New York

E. W. Nay

Knoedler Galleries

E. W. Nay, the German colorist, died at the age of 66 in Cologne in April of this year, and Knoedler’s has presented, in his first posthumous retrospective, a large sampling of the painter’s last works. I found them peculiarly pathetic and self-consciously hesitant, betraying the failure of both hand and vision to consummate themselves in old age with the authority and boldness one marveled at in a painter like Matisse, or with the confidence Nay himself must have possessed as a young artist. The often awkwardly achieved configurations, with their partly biomorphic, partly jagged and irregular geometry, bump each other uncomfortably across canvases of modest dimensions.

Earlier in his career Nay was concerned with the acausal relations of forms, and with a deliberate disregard for which color was placed adjacent to another. While these methods and attitudes are still in some evidence in his last paintings, the color images never seem quite secured by the wobbly drawing, nor by the frequently indecisive disposition and application of colors. Clearly there is an attempt to make color realize the surface in resonant luminosity, but more often than not the shapes read merely as filled-in outlines rather than as color identified with and expressive of the surface. Although the general range and use of palette has more visual certainty than the wiggly arabesques and zigzagged strands which divide the fields into distinct zones, one has the feeling that increasingly the conceptual and actual definition of shape and overall design had begun to evade the painter’s eye and hand just before they could be achieved in paint. This seems to me quite evident in White Figuration and Red (1968) where daubed and uncertain contours do not manage to carry either the weight or whimsy of the improvisational energy which motivates them.

The use of positive colored forms against white grounds in pictures like Black-Green (1967) or Sinus (1966) actually punctures the space of the surface Nay wished to shackle tightly against his color image, so that again there is evidence of conception compromised by execution. In Rays (1968) or Red Figuration (1968), where the more lively contradictions of totem-like or teardrop shapes float and bulge into vertical or diagonal channels, color takes on a brightly renewed assurance, with aquas, violets, cadmium red, or citric yellows dancing through white and black. And yet there is something quite creatural in the marks of an old painter’s hand striving to keep pace with the vibrance and memory of his youthful vision, and in this limited sense his last paintings were refreshingly open and admissive.

Emily Wasserman