New York

Allan D’Archangelo

Marlborough | Midtown

Allan D’Archangelo’s recent Constellation paintings, at the Marlborough Gallery, consist of striped, beamlike forms which are the abstract residue of the traffic barricades and dashed highway dividing lines of his Pop American road landscapes of the 1960s. These forms (which also relate to works by other Pop artists, such as Wayne Thiebaud’s Candy Cane, 1965) are compounded in space-generative clusters which are in turn flattened out patternistically.

The road pictures carried a heavy load of American—not just Pop—romance. From Whitman to Frost to Kerouac, and beyond to Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and their progeny, the American road had represented choice, escape, opportunity, a way to somewhere else. What was particularly Pop in D’Archangelo’s treatments of the motif was, much more than their composition or use of real chainlink fencing, the fresh irony of the interstate highway seen as a tedious and unending channel. No longer the image of free access or mobility, the road trapped a rider on the way to nowhere. Unfortunately, D’Archangelo’s highway series got as monotonous as its theme.

By selecting just the traffic barrier motif from these landscapes D’Archangelo attempts to modulate into abstraction. The desire to drain a Pop motif of narrative content has a certain interest, but the better Pop artists managed to remain aware of abstract qualities while turning out legible pictures. The upshot is that these new works are as thin and compromised as abstractions as the Pop roads were as realistic works.

The Constellation paintings are uneven in quality. They do not hang together as a series because some look like irresolute modelli which were tried and should have been cast aside, while others do seem self-sufficiently final. Interestingly, in at least one, case a pattern was arrived at which did seem “final” enough to be repeated exactly (by stenciling?) in another work, with only the colors changed (Nos. 109 and 111). Just as some of the compositions look tentative, the painterly technique seems arbitrarily experimental. In some cases we have a fashionable bleed into the “white” stripes and the unpainted ground, while in others there is a dense, dusty spraying-on of pigment. Not that there is anything necessarily wrong in having it both ways, but neither really comes off definitively: most of the bleeding looks arty (something like Francis Bacon’s applied smearing) and the spraying is so uneven as to look sloppy and out of control.

The basic compositional types are (a) centralized arrays of crossed “beams” reminiscent of baroque trophies, (b) the same beams dynamically jumbled, and (c) beam groupings combined with a whole or incomplete flat ring. A variation is to have one of the beams bend in an angle. If you are willing to stretch a point you can find all the basic elements—beams, stripes, angles, circles, even the uneven paint-spray effect, together with the trophylike composition—in works by Fernand Léger dating from the 1940s.

D’Archangelo was the author of the first (1967) of our New York outdoor abstract murals, a painting (done gratis) on the tenement house at 340 East 9th Street, on the lower East Side. It was this work that got the ball rolling for “City Walls, Inc.” He also designed the mural (1970) on the exposed flank of a grotty apartment building at 218 West 64th Street, for the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Administration of the City of New York. The idea of applying these tremendous nonobjective ornaments to the outside walls of ugly buildings, both as masks and as visual decoys, has already come in for criticism. In my view these paintings, which D’Archangelo initiated well-meaningly enough in the year of the flower children and banana-smoking, make us more conscious than ever of the filthy, decaying city from which they try so anxiously to distract us. And our discontent increases when we note that the whole enterprise supplies one of those neat but frightful parallels between New York now and Berlin in the 1920s: it was in Weimar Germany that slums were first painted in bright colors to try to cheer them up.

The painter’s indoor mural for the lobby of the “Bulfinch” Building in Boston’s new Government Center, carries no such catastrophic portent. This work, commissioned in 1970, runs parallel with D’Archangelo’s sharp-edged Constellations of last year, which are otherwise like the ones shown here. Added to the clusters of striped, chromosomelike beams are some emphatic diagonal forms which taper dramatically (not unlike plunging beacon rays in some W.P.A. mural). The way the forms float and hover near the surface of the wall may also suggest Léger’s murals, but the Boston mural seems conscious of the history of mural painting a lot further back as well. It is possible, for example, to read the wide central span vs. the smaller side panels as a piece of quadratura—quasi-architectural illusionism—vs. quadri riportati—decorations in imitation of easel paintings. (The central quadratura area itself uses crashing, monstrified, Rosenquistian beams in stenographically spatial disarray.) Even the fact that there is some formal carryover across the corner, from one wall to the other, can be a historicizing piece of mural composition if we remember the narrative corner-crossing of the frieze in the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii.

But even ancient historical precedent does not guarantee worth, and D’Archangelo’s work, while it proceeds with intelligence (especially in the fusion of the “stripes” of discrete “beams” on the plane in the “easel” paintings) does not seem like it has yet settled on its own presuppositions.

Joseph Masheck