New York

Joan Snyder, Michael Venezia, Howard Buchwald and Alan Sondheim

Bykert Gallery

In the Bykert group, Joan Snyder’s paintings are so sensuous and assertive that they simply seduce one away from the other paintings in the show. She seems to be getting at anti-formal uses of color and impasto without resorting to the momentum of strokes. Patches of pigment are simply placed on the surface where they soak in or drip until the whole canvas gets the look of having been rained on. One of the nice things about Snyder’s paintings is that one can’t tell how much control she is exercising over what happens in them. In the larger of the two, she has incorporated a drawn band of rectangles and parallelograms which wends across the surface behind the rest of the paint, giving just enough sense of internal structure to prevent the painting from seeming to enjoy itself too much. Only two paintings were included in this show, so it’s hard to tell, but I have a feeling that one might come away from a full show of her works with the sense that they are performances of paintings, despite their apparent immediacy.

Michael Venezia is the first artist I know of to incorporate the effects of light sculpture into painting without using actual light sources as has Ben Berns, for instance. Venezia’s paintings seem to be in negative; they both have daubs of silver gray pigment placed at even intervals along the vertical edges of the canvas. The pigment seems partly to have soaked and partly to have been brushed in toward the center of the surface to generate the impression of horizontal bands of light dividing the canvas. It is the canvas itself that seems to provide the source of light. These are the first paintings I’ve seen that consist entirely of modeling. One has the sense that the canvas has shaped itself into an undulating form by giving off light; the minimum of means with which this effect has been achieved is probably the most pleasing thing about the paintings.

Howard Buchwald’s paintings really can’t stand up to Joan Snyder’s—although they are not exactly in competition with them in what they are about. Still, opposite hers they look so finicky and worked over that I’m not very sure of my response to them. Basically they consist of square surfaces taken up with a jungle of nervous lines drawn in bright colors; the surfaces are rimmed all around with little notched shapes, like dentils over which the canvas appears actually to be stretched, notches and all. The notched edges are in flat muted tones of colors used in the inner tangles. For all the agitation in them the paintings remain tight and remote, and that business of notching the edges looks laughably trivial next to the sweep of Snyder’s paintings. But again, Snyder’s paintings are so seductive; it looks like Buchwald too will have to be seen by himself if he is to show any substance.

Alan Sondheim is one of the most problematic artists I’ve come across in a while. His work is something like conceptual art, but you realize that he’s done his homework when you find it necessary to do some yourself to get some idea of what he’s about.

Sondheim’s pieces have to do with the possibility of “mapping” systems of information (again, what’s that?) on unorganized ground, such as a page or a floor or a landscape, and with “encoding” already existing structures, such as the buildings on a city block. Sondheim has written a long pamphlet explaining the theory and applications of these techniques, and the hitch in his work seems to come from the fact that it is necessary to read and understand the theory in order even to approach the things he makes. After reading the background material one understands that the arrays of plastic links spread out and hanging in the gallery have a code function; they define, say, a unique piece of sculpture in a demonstrable way, but their existence itself is something that seems almost unaccounted for. They are like exercises to prove that certain things can be done and conceived without being communicated by experience. The fault I have to find in Sondheim’s art is one that he seems to be aware of, though it’s not stopping him. All the jargon of set theory and topology with which his work is, encumbered only takes one further from a sense of the relation of these categories, of the whole conceptual dimension to experience. Just what sort of existence does an encoded system have? How is that question to be answered by an experience? Sondheim doesn’t seem to be any closer to the answers than I do, though he exhibits considerable confidence. And perhaps he’s justified; maybe the questions are already dead and the character of his work is the proof of it.

Kenneth Baker