New York

Frank Roth

Martha Jackson Gallery

A group of recent paintings by Frank Roth is on view at the Martha Jackson Gallery until October 16th. They seem rather deliberately unlovely, as though the painter were carefully testing some notion of Ehrenzweig’s about art as the defeat of esthetic expectation. The works consist of a dark, inky field with patches of color interrupting this ground and distributed fairly closely across the picture surface, bleeding off the edges. The actual patches which do this interrupting seem at first like brushstrokes, but brushstrokes copied or imitated, as though the neural immediacy of the single stroke were itself locked in imitation. But they are not strokes; they are patches of color made by using torn bits of masking tape to cover the ground in spots while the final ground color is applied, the tape snippets then being pulled off. Where the paint seeps under the edge of the pieces of tape, that is accepted and even emphasized by the dutiful painting-in of these irregular outlines as little forms in their own right. As a result, the effect is pleasing in a rather intellectual way, for what seems most accidental is in fact most “painted,” and there is not too much else to be charmed by.

Not that the whole thing is in any way unpleasant. But there is a strong feeling of psychological, rather than formal compositional, calculation. When other forms—narrow bands, sometimes curved, sometimes angular—appear within the patch-covered canvas they generally do so with a feeling of reserved intrusion: they intrude enough to upset the patternistic confidence of the thing, but not so much that they might become patterns in themselves. It would be unfair to characterize the result as both experimental and academic. For one thing, we are only interested in “experiments” that succeed. But there does seem to be that desire to avoid—to avoid design—and to disallow—to disallow beautiful color—plus some real curiosity as to whether beauty of any other kind can arise under such circumstances. This is not toe-tapping painting.

Joseph Masheck