New York

“Beautiful Painting”

The Jewish Museum

The first pictures encountered in the “Beautiful Painting” galleries are those of Harvey Quaytman. His assembled paintings call to mind some of the more geometrical/sculptural works familiar to the Park Place idiom of a few years back (Novros, Ruda, Myers, et al.), to which they most likely refer in concept. Quaytman uses bilateral symmetry in one of the major pieces, M. Thonnet’s Tonic, playing off the curving contours of two blackened canvas panels which fan outward from the uppermost points of an axis or fulcrum formed by two right-angled brackets (of painted fiberglass, coating wood or canvas). The interior space—the wall which shows through between the panels and the linear elements—is utilized as a positive feature in the complete design. Thus the “negative” spaces become positive shapes which both restrain and push out at each other. Though symmetrical to a point which is not maintained in the other pieces, the visual effect of such spatial “weighting” between the various units makes M. Thonnet’s Tonic look oddly unbalanced. Other paintings (Blue Butter 2, 1968–9 or Pencil Prayer Rug, 1970) explore the imprecision and tension of asymmetry with tipped, bow-like curves contrasted to tensile, linear components.

Quaytman favors surfaces which are as unfelicitous as are his choices of color. Glittery graphite is smeared across one panel while a dulled carmine is encrusted on the units which uphold it; or a chlorine turquoise is used on the linear sections in combination with a matte blackish-purple on the broader areas of canvas. In considering this work, one is constantly forced to recognize that Quaytman is grappling with his own eccentricities, that he is not giving in to indifferent or easy solutions which would compromise the tenor of his efforts and make the art into something more pleasing, if less bizarre.

With Anthony Sorce’s poured and compacted polyurethane monoliths, one also sees the sculptor bringing an immensely difficult medium (a foamy, liquid plastic) under the control of a sensibility which manages to stop just short of the vulgar. His chipped, wrinkled, and pockmarked “Totems” (reaching over nine feet in height at times) are concretions of varied surfaces and colors. Flecked aqua blues in dry chunks are packed against glistening marbleized slides of brown, tan, and other earthy hues. Some of the totems do get fairly gaudy or sticky, and they look like huge candy-poles out of some Disney animation. This coloristic and textural diversity can often work to defy the unitary masses of the single forms, and it makes them seem more comic than the seriousness of their shaping would suggest or intend.

The section devoted to Jake Berthot’s work traces the painter’s recent development in a succinct, though more retrospective fashion than most of the others in the group. A big early painting and a number of drawings are hung alongside of four small, square, rather intimate canvases and next to a more contemplative series of three large rectangular ones. Nympha Red, this earlier picture (also exhibited this season in the Whitney Annual), is a more definitely constructed work, with its two rectangular units whose painted “frames” project beyond the inner divisions; it is covered with an opaque corrosive rusty-brown color which closes off the interior space and concentrates attention on the exterior shaping and on material and surface variations. It is a rather crusty, unpoetic work with very little air and a grittiness which looks to the streets rather than to the sky. The architectural type of framework is then moved inside the actual contours of the newer canvases. This suggests a kind of box in which the central space is opened up rather than contained, since it is painted more loosely in lush, though still chastened ranges of brownish purple, lavender, green, and smoky blue. The defined limitations are themselves liquefied by the drips and intrusions from the more cloudy interiors. The foggy centers and their borders are experienced as veiled or unevenly layered, while inward points of fixation may shift as in a dream, so that the framework is not just an inert box for the mind to wander through—the difference between formless daydream and the markers of memory. I am reminded here of a simple phrase from Gaston Bachelard’s book, The Poetics of Space, in which the author. comments on the attractions of such particularized areas: “inhabited space transcends geometric space.” There is also the clear distinction between the unitary facade-like images of Rothko, and something here which focuses on more sporadic points within a perceived space. The small number of drawings exhibits a more taut, even compulsive aspect of draftsmanship and gesturing, with curtained films suddenly slashed by firm diagonals revealing areas of either greater light and clarity, or dense scribbles and scratchy masses. Although Berthot’s paintings are still not conclusive in many ways, there is also nothing facile about them.

Less challenging and engaging to my eye was the work of a young Indian working in New York, Natvar Bhaysar. He sprinkles vast stretches of canvas with dry pigments and delicate stains, sometimes phasing the constellations of aerated blues, oranges, reds and purples with thin scored lines, which seem to have no formal purpose or consequence in relation to the entire pictorial space. There is no special emphasis on surface in and of itself (as is often the case with Olitski, Pettet, or others who have worked previously within this mode of diffuse or sprayed color), nor on the depth within the fields of amorphous chromatic phenomena. There are no real demarcated endings and no set beginnings—so that these drifts of lovely, though somewhat prosaic color, seem absolutely gratuitous to me. It appears that the artist is working under the fallacious and very current premise that immensity of scale and horizontal extension automatically assure some degree of formal significance. When real content is lacking (conceptual, sensual, decorative), even dimension cannot rescue the paintings from a shallowness that is not the pregnant emptiness of the “void,” but rather the vapidity of accomplished technique functioning in the absence of a really profound personal impulse or distinctive esthetic. These paintings bring a lot of questions about context to my mind. I recognize that they want to be seen as utterly open, and to that end their continuous expanses cover the long walls of a very large room, almost from end to end and corner to corner—but somehow they do not manage to fill up or span that room simply by the fact of their dimensional extensiveness. I think that there is a confusion between the emotional or conceptual commitment to something infinite and the means of current Western painting by which the works must ultimately be judged.

Emily Wasserman