PRINT March 1978

Dennis Masback’s Paintings

. . . look at this prepronominal funferal, engraved and retouched and edgewiped and puddenpadded very like a whale’s egg . . .
––Finnegans Wake

DENNIS MASBACK'S PAINTINGS ARE ALOOF, standoffish, inaccessible, self-absorbed, detached, faintly smug, high-minded, snobbish, maybe jaded; perhaps ruthless, but quite possibly kind, compassionate, and tender (once you get to know them, which takes time). Their repeated layerings of pigmented Liquitex gloss medium create a highly reflective surface, a surface as obdurate as . . . plexiglass? The surface distances, puts us off. The surface, like the stereotypical New Yorker, is slick.

The process determines the image. A stretched, raw cotton duck canvas is laid upon a table-high cart. Masback applies three coats of medium with an edger, a 23-inch metal blade inserted in a plastic handle—the type used by house painters to paint baseboards without having to mask them off. He pours the medium in the middle of the canvas and spreads it with the edger out to the sides in random directions. This provides him with a surface on which to apply the 30 or 40 coats, or whatever number he deems necessary, of watery glaze.

The transparent colors are literally scraped on and off. When dry they are often scraped again—burnished, as it were. A continuous arbitrary movement of the edger creates a tactilely smooth, though optically variegated, surface. This process allows for both glazing and scraping to make for the maximum visibility of the undercoats. This density of surface, in tandem with a neutral coloration, contributes to the slatelike quality of the paintings. Masback, like Marden, makes single, double and triple panel paintings, although Masback’s abut along the vertical. Unlike Marden, who assigns a different hue to each panel, Masback works on each canvas simultaneously. Whether in single or in multipanel formats, however, the faintly marbleized surfaces recall stone: stone walls, tablets, gravestones, sides of buildings, or sidewalks. As such, they evoke a New York environment of which the prime materials are stone (concrete, pavement) and glass. Masback gives us paintings whose surfaces are like “glassy stone,” reflective as well as reflexive.

A Masback painting might be “described” or “located” by speaking of it in its relation to Johns and Marden, and further, through Johns and Marden to Duchamp and Manet. But talk fixes the work in an esthetic milieu that actually may be foreign to its essence. The apparent infinity of crossbred concepts turns out to be quite finite: they occur on the same plane or within the same set, however broad, of conceptual parentheses. Masback’s approach differs from both Johns’ and Marden’s in that he embraces a mechanistic mode of production. Johns may be ironic when he robs expressionist brushstrokes of humanist sentiment, but he is a manual painter nonetheless. And Marden, who brushes on his hot oil-wax mixture and quickly smoothes it out with spatula and knife before it cools, creates an austere surface that is oddly reverent of painting tradition. Tactility is miraculously preserved in spite of the paint’s fairly consistent evenness. Johns and Marden, shall we say, have a touch.

Masback, an accomplished printmaker, transcribes printing to painting process. It is probably not a coincidence for him that the canvas, when laid upon the cart, resembles a press bed. The physical activity of working on a canvas in that position must be familiar to muscles used to working on copper plates and lithographic stones. Moreover, in drawing the edger across the surface, Masback is, in effect, “pulling” the painting, much as he might pull a print. Printmaking procedure is further suggested when we realize that each layer of glaze applied throws the painting into a different “state,” with previous states readily apparent. Indeed the paintings themselves suggest the “flatbed” of the printing press.

Now a paintbrush is an extension of the willful hand. But a two-foot metal blade, which is a bit large adequately to monitor the artist’s will to painterly inflection, is, rather, a device. In Device (1961–62) Jasper Johns fastened two stretcher strips at either side of a canvas, using them like clumsy compasses to plow semicircles in the wet paint (other similar work used rulers).

. . . the stick can be seen to have literally scraped and squeegeed paint passages which are easy to compare with the normative stroking surrounding them. As soon as this happens, however, several ambiguities snap into focus. One is that paint can transform itself more radically by a mechanistic process than by conscious brushing.1

In his thoughtful book on Johns, from which the above quotation comes, Max Kozloff juxtaposes Duchamp’s Rotative Demisphere (Optique de Precision), 1925, with Johns’ Device. Duchamp’s contraption consists of a copper disk bearing an Op-type spiral connected by a belt to an electric motor. Looking at the still image of the disk we see it vertiginously spinning in our mind’s eye. Cognitive sequence is preemptorily replaced by an electric circle, electric in its instantaneous presenting of alternate meanings, and circular in reasoning. Masback’s paintings are themselves like machines, structurally conceived so as to defeat any possible failure as art.

The persistent pressure of the edger on Masback’s canvas causes the transverse stretcher bar which bisects the painting to appear as a faint, ghostlike image in the finished work. What is behind the canvas presents itself on the surface, but as “representation” it is false, for it is not depicted, as the backs of paintings are wittily depicted by Lichtenstein, or as the rectilinear bands of James Bishop’s paintings, while not the same width as the actual stretcher bars, allude to them. Instead, the graphic impression of the stretcher bars is as much part of the actual physical substance of the painting as the stretcher bars themselves. Tautologies such as this make for easy irony, but the irony here comes entirely out of the painting process itself. Furthermore, Masback’s recurrent horizontal bar (any verticals result only from the abutment of separate panels) at once satisfies a traditional craving for internal pictorial incident, not violating but in fact reinforcing modern canonic objectness. Masback’s process here recalls Surrealist frottage. Miró revealed a stretcher with horizontal bar in his Personage, 1925, although there pictorial incident is superimposed upon the stretcher image.

Before establishing his present format, Masback poured rich glaze-stains onto raw canvases (which seem tiny when compared to a classic Louis or Poons). He squeegeed out some of the wet paint, leaving the ridges described by the ends of the squeegee. He overlaid glazes as well as pouring on thickened blops of paint. Masback at this time (1971–73) was studying printmaking and had not painted in three years. Accordingly, he dismisses these works as re-entry vehicles—simply a means to “get back into painting.” Already, however, they show a predisposition toward opulence which, in the later work, is conceptually constrained (by the new process).

The modification of process by judgments of taste is worth discussing, for here formalist gears mesh with conceptual ones. Color, while not critical in the early stages of a painting, becomes urgent toward the end of a work. Masback brings a painting to a conclusion by asserting his sensibility through subtle chromatic shifts. The final work, although generally somber in tonality, nevertheless will be of a specific hue. Soft beigy pink, icy blue, bistre and sea green poke through overpaintings, which diminish their intensity but not their presence. An individual work may be potentially “finished” several times. Masback is searching for a definite color sensation, which will hold the plane; it is taste, in the Kantian sense of a subjective judgment presumed to be universally shared, which stops the process.

But it is not mere taste in the abstract which signals completion. Masback refers to his paintings as “portraits,” and indeed the particular resolution of each work makes the notion of identity appealing—all the more so, given the monotonous process and format. We look for differences in a world which seems so standardized. Like Manet’s people, these paintings do not engage the spectator directly, but seem to “stare off” in oblique directions. Masback is highly conscious of the French tradition in painting, and his lyric fogs and delicate chromatic orchestrations evoke the silvery light of late Corot or the satiny glimmer of Watteau.

If the picture plane were the American continent, then modernism’s Manifest Destiny would be an onward rush to reach the extreme coast or “edge,” the prime motivation being the creation of a single “holistic” state (Johns’ first map is dated 1960, Mar-den’s first single-color canvas, 1964). However, once the edge had been claimed—or “won”—for art, there were simply no new formal frontiers left to be explored. Modernism, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist.

It has become a cliché to insist that modernist painting energy was absorbed in the creation of new pictorial technologies, each one rendering the last obsolete in a rapid succession of styles which mimicked the quickened pace of 20th-century life. The Futurist locomotive, in a metaphor for post-Cubist ambition, sped along hastily laid tracks, disengaged from the heavy freight of history, intoxicated with independence, power and velocity. Side by side with this approach to art, however, lay its antithetical alternative, Duchamp. Speed does not exist here because time does not exist, and there is nowhere to go, so why rush to get there? Here the metaphorical locomotive is still in the roundhouse, chocolate-grinding its wheels on greased tracks.

These are the two views of history which have informed significant 20th-century art, the one manic and the other depressive. The one assumes a detached retina capable only of receiving the reflected light of a color field painting (pure opticality), and the other, a conceptual brain isolated from perception and left to “self-reflect.” Both views permitted escape from historical time: the formalist artificially speeded up time to support the illusion of cultural progress, while the conceptualist denied it altogether, saying, in effect, that history itself was an illusion.

Standing at the terminus of modernism (having reached the edge), Brice Marden faced the first problem of post-modernist painting: what do you do with all that acquired real-estate, that picture plane? The answer seems fairly obvious: you pick up where premodernist painting left off, while trying not to violate contemporary convention. For Marden that meant returning to Manet, who, like Marden, functioned as a bridge (between premodernism and modernism). For us it means a more general return to 19th-century concerns, among them, man’s relation to technological advance.

Masback, too, feels himself to be an heir to the great tradition of Manet and French painting. However, the transparent, limpid mists he so eloquently engenders in many ways contradict the opaque meatiness of Manet and the solid volumetrics that characterized French painting (French Romanticism notwithstanding) from Poussin to Courbet to Cézanne. Perhaps it is actually to the Romantic painting of England (where fog is the prevailing climatic condition) that Masback more closely relates—especially to the late Turner.

The very nature of a stretched canvas insures tautness along the edges and at the corners, while the fabric will loosen toward the center—increasingly so as it is mauled by the manipulation of paint. In Masback’s paintings the (Johnsian) directionless stroking of the edger ironically subverts its own directionlessness: the horizontal stretcher bar becomes focused at the center while fading at the edges. Hence the corners naturally round themselves off. A halo effect is discernible, especially in the smaller works, such as Pink No. 7, for the paint lightens out at the edges and corners where it is more fully scraped. And the resultant ovular image is reminiscent of Turner’s centripetal compositions— “ . . . the cutting across or rounding off the corners in most of these late works may have reflected . . . . Turner’s appreciation of natural vision, clear at the center and vague at the edges . . .”2

Turner radically developed this “rounding” in his Shade and Darknessthe Evening of the Deluge, 1843, Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory)the Morning after the Deluge, 1843, and in The Angel Standing in the Sun, 1846. These paintings, all square and of the same dimensions, even invoke Duchamp’s “discs” in the frenzied spiraling of apocalyptic action. But the implied horizon, which in Turner’s Shade and Darkness is explicit, bisects the center, as in Masback’s canvases. The same tendency toward a circular organization, together with a poollike depth created by the multiple glazes, undermines a simple planarity with Masback, so long as the spectator is at all disposed to being “drawn into” the work, which, like Turner’s, can be looked at either as a surface or as an internal space of indeterminate depth.

In Turner’s works knifed-on flecks of paint materialize phenomena that are not themselves physically solid (flashes of light, flames, snow). Thus, the transubstantiation of ephemera into dense pigment constitutes a handwriting which verifies the surface. Or so we at first believe, for the perceptual upshot of Turner’s wrist gymnastics is the intensification of an illusionistic image that is often built up of thin glazes upon which thicker paint lies. It is as though the physical aspect of paint were there only to prove the image, to make it more convincing. In Masback’s paintings the image is the painting itself, but it is an image nonetheless and has an illusionistic feature: the paint perceived not only as itself but as an illusion of paint, especially in the subtle residues of pigment which the edger has not scraped away. Slice lines caused by the ends of the edger digging into the surface of the canvas break up the field unexpectedly. The randomness of these incidents compares with Turner’s Stormy Sea, ca. 1840–45, where arbitrary markings affirm an atmospheric space whose depth cannot be determined.

It has been said of Turner’s late work that it is “like the return to a primal flux which denies the separate identity of things.”3 Turner’s dissolution of natural form occurs out of a sublimated awareness of the dissolution of nature perpetrated by the Industrial Revolution in early 19th-century Britain. It is no accident that "during the last decade of his life Turner exhibited few English landscapes, the spectacular exception to this neglect being Rain, Steam and Speed—The Great Western Railway (1844).4 Turner’s turn to marine themes at this juncture, due not only to a moral revulsion to a recently blighted countryside, is a personal reaction to technology running away with itself, as if the land, with its railways and mills, had become associated with the loss of historical time.

Masback makes real historical time accessible to us by letting us see this development at work in his domestication of mechanistic process. Masback puts the metal edger to work for himself, in the service of his vision.

Ross Neher is a painter.



1. Max Kozloff, Jasper Johns, New York, n. d., pp. 29–30; italics mine.

2. John Rothenstein and Martin Butlin, Turner, New York, 1964, p. 70.

3. Lawrence Gowing, Turner: Imagination and Reality, New York, 1966, p. 16.

4. Rothenstein and Butlin, p. 66.