New York

Don Lewallen; Kes Zapkus; Robert Zakanych

O.K. Harris Gallery; Paula Cooper Gallery; Reese Palley Gallery

The historian of contemporary art must at this moment be intrigued by, if not committed to, the analysis of an evolution which is difficult to chart but which nonetheless contains numerous clues. I refer, of course, to the problem of how Minimalism became post-Minimalism. The contrast between these positions has been so often enumerated in my writing that in the context of a New York rubric these many distinctions are expendable except perhaps the one which contrasts a classicist objectified art and an expressionist atomized one.

However, by curious coincidence, several painters of distinction—granting the possibility that painting itself is still a viable act (and there are serious arguments against this kind of action at the present moment)—are currently exhibiting. What allies them is not only the external “skin” or appearance of their work, but their relationship to a structure central to the ontology of Minimalism, the grid.

For the Minimalist the grid functioned as an essential structural premise because it opened up the possibility of structuring or organizing his work in nonpreferential, non-hierarchic organizations. The grid, therefore, as a contingency of the module, has a role as important to the history of art as Jackson Pollock’s “allover” (to which it is very closely allied) and late Surrealist disjunctiveness—means, like the module, which permit composition without the expression of taste-based preferences.

In the very last years of the ’60s, color field painting underwent an evolution toward thickness and clearly resisted an earlier diaphanous expression which attempted to force color to function as light. Oddly, the relationship of this kind of painting to the grid and the module has not been examined, although I suggested the possibility that a relationship existed between them “because minimalist-serial structure permitted a random placement within the grid or the module [or] the serial structure permitted a rudimentary ordering upon which or into which the highly optical and charged amorphousness of the newer field painting could be hung or tossed.” (Robert Pincus-Witten, “Against Order: Poetical Sources of Chance Art,” Against Order, Institute of Contemporary Art, November/December, 1970, n.p.) In this connection the work of Don Lewallen is most easily understood. Working with the high-key color one associates with West Coast art or with mosaics, Lewallen, ever since his arrival in New York, has been fattening his palette. The present works of brilliantly colored squares are given an additional optical charge by virtue of the metallic powders and pearlessence which has been added to the acrylic paint. In a reflective, light-glancing way, Lewallen has been able to underplay the virtual structure which the grid gives his painting. (This use of optical shimmer as a means of devaluating the grid has been observed recently in the modular paintings of Mario Yrisarry as well.) The later works in Lewallen’s exhibition—and the exhibition clearly covers a period of great change—tend to be darker and thicker in their execution. The decorative, metallic note is replaced by a somber key and in these more purposeful works Lewallen has been at pains to partially disguise the grid structure through the use of brushy over-painting. Perhaps the literal clipping away at the module in Robert Rohm’s knotted rope grids may be a partial model for the chastisement of the module in the latest phase of Lewallen’s painting.

Similarly, Kes Zapkus is attempting to render the structure of his highly serialized canvases less apparent. For several years Zapkus has worked convincingly within a grid dispersal. Now, the initial grid and field is established by a squeegee impression pressed through silk-screen which he then paints over in a constant diagonal stitchlike stroke. Fearful of losing the impression of grid, he will, in the process of stroking, re-squeegee the initial image, establishing therefore a constant shuttle between stroke and screen. The results of this process are immensely beautiful, although they may perhaps be likened to Milton Resnick’s vision of late Monet unraveling by which means Resnick was able to secure a reputation in the early ’50s. Oddly, in the case of Zapkus and the more recent Lewallens, one has the feeling that the function of the act of painting is to deny the existence of the grid, although the grid itself was first produced to inaugurate the very process of denial.

In this connection Robert Zakanych’s work must be drawn into the issue. Cued by the last years of Reinhardt’s work, Zakanych’s painting is the one most respectful of the grid, the existence of which tends to be rendered ambiguous by the close values of the colors selected to be placed in each of the rectangles. Owing to the extreme discretion of color choice, the general effect is less of grid and more of undulating, luminous flow. Of the three painters, Zakanych’s attitude strikes me as possessing the most anticipatable evolution. Unless traumatized by some central event which would break the logistics of his painting, he is destined either for monochromism or for an art of pure physical light.

Robert Pincus-Witten