PRINT February 1983


DAVID TRUE IS ALWAYS tightening and refining his paintings. In his studio is a painting he started working on after his last show. Using thin oil washes, he has gotten the image he needs on the canvas. The process of mixing and adjusting thin coats of paint will continue until True has brought the colors up to the exact pitch he wants. Image, surface, composition, and color must run as smoothly as a Rolls-Royce’s engine. When he gets this balance taut without straining, his paintings impart a sense of graceful strength as well as of something about to snap, a sense resulting in part from his choice of subjects—a man on a spokeless bicycle, moving and motionless, caught forever in his journey’s web; aging satyrs; emblematic houses; and tawny deer glistening with an austere lushness.

This fastidious approach has characterized True’s painting at least since his inclusion in the Whitney Museum’s “New Image Painting” exhibition in 1978–79. Unlike the work by other artists in that show, True’s paintings were not seductively messy, conceptually biased, or coolly ironic. His influences aren’t semiotics, Pop art, and minimalism, but Giorgio de Chirico and Henri Rousseau—loners who grappled with allusions to their private vision.

In the unfinished vertical painting True has depicted a blue spiral on the lower right. A stylized arabesque, the spiral is something True has recently added to his slowly growing, flexible lexicon. It is both emblematic in this painting, and emblematic of True’s paintings in general. The left side of the painting is occupied by a doorless, windowless, uninhabitable black facade of a house.1 Both emblems are perched on a grassy slope that reaches up to a narrow bank of sky. If de Chirico’s colors are somber—his greens recalling the dark plushness of verdigris, its hint of time—then True’s colors suggest strange, imaginary metals. Instead of the imminence of evening or noon casting its deathlike glaze over whitewashed facades, True’s landscapes are enveloped in chilly autumn’s dustless, rarefied atmosphere, the thin air one might discover on another planet bearing some resemblance to our own.

Driverless cars, ships pared down to knife-edged-hulls, or deer somersaulting through the air—each of True’s paintings explores the moment before the climax of a story, the passage from one place or state of consciousness to another. As stories, they leave out as much as they include. In knowing what to leave out, True’s abilities as a storyteller are equal to those of Henry James when he wrote In The Cage in 1898. Neither gives his particular mysteries away because neither presumes to know everything there is to know about the world he depicts.

In the Whitney’s “New Image Painting” exhibition, True was the odd man out. Richard Marshall’s curatorial essay attempted to tie all the artists together by suggesting an institutionally sanctioned style, rather than to separate them and account for their real differences. When Marshall wrote about an attitude all the artists supposedly shared, his shortsighted sense of history misrepresented True’s paintings: “The images fluctuate between abstract and real. They clearly represent things that are recognizable and familiar, yet they are presented as isolated and removed from associative backgrounds and environments,” At the time of the “New Image” show, Marshall was tempted to connect True with an abstract, minimalist impulse, rather than a realist one.

True’s early paintings can be read as moments of a journey toward an unspecified transcendence—to ultimate awareness, or to complete oblivion? Eros or Thanatos? Instead of sliding into nostalgia or sentiment, True maintains a tight-lipped tension. The shape of True’s hulls, not separate from their background so much as they are severed, could allude as easily to an anvil or a knife as to a minimalist-derived trapezoid. The emotive power of such an image was hardly defined by Marshall when he suggested that it “fluctuate[s] between surreal illusions and objective abstractions.” In another earlier painting, waves washing up on a shore are also stylized, resembling palm fronds or grass skirts. However, any edenic longings have been filtered through True’s urbane reticence, echoing instead postcard images such as those of places like Tahiti. By stylizing everything, True emotionally distances the viewer. The paintings pivot between desire and its impossibility. They are emotional pendulums of a sort, unable to stop swinging between these two states.

In staking out this territory of desire, True’s paintings should be compared with Susan Rothenberg’s, whose depictions of horses were also included in the Whitney exhibition. True’s paintings never get heavy-handed. Instead, they are edged with an understated humor, while Rothenberg’s horses are as dull and humorless as D.H. Lawrence became when he began seeing Priapus throbbing in every tree. It seems that Rothenberg’s idealized images of horses have more to do with prepubescence than with the pictographic cave paintings some saw fit to associate them with. The comparison to Rothenberg holds with True’s subsequent exploration of the various complex subconscious associations we have with animals.

In his paintings of deer, True places one central image against the contrasting element of the painted ground. After absorbing the lessons he needed from the early paintings of de Chirico, True moved on. In the deer paintings the backgrounds function in the same manner as those in Oriental art, serving as both ground and space, substance and light. In Last Day, 1981, for example, the cold autumn-afternoon blue is undeniably made of paint, yet it conveys the depth less quality of sky. The poignancy of the title frames the exuberance of a leaping deer, its neck arched back so that the whole body suggests a doomed circle. True’s deer have little in common with nature painting; they are complex symbols of the kind of motion awareness derived from discipline that we associate with dancers, rather than of an instinctual reflex.

Along with the deer paintings, True exhibited landscapes and landscapes with cars in an exhibition in the spring of 1981. True’s mountains—their forms and surfaces—seamlessly integrate pyramidal shapes with molten-lava-like vegetation. It’s as if the Ice Age had just retreated, leaving behind these severely angled, massive outcroppings. True’s paintings, combining a memory of the primeval with images of geological extremes, envision topology that integrates an irretrievable past with a startling future. Like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, True’s paintings connect aspects of the mythical with those of science fiction.

If de Chirico’s cities have as their literary equivalents Paul Eluard’s Capitale de la douleur (1926) and André Breton’s Nadja (1928), then True’s paintings recall the speculative fiction of Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, and Roger Zelazny. True’s paintings of skeletal figures of men trapped inside cars parallel J.G. Ballard’s Crash (1973)—in which the narrator’s desire is to die in a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor. Ballard and True both deal with the automobile as a symbol of technological possibility perverted. This results in a horrific, uncompromising vision.

In his most recent show, in the fall of 1982, True exhibited paintings that quietly demonstrate his ability to explore other avenues, as well as build on what he has already accomplished. Like his earlier work, these have the timelessness and immediacy of tarot cards. Like the cards, True’s paintings suggest a narrative without ever telling a story. Titles such as Reconciliation, 1982, Memory, 1981–82, Tacit Witness, 1982, Journey, 1982, and Imprisonment, 1981, provide a loose framework within which we can imagine a possible course of events. In Tacit Witness, for example, a deer leaps behind a house. The flat frontality of the house posed against the invented landscape conveys the spooky sensation of there being no middle ground. Whatever the deer is witnessing behind the house occurs in some other space. A city is visible on the crest of the hill—a skyline molded out of stone, like some besieged fortress of the future.

The sense of glancing at an image of destiny that we associate with looking at a tarot card is developed most fully in Imprisonment. On the left side, against a grayish-blue ground that functions also as an ominous, wintry sky, a deer is posed upright, as if it has just somersaulted backwards off the promontory on the right. Or it has leaped off of its hind legs straight up in the air, the way some dogs do when they’ve trapped their prey in a tree. On the right side stands a gaunt, aging, pensive satyr. True’s is an invented figure rather than a mythical one. A thin sapling divides the painting into two unequal areas, the deer occupying the wider space, the satyr confined to the narrower, more restricted zone. Both the simplicity of the painting and its complexity of allusions exemplify how much True is able to accomplish with a few details. Facing the deer, the satyr can be read as someone contemplating part of his past.

True’s debt to the early de Chirico should be seen in the web of the spell that pervades his bold lexicon of symbols. As such his invented satyr in Imprisonment bears comparison with de Chirico’s only invented figure, the faceless mannequin. The difference between them is that de Chirico’s mannequin is resolutely of the early 20th century, while True’s satyr has a timeless psychology.

In the context of contemporary strategic historicist painting, True’s relationship to de Chirico is far different from that of Jedd Garet, say. Garet gives us an updated kitsch version of de Chirico’s kitsch. In titling a 1981 painting Precarious Notoriety (the title reminds me of rock ’n’ roll stars singing the “how hard it is to be poor” tune), Garet touches up the de Chirico who has lost his compelling emotional edge and slid into goopy mannerisms. True’s relation to de Chirico, on the other hand, is metaphysical. Rather than appropriating, he has been evolving his own symbols, ones that share with de Chirico’s a sense of intention.

At the deepest level, what connects True with de Chirico and Rousseau is that they are all symbolists. He is examining the illusions our culture uses to perpetuate myths of well-being. In focusing on the moment before the story reaches its conclusion, True’s paintings refer to our deepest anxieties—the sense of transitoriness and doom that is an inextricable part of our lives. True understands the way our late-20th-century imagination works—its loss of utopian desires, its loss of a sense of infinity, and its attempt to deflect an awareness of inevitability. His paintings are an encompassing vision of our psychology rather than definitions. He knows that the past (its mythical figures living in a golden age) and the future (its ominous, omnivorous possibilities) can only meet in one place—the present.

John Yau is a poet and art critic. His next book of poetry, Corpse and Mirror, is to be published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in May 1983.



1. Since I visited True’s studio, this painting has been altered and completed. The black facade of the house is now mottled with red ochre. The work’s title is Fever, 1982.