New York

Abstract Illusionism

Tibor De Nagy Gallery

In her essay, “Abstract Illusionism” (Artforum, October, 1967), Barbara Rose took note of a pictorialism which posited either 1) a geometrically based illusion which despite an ambiguous reading did no violence to two-dimensionality (itself accepted as the hard-prized spoil of the battle for modernist art) or 2) a coloration which would equally respect this two-dimensional screen. This latter intuition had earlier been given strong endorsement in Clement Greenberg’s essay “Byzantine Parallels,” in which he had described a new kind of luminousness which, like Byzantine gold and mosaic, could emerge “to fill the space between itself and the spectator with its radiance.”

The artists whom Miss Rose discussed in this connection were Ron Davis, Darby Bannard, Frank Stella and Jules Olitski. Without in any sense these artists having been supplanted in the interim, Miss Rose has nevertheless scrutinized the present horizon and has, I believe, made the present selection of the three young artists shown together under the title, “Abstract Illusionism.” There appears to be an immense amount of received information in each one although I believe that at least two of the three are unquestionably capable of highly challenging work. The weakest figure I take to be Herbert Perr. He works in large serial agglomerates of square units. Each unit is seeped in a more or less single tonality—one work is essentially tobacco colored, the other middle red—and is punctuated by strokes and blurs of other colors. These blotches suggest that the individual unit may be allowed an aleatory placement in the larger formation. Such lines and furtive gestures are set down as slightly raised impastos which blur into the field or are lost in smudged pools. These fields are somewhat similar to the “backgrounds” of Miró’s canvases from the 1930s and ’40s, not to speak of those by Matta. In fact, the whole affair appears to be informed by a Surrealist intonation which may serve to explain why I am not especially drawn to them.

David Paul works in much more-immediate issues—though these may be turning into topical clichés. He treats clear vinyl—the “new material” par excellence—in antipodal ways. On the one hand he displays an anti-esthetic disdain through stressing the purely mediumistic gestures of crumpling, smoothing, hemming, sewing and stapling—referring by these activities to a host of anti-Minimal artists ranging from Richard Tuttle to Robert Ryman. On the other hand, Paul treats the vinyl transparency with a zealous estheticism through airbrushing or fine spattering. The slight ridges and surface variations which resulted from the initial crumpling are sprayed upon from constant angles. This produces an image which might be thought of as a “topographic Olitski.” The aerations tend to assume a spurt-like length somewhat akin to a short, arching stroke in a more direct method of painting. The lack of compositional focus links such pictures to Bollinger and Saret in the immediate present, not to speak of Sonnier, in terms of their estheticising colorations. Their historical affiliation with Pollock and late Monet is self-evident. Because of these issues I would be less inclined to regard David Paul as a new Abstract Illusionist and more a figure of what one is coming to call anti-Minimalist sentiment or coloristic new sensibility.

I found the tondo paintings of Elizabeth Greenleaf convincing examples of that part of Miss Rose’s argument which concerned itself with ambiguous optical illusions. The diagrams of her paintings—tipped and twisted lentil forms based on the antique figure of the triskelion—strongly suggest the spherical urge of which the tondo is merely a hypothetical circular diameter. In the degree that Miss Greenleaf’s color and surfacing fight this swelling urge, I am interested in it. But as for the Byzantine coloristic effulgence—there is none. The transparent paint is tintex-like, much like Tuttle’s, and it is applied in a serious, drab way, as if with a fine red sable watercolor brush. The artist is very careful of her edges—some of which appear to have been drawn in thin, penciled lines. All the caution, arbitrariness of color and anonymity make the whole seem terribly anxious, self-effacing and winning.

Robert Pincus-Witten