New York

Esteban Vicente

Emmerich Gallery

It grows steadily more apparent that the first generation of Abstract Expressionist painters worked within fairly identifiable imagistic sectors: insect abstraction, calligraphic figuration and gestural painting, free grid formation, quintessential landscape (“earth-horizon-sky”), field painting, automatic meander and still several other “iconic” subdivisions. Certain artists could easily appear in several areas. Nearly all first generation Abstract Expressionists went through a period of insect abstraction in the 1940s. And Rothko, for example, may easily be viewed as a field painter or one who works in the “quintessential landscape” format. This, of course, says nothing about quality. Nor can I, in the limits of this review, attack the problem of why these iconic sets appeared. That is a subject for a broad study into the iconography of Abstract Expressionism which, until now, has only received fragmentary examination—say, for example, Jungian themes in early Pollock.

Still another kind of Abstract Expressionist set contained elements combining a collage-like grid formation and the sheer unctuous materiality of Hans Hofmann’s succulent rectangles. Oddly, this last group tends to be represented by the weakest of the early Abstract Expressionist group—Giorgio Cavallon, Ludwig Sander, Philip Guston and Esteban Vicente, to name but a few. I think the febrility of their performance is in part determined by the received aspects of the iconic set as well as the ingratiating surfaces at the outset aimed at by the group—pleasurable color and pleasurable impasto. In this respect it is perhaps, above all other Abstract Expressionist types, the most immediately accessible, the most popular, the most French. What happens to this kind of painting, a generation later, is painfully revealed in the current exhibition of Esteban Vicente’s work.

The works unduly suffer because they are, unlike “ideal” Abstract Expressionist canvases, small—less than an arm’s breadth in either direction. The scale tends to exaggerate Vicente’s preciousness of surface and placement—themselves more than suspect for their finely aerated spatterings, graceful brushings, and fibrous ragged-edged rice-paper rectangles. At this time I can only view Vicente as a decorator aspiring to the more vital (but perhaps equally decorative) flushes of Frankenthaler’s wet fields, as well as those of Olitski. The tangible real paper passages of Vicente’s collages work against him too; there is something quite repellent (to me, at least) in the insatiable absorbency of rice paper.

Still there is a struggle of some kind in Vicente. He appears to be turning to a more automatic and odd imagery. Instead of the simple grid formulations on which his reputation rests he now seems to be invoking the ghost of American nature mysticism of the kind that may be seen, say, in later Arthur B. Dove or in early Baziotes (e.g., The Dwarf of 1947). But both these artists present such thematic intuitions and urgings in considerably more pugnacious and straightforward ways.

Robert Pincus-Witten