PRINT December 1974

Ilya Bolotowsky at the Guggenheim

IT IS APPROPRIATE THAT THE Ilya Bolotowsky retrospective at the Guggenheim, contrary to that museum’s usual practice and, I think, to the architect’s intentions, seems to have been installed backwards on Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral. We move up the ramp, back to the more recent work, robbed of the compelling, conclusive movement toward earth. Implied is a loose-endedness—a drift in time and space. A similar drift permeates Bolotowsky’s work. It seems to pertain to no particular time or reality, past or present, and there is the suspicion that it never looked contemporary. Bolotowsky has not arrived at his own statement, although he has occasionally passed through the influence of various artists with interesting results. (His mural studies for the New York World’s Fair, 1939, suggest the work of Miró and Kandinsky, but are more geometric than the first and broader in scale than the second.)

The main reference and influence is Mondrian, whose work Bolotowsky saw in 1933 at the age of twenty-six, and to whose Neo-Plastic theories he has devoted his career, particularly since the late ’40s. Since then he has worked exclusively with horizontal and vertical lines and planes of color on canvas (rectangular, diamond, tondo, or oval) and on tall four-sided columns of wood or aluminum. The visible commitment to Neo-Plasticism makes it difficult to see the work except in terms of Mondrian. The interview with Bolotowsky, which serves as the main text of the catalogue to the exhibition, indicates his determination to extend and elaborate Neo-Plasticism. The paintings themselves suggest an even more interesting ambition: to be more abstract than Mondrian. But in both endeavors, Bolotowsky seems to have thrown everything into reverse. He consistently uses overworked composition and nonprimary (as well as primary) colors, both operating in a space which is at once recessive and unreadable, like naive Cubism. The resulting fragmentation and movement seem to counter Neo-Plastic singleness and also to decrease the degree of flatness and unity which Mondrian did, in fact, achieve.

That nonprimary, or several colors can create secondary, hierarchical ways to consider color is a visual situation reflected in Mondrian’s theories and avoided in his work. Bolotowsky’s color is often nonprimary, which is fine, but it is also arbitrary without being expressive or compelling. Similarly, whereas Mondrian stressed the relations between parts as a basis of unity, Bolotowsky’s composition often gives unequal emphasis to various elements and relationships within the paintings. It seems as if there is the continuing sensation that parts of the painting fade out, drift off, are being ignored, while others are excessively prominent. Occasionally, particularly in a few paintings from 1949–51, the fragmentation is even and total, so a kind of unity is achieved. This is the case in Rectangular Space (1949), where a black grid, interlaced with a multicolored one, spans a light ground, which is also recessive. Configurations within a Diamond (1951), one of the best paintings (and one of the closest to Mondrian), has a similar breakdown. Small horizontal and vertical shapes in primary colors are broken by equal amounts of white. Recession is controlled through this evenness and by the fact that the white seems to flow into the white of the wall. The disappearance of parts of the painting seems deliberate and successful here. The diamond shape which makes this flow possible becomes appropriate, rather than eccentric or contrived. There is the uneasy feeling, however, that Bolotowsky is no more aware of this kind of flow than he is of the jarring shifts which inform much of the other work. Thus, in his continued use of the diamond, fragmentation is less even, and spatial illusion increases again, along with the suggestion (also found in many of his paintings from the ’40s) that the image is “abstracted from” architecture. Instead of flowing into the wall, many of these paintings simply seem cropped. Besides the uneven space and composition, one senses that a fragment of something larger and not necessarily more interesting has been framed. For me, the frame is arbitrary; it seems like an effort to curtail the general drift. The interior composition neither eliminates the edges, as in the painting just discussed, nor makes them seem inevitable, as in Mondrian. The effort to stabilize and simplify composition and space, as well as an increase in size and scale characterizes the work since the early ’60s. Areas of color are broader; the black lines are reduced and sometimes eliminated altogether, replaced by edges and thin sections of color. Throughout Bolotowsky’s work there is virtually no emphasis on material, but the elimination of space—more a process of suction than reduction—only makes the brittleness and airlessness more apparent. The colors and surfaces of the most recent paintings are unbelievably thin, like stretched tissue paper, layouts for paintings. Relatively unified and flat, these paintings are in some ways the most independent, yet they are the least satisfactory of Bolotowsky’s work. He stops looking like Mondrian and starts looking like Lichtenstein. The obvious similarity of Bolotowsky’s various oval and round paintings to Lichtenstein’s mirror paintings merely indicates a more pervasive one: Bolotowsky has the same tight, well-designed stylishness, minus Lichtensteih’s deliberate irony. It is disturbing that Bolotowsky’s pursual of NeoPlastic universality should bring him unwittingly to a point which Lichtenstein reached through mocking self-consciousness. While Lichtenstein often appropriates art disregarding the theories or the commitment which generated it, Bolotowsky, in commitment to theory alone, seems to have ignored the art itself.

Thus the immateriality and the stylishness continue the sense of drift even more profoundly. We see how clearly and specifically Mondrian anchored his work and his idealism in various kinds of reality. Mondrian’s horizontal and vertical are the basic elements of both nature and geometry. The reciprocity of this double reference gives his work an emotional fullness and life, a certain tension wherein ideal geometry becomes substantial, while nature is made abstract and universal. Both are further substantiated by a physicality of paint and of color, which, relative to Bolotowsky, is dense. Mondrian’s empiricism seems lost on Bolotowsky, who, pursuing the absolute, has cut himself loose from too much; removed from external reality, his work asserts no reality of its own.

Throughout the catalogue interview there is the sense of his modesty and intelligence, of his deep belief in Neo-Plasticism and his humbleness before the larger task of creating a universal, ideal art. He approaches this grand ambition with the knowledge that it is unachievable, beyond human bounds, stating: “I don’t think you can ever present any absolute in art. But you can do your best to approach it.” And again: “If you ever achieved an absolute, you would have to stop painting, because there’s only one absolute possible. Since I am still painting it means I have never quite achieved it.” Bolotowsky’s abdication of personality, of formal invention, of physical presence in the pursuit of an unattainable ideal amounts to a denial of experience. The ideal remains in his head, in the history he discusses, in the future. It is withheld, his retentive surfaces echo his statements: the work is not here. It is the unattainability, not the ideals themselves, that we are left to experience and the result is total and complete drift. The implications of Mondrian’s objects have been extended, empirically, impurely, by many American artists since 1945. A few, like Burgoyne Diller, managed to convert the theories alone into a convincing, if uninventive, personal statement. In Bolotowsky’s hands, the horizontal and vertical of Mondrian and NeoPlasticism are reduced to the basic elements of design, of weightless decoration. The ideal becomes inhuman and unreal; the notion of timelessness becomes pejorative.

Roberta Smith