New York

Mario Yrissary and Gary Bowers

O.K. Harris Gallery

Two successive exhibitions at the O.K. Harris Gallery, one by Mario Yrissary and the other by Gary Bowers, point to the perplexities of ambitious painting which is still deeply attached to Minimalist precepts. Both artists, of highly differing sensibilities, evidence a central dilemma—the need to render coeval a loyalty to classicistic motifs with a more current taste for colorism and pictoriality, a conjunction which threatens to be counterproductive, at least insofar as Gary Bowers is concerned.

Yrisarry’s solution takes the form of literalist, golden-age Minimalism, a modular painting of striking evocativeness. Yrisarry’s sharp structures appear to refuse—on one level at least—to admit of the death of the module and of an art built upon clear unitary multiples, such as grid-or serial structures. Above all else these elements are the groundwork of Yrisarry’s painting. But his extremely understated use of such elements (and, in this sense, his affiliations with Agnes Martin cannot be ignored) acknowledges the general drift of things with the coolest tacitness imaginable. The module may be dead and yet he still is able to imbue it with a nervousness, a tautness and a tense surfacing which in fact is the means by which the passing is discreetly acknowledged. A sheerly tightened opticality may be seeking precedence over mere considerations of groundwork.

Several means are employed by Yrisarry to achieve this kind of nervous shimmer. Mostly these involve the use of masking tape. Generally speaking the artist tapes thin lines across the surface of the canvas and sprays in the acrylic color. The resulting paths may be additionally punctuated by either negative or positive squares at the crisscrossing of the grid. In the latest paintings the lines of the grids have themselves been painted—“stitched,” so to speak—in a fine sloping hand in thin color so that from a short distance the “weave” becomes nearly imperceptible. One is tempted to imagine that Yrisarry is trying to make the obdurate system of his method yield to the diffuse high color of present field considerations. But this induction is not easily facilitated by the inflexible postulates of Minimalism and they are introduced only over the greatest resistance. The sense of these paintings may be that they are conflicted statements, hard pressed to know which way to turn—but, for all that, still very beautiful.

Gary Bowers attempts to handle similar problems, but in his work the painterly urge is so strong as to almost obliterate the module on which the canvas was premised in the first place. Bowers’ module is much larger, bolder and more peculiar than Yrisarry’s. His field is established through divided lozenges, which is to say, through a run of equilateral triangles like a vast truss work. His distress with the system is much more plainly in evidence than it is in Yrisarry’s work. One gains the impression that in Bowers’ case the module has really been a burden all along. He is a sloppy, impetuous painter. Nowhere is such painterliness more. disturbing than when it is applied to the creation of an image which, from the very first, demands neatness and precision, namely the grid, whatever its formulation. The casually indicated grids in Bowers’ work lead me to conclude that all along it had been the “handle” by which the artist had been able to “grab onto” painting in the first place. I also admit to believing that Bowers is an artist self-defeatingly preoccupied with worry over the achievements of his colleagues. Perhaps he is unaware of the quilt-like compositions of Al Jensen who may be too much a part of art history and therefore out of the picture for Bowers. But one cannot help but see in the scrubbed, dripped and swabbed washes of Bowers’ paintings the reflection of the Houston Street loft scene at the present moment.

The most winning works of the exhibition are the watercolor studies. Shown in an antechamber, their modest scale and material attractiveness, their clotted pools and deft over-washes, concentrate Bowers’ painterliness in a way altogether different from the bombast of his canvases. I expect, however, that Bowers considers the modest scale of these works on paper as something which is in itself somehow stigmatized. Obviously, this is not so—although the feeling is widely experienced. Bowers’ big pictures betray his talent needlessly by devaluating his talent from its authentic modestness to sheer vacuousness.

Robert Pincus-Witten