New York

Ernest Briggs

Alonzo Gallery

The new paintings of Ernest Briggs afford striking insights into the dilemma of an artist who must have had to suddenly own up to the apparent bankruptcy of Abstract Expressionism at the moment that he might reasonably have thought that he was going to be sustained by the style. In a certain light he has, but then only after the artist has come full circle and only after much painful indecisiveness.

In the early 1960s Briggs was seen as an interesting figure in the train of Clyfford Still. But by that time the kind of matte surface and ungiving palette-knife painting on which Briggs was dependent had already been absorbed into modernist pictorial idiom. It required only the advent of Pop art to show up such a method for the empty stylistic flourish and manner it had become—except, perhaps, for Clyfford Still himself. Briggs’ painting from 1964 to 1968 suggests that he, like so many others, was trying to force an essentially Expressionist sensibility to conform to the highly classicizing precepts of Pop art. His painting of the time, unsuccessful in the main, picked up on the discontinuities and neutralist nature of much that was topical in that day—Rosenquist, late, broom-swept Johns and even the Matisse-like patterns of Tom Wesselmann. Fortunately, by 1968 the constraints of so antipathetic a vision were seen for what they were—and these too were abandoned. If I understand the present exhibition at all, I take it that it is about a return to Abstract Expressionist roots—although in a fragmented, allusory way rather than a direct one embedded in a single novel pictorial mechanic.

In the main, Briggs attempts to fix an imagery connected with primitive and ritualized sources, an imagery sustained by the use of a rudimentary tool, the finger rather than the brush. The imagery tends to illustrate the primitive rather than to reinvent it—such as when Briggs directly quotes Paleolithic cave paintings of bison or reindeer. The ubiquitous image is one of lovers locked in amorous and erotic positions. Rendered minutely and gesturally, they read as disarming orientalizing calligraphy rather than as anything sexually evocative. Too much, of course, derives from Pollock, from the splashed and automatic calligraphy to the Jungian imagery of pictures with titles like Quest or Mothers.

This inward-turning and re-examination of an heroic past may be an antidote to the false grails of the art of the mid-1960s. If this is so then Ernest Briggs may have become an interesting painter because his problem is interesting. But the most questionable aspect of such solutions relates to the interruption of the pictures by concentric rings, circles, rectangles and the like. These have little connection with the evocativeness of the new paintings. They refer instead to hangovers from a still unassimilated Cubist, Abstract or Minimalist vernacular, pictorial fragments that are far too classicizing to be successfully integrated into Briggs’ declamatory primitive style.

Robert Pincus-Witten