Though their off-whiteness is the most neutral of slight greynesses, the vibrations can cross the field rather than laying down an afterimage.

The rising and sideward movement led very naturally to Bolotowsky’s columns. The columns took the act another step on each of the four sides. The viewer may participate in the serial process. There are eight pictorial resolutions to a four-sided column, or perhaps 360 degrees of variants.

It is ironical that Mondrian, though acknowledged as the innovator of hard edge painting, an experimenter with color, the fountainhead of hyperspace, etc., has been largely thwarted by his disciples on the matter of asymmetry, and he was most particularly devoted to asymmetry. While still alive his work influenced the architects, typographers, etc., away from their symmetrical ways; the builders of the world at large exposed his grid until it became common, but the painters, with few exceptions, elected to work in literary or gestural sorts of ways. When the omni-presence of the Mondrianist page and building had finally prepared the minds of a sizeable number of people, the painters, in increasing numbers, took up many of the aspects of his work. But many of them were persuaded that symmetry spoke their message best. Symmetry is now as widely the popular mode as Mondrian’s asymmetry was the mode before the painters took up his sort of painting. Bolotowsky continued his own exploration of the Mondrianist geometry, oblivious to the machinations of the esthetic party in power. He is still at work on asymmetrical harmonies.

Why? What does symmetry mean, and asymmetry? Symmetry is bold, dominating, frontal, authoritative; it is the symbol of true belief; the symmetrical grid, which was universalized by the Aristotelian-Christian tradition, was a rack upon which the asymmetrical or secular picture was assembled; it was perfect and thus was a frontal picture of God. The asymmetrical picture, which was an illusion of nature, was the secular world, but based upon God if for no other reason than that its points were founded on a perfect grid. Mondrian’s grid paintings were utterly secular with no hang ups. They were a new grid which was based on intuition; they were not based on a system (this may come as a surprise to many who have heard or assumed otherwise). Mondrian’s method was not projectable or predictable. It was based on a non-Aristotelian attitude, namely that the world was not made up of opposites, but that things were merely different. Thus the problem was not the balancing of opposites such as the sacred and the secular, right and wrong, heaven and hell, but a more modern, perhaps pragmatic or existential attitude that things have their own nature, and a vital relationship need not have an opposite to be true, but could be a harmonizing of differences. All parts of such a picture would be a different size and shape. This asymmetrical harmony would be a graphic symbol of the nature of freedom, and democracy, and symmetry would stand for rigidity, hierarchy, regimentation, fixed ideas, fanatical belief, etc.

One might say that if art is a mirror held up to nature, that mirror might be expected to show the growing tendency in the modern world toward totalitarianism. Surely the symbolic form of totalitarianism would be centralized, unified and inflexible—symmetry. But if one formed a symbolic pattern of relationships which was free, but rhythmically related, one could be called an idealist rather than a realist, because that would represent a fantasy world. Bolotowsky is in the latter category, an idealist. He has been consistently loyal to the Mondrianist preference for asymmetry; through periods when the hegemony was exercised by Expressionists, Surrealists, social-conscious realists, Bolotowsky has continued to dramatize the active harmony of differences. Bolotowsky has consistently grown in stature, and is now widely recognized, though he has not enjoyed the easier success of painters who have accommodated themselves to the period styles as they have evolved. Indeed the reverse has often been true: his innovations and influences have fed the wellsprings of the mode; his students have often been the innovators; even in film, which he regards as a second, more literary preoccupation, his experiments were often jeered on appearance and became commonplace in ten years. The current retrospective, based on the work of a twelve-year period, should be seen more widely; it is one of the strongest shows of the year.

Knute Stiles