New York

Jack Youngerman

Pace Gallery

Shaping has been the central issue of Jack Youngerman’s painting for most of his career. But it is only in this year’s Pace Gallery exhibition that he has made this concern manifest in a literal way. The works look like giant cutouts shaped by monstrous scissors. Of the eight large, highly-stylized shaped canvases comprising the show, three are bipartite and only one is symmetrical. The shapes are, as always, organic in nature—abstractions on a theme of flowers or leaves. Half of the works are hot—sunshine with lemon yellow or two close-hued golden oranges—while the other half use contrasts of cool saturated blues with warm yellow, orange, or pink. The deep blue surface of Passage II for instance, is cut by two parallel meandering swaths of fuschia pink at lower right; in Yellow Flare two flames of butter yellow enclosing areas of sharp citrus yellow surge laterally above and below a section of wall space from a point on the right. Though there are occasional veiled modulations within their brushed acrylic surfaces, the overall effect is of matte opacity.

Surface, however, is not Youngerman’s forte; shaping is. The three-dimensionality of his new shapes was underscored in every aspect of their elegant presentation: the lighting was adjusted to cast a maximum number of shadows; the exquisite craftsmanship of their construction established new heights of perfection for shaped canvas; and the colored surfaces were continued completely around their 3“ deep sides. Emphasizing the ”objectness" of the shaped canvas by silhouetting it against the wall in this way, does not, as is sometimes mistakenly assumed, eliminate figure-ground relationships. Instead it externalizes them by substituting wall space for negative canvas space. This has had two unfortunate effects. The spatial ambiguity which informed his best asymmetrical paintings of 1969–1971 was forsaken in favor of a much more simple kind of clarity; the sense of precisely calibrated placement which seemed so crucially important to the relationship of the earlier shapes and their context has been abandoned for a situation in which the artist supplies the figure and the purchaser supplies the ground. The result is emotionally and intellectually deflating.

The seductive physical beauty of Youngerman’s new work is beyond question. The issue it raises is the ability of an isolated organic shape to operate on an architectural surface with sufficient presence to surmount the merely decorative. In this context it is essential to relate the work to its precursor—the shaped canvases of Frank Stella. Rectilinear edges and planes are the central structural elements in all of Stella’s paintings and horizontal or vertical axes were, until recently, always present and stressed. The result was that, through a kind of Cubist rhyming, Stella’s paintings worked with and against the architecture of their supporting wall. Youngerman’s shaped canvases, due to the total absence of rectilinear elements, detach themselves completely from the wall and function as unrelated, embellishing objects. Which is to say that a Stella relates to the wall the way a chessboard in a Juan Gris relates to the painting edge whereas the new Youngerman seems like an “Arpshape” from a wooden relief with the placement and the size of the format left to chance, or the whim of the collector.

The extent to which a shaped canvas departs from making any architectural references forces a sculptural rather than a pictorial reading. In fact, the direct precursors for the new paintings were Youngerman’s small models for symmetrical sculpture of 1970 which have the same chunky relieflike quality. The show establishes that, for painting, shape is never interesting enough in and of itself. This may be the reason why he felt it necessary to split some of the paintings into two parts, but this, again, only served to underline their sculptural implications.

Youngerman has shown clear evidence of a deep involvement with the work of Matisse throughout his career. He has consistently aligned his imagery with the late collages in particular. Eschewing Matisse’s abundance of formal and coloristic elements, Youngerman concentrates on a few crucial aspects at a time. This puts an enormous burden on his areas of juxtaposed color, a burden which they usually carry with great ease. Although sensuously hedonistic as always, he has not forced the color to do much work in the new paintings, limiting himself to simple contrasts of temperature and tone, probably because of the preoccupation with silhouette. Matisse felt it essential to keep his pictorial and sculptural concerns clearly separate. This is precisely the area of confusion in Youngerman’s new work.

April Kingsley