New York

Robert Natkin

André Emmerich Gallery

Robert Natkin showed a dozen new works at André Emmerich’s in January and February, all under the general title Intimate Lighting and all dating from 1972. I take the group title as simple indication of mood rather than a direct reference to the film of the same name. The paintings turn on a lyricism that is delicate but rich enough in large doses to threaten satiation. It is all very pleasing, even if the works massed together begin to produce a kind of heartburn of sensitivity as we move on to the next.

The paintings strive at once for flavorful colorism and graphic sedateness. Patches of color are applied with a large gauge mesh, but by using the mesh as an instrument of transfer rather than as a filtering screen. The honeycomb patches that result both overlap and float free on the surface, serving to vary the distribution of formal incident without — generally — congealing into motifs. Because of the mesh impression these patches of color more than simply suggest the materiality of the canvas weave; they actively allude to it, reading like intensifications of a textilelike weave in paint. There must be an implied proportional relation between the transfer grid and the metaweave of the canvas, since when the relation varies too much—as in the huge painting exhibited as Number 8 —the grids dissolve into a thin (and equivocal) atmospheric screen that has to be beefed up with heavy quasi-symbolic forms at the corners. Other pictures include similar motifs, whose glyphic evocativeness—triangles, meander patterns, rows of dots, smoothly rounded shapes, and forms like sunspots—hovers between Surrealism and Expressionism. In most of the paintings, however, these forms are sufficiently restrained in a continuous field of force to remain inflections rather than to assert themselves as independent or autonomous.

I prefer the works which develop a border around the edges and that allow for a play of tones that is radiant like heat. The more monochromatic ones seem to aim for an emotional specificity that is not at home in the generalized lyric drift of the works all together. It strikes me that the best Natkins are the paintings which are like Paul Klee’s most lyrical pictures, e. g., The Red Balloon.

Pictures like those numbered here 5, 4, and 12 not only tend to be too tonally limited, but to be even more particularly limited by the precise tone that dominates each. In Number 5 this is a verdant green; in 4, a blue green; and in 12 (which is also too clustered toward the center), blue. I am surprised at how much this matters, but nevertheless the fact is the warmer the tonality the better the Natkin. This may owe to the problem of lyricism and specific emotional expression that is posed by the relevant works of Klee. It is as if heat, radiance, and the sun itself, comprised an opening to lyrical beauty for the Expressionist personality.

Formally, Natkin’s paintings can be related to Expressionism of the 1950s, but one more European than American. For instance, the textile grid, the often burnished tonality, the irregular bit rounded spots, and even the occasional stitchlike brushstrokes, might all be compared with works by Burri, although Natkin’s reticence avoids the rhetoric of the Italian. The floating, evocative, ornamental, abstract motifs can, of course, be related to Bissier if not to Miró. Natkin has painted some beautiful paintings. And his works, for some reason more than others in a similar mode, set me thinking about the question of whether, or how, Expressionism can be limited to the transmission of mainly pleasant emotions.

––Joseph Masheck