New York

Robert Swain and Stylianos Gianakos

Fischbach Gallery

Robert Swain’s group of glowing rainbow-grid paintings from 1967 at the Fischbach Gallery came to me as a great surprise when I recalled the rather mechanical and stiffer three-color harmony canvases he had shown at the Park Place Gallery a few years back. Although still working with an admittedly rigid set of limitations, Swain has moved a long way in his ability to get beyond the mere mechanics of an organizational system, allowing a new bloom and extended range of color to sustain the expression of his work.

Concerned with a means to project colors intensely and expansively without divorcing them from either physical grounding or format, Swain assembles his big rectangular paintings (about 8 by 20 feet) with differently colored 13-inch squares (each individually stretched), whose particular size allows enough space for the eye to relate each one to the four adjacent blocks along its edges, as well as to experience the unique color in the center of the separate squares. The grid or checkerboard-like arrangement provides consistent overall spacing for the harmonic order of color, which is set up in two intersecting systems. The horizontal movement (left to right or vice versa) is a complete (though in each whole painting, differently disposed) cycle from a 15 or 19 color spectrum of pure or nearly pure chroma. A tonal counterpoint is run vertically through this spectrum as the blocks descend from pure saturation at the top of the picture to whitened mixtures toward the center and bottom of the field. The chromatic intervals between the squares are evenly calculated, so that even if equivalently pure hues of different colors are not used the visual rhythm across the scale is still uniform. (For instance, in one painting an aqua-blue is substituted for unmixed pure pigment in the uppermost tier on the horizontal spectrum, since the purest hue available from the tube would have appeared too black in relation to the surrounding colors.)

Such an account of the structural or chromatic arrangements is what the work aims to overcome, however, and although it has not yet entirely done so, what becomes increasingly interesting and promising about the works are the vibrant, but still physically secured, optical effects which Swain is able to exploit beyond their set framework and format. Spatial division is clearly physical, not illusionistic—but as the paintings are viewed from even a slight distance their surfaces seem to corrugate into concave or convex channels, to angle inward, away from the eye, to shingle into each other like slotted cards, or to warp and buckle like quilting. This volumetric effect derives from the absence of certain intermediary tones or tints between the blocks as they abut each other. Because of this deliberate omission, within each separate evenly painted square there seems to be a passage from light to dark, or from low to high intensity, and along its edges a phosphorescent glow (almost a mental echo) appears, signaling the missing integer. The one canvas painted in oil (the others are acrylic) is calibrated with the closest intervals and the most intense saturation, so that it seems to ripple and bend less, with its imperceptibly close gradations. In the passage from golden yellow to orange to red, violet-magenta to purple to blue and green, the eye is confronted with a rich and complete chromatic sequence, but because the cycle is ranged out on a flat surface, another displacement of volume must be accounted for—as if the spectrum had been unrolled from a drum or wheel. This constant fluctuation between the sensual content—as the optical intensity of the color scales—and the intellectual recognition of the painting as a deliberately and obviously constructed physical object, in which color also functions in terms of volume, is what makes for the complexity and potential in Swain’s work at this point.

Stylianos Gianakos’s bisymmetrical fiberglass sculptures seemed to me a rather poor combination with the colored square paintings by Robert Swain. Gianakos’s structures are made of natural khaki-colored plastic, unpainted and left to display the thready dappled texture of the material with which they are cast. My response to this use of the fiberglass in relation to the curving planes and mirror-image forms suggestive of human organs or primeval skeletons was that the naturalness of the material worked against the aspired (but unachieved) elegance and inventiveness of the forms. Making no concession to prettiness with the substance of his art, Gianakos nevertheless tries to attain a certain polished silhouette with more finesse than could be supported by this particular treatment of the plastic. Narrowed shafts rest on their points and flare up into pelvic-like curves, or discs fan open into rectangular flaps in an attempt to focus on the fluid transitions from line to plane to volume, from negative to positive space, and from space back to surfaces both opaque and transparent. This notion of formal ambiguity and continuity finds its image in forms which to my eye are too strongly referential (and sometimes just clumsily formed) to substantiate and carry the more independent intention of an open volume planimetric sculpture concerned with the graceful articulation of spaces and surfaces.

The naturalness of the forms (i.e. organic-anthropomorphic) does not automatically guarantee the integrity of the natural fiberglass and that seems to be the assumption at work here, and the one on which my evaluation rests. Unfortunately, I find that the paucity of imagination and formal interest in these pieces force one to fall back on such trite issues. The strong bilateral symmetry of the work, with its specific allusion to anatomical forms like glands, pouches, bones, and other biomorphic shapes, offers a content so patently mundane and ready-made that it subverts the possibility of some authority in the scale, material, or shaping. Some of the smaller models (intended for architectural scale) employ more geometric and architectonic anglings and openings but they too imply the kind of subjective awkwardness and clichéd conception which the larger pieces possess. What struck me on first sight was that the works just seemed to sit around the space they occupied—neither obtruding upon it nor really articulating and displacing it actively, in spite of the obvious ambition to achieve such interaction. Perhaps this was a result of the overriding concern with configuration per se, but my conclusion was that this was simply a rather premature showing of still unresolved work.

Emily Wasserman