New York

Paul Wiesenfeld

Robert Schoelkopf Gallery

The problem with representational art is not its unreality, nor its exploitation of what Greenberg calls “sculptural illusion.” One kind of illusion is as real as another, and illusion is as real as any other allegedly real entity. A still-life painting is not less real than Carl Andre’s fire bricks. Illusion is a possibility, and in a certain sense, a necessity. Illusion is a necessity in the sense of the peculiar meaning that must attach to a notion of eliminating illusion: What would be eliminated, and what sort of thing would remain? As illusion exists as the product of the mental construction put on perception, it is not something that can be gotten rid of, it can only be made irrelevant. The problem with representational art is the same as the problem with art described as nonrepresentational or abstract: Both have reached exhaustion as they are currently formulated. The problem is severe repetition. Instead of presenting new experience, representational art presents variations in subjects depicted and variations in the style of depiction. Generally; the variation within representational art or within the paintings of a given artist’s work are pretty trivial. Experiences of apples, cars, and naked women are strikingly different in kind, but paintings of those subjects do not provide experiences similarly different in kind. What binds most representational art and nonrepresentational art (and is inherently the problem of both), is the restriction of experience to the purely visual. There is a general absence of thought, not necessarily in the making of the art, but in the experiencing of it. However, these generalizations are not intended as being without exception, and I have no intention of making the work to be discussed conform to my general objections to representational art.

The nine paintings in Paul Wiesenfeld’s show at Schoelkopf represent his last five years of work, with the implication either that he didn’t do much in those years, or what he did took a long time. The latter appears to be the case. Normally, time spent on a work is not a relevant factor, but this is not necessarily true with respect to Wiesenfeld’s paintings. The nine paintings fall into three groups of three paintings each. The paintings within each group are of the same subjects or situations, with only subtle, seemingly insignificant alterations. In another sense, the very insignificance of the differences between the paintings within a group, seems to be their interest. All the paintings are painted like Old Masters’ in a highly glazed finish, with brushstrokes not easily distinguishable, as if pre-Manet.

The earliest group of paintings, Secrets I, Secrets II, and Still Life, look almost like academic paintings of 100 years ago, with a pervasive soft, yellowish light, and ornate patterns on nearly all the furnishings. However, Wiesenfeld’s mentality is not that of a 19th-century academician, and this factor alone identifies his paintings as of the mid-20th century. The 19th-century painter might have done an oil sketch comparable to one of these paintings, but only as preparation for a more elaborate, more exotic, more sentiment-laden finished product—never as a highly finished work itself. Oddly enough, in addition to this basic factor, Secrets II is more sharply differentiated from 19th-century painting by the nude in the painting. Somehow, the room and the furnishings in the painting looking 19th century, and the nude looking 20th century, seems just the reverse of what we should expect. There’s no reason to suspect that women’s bodies have changed significantly in the last 100 years, but the nude itself identifies Secrets II as a recent painting. There is no suspicion that Wiesenfeld’s nude is a prostitute, the mistress of someone famous, or specially endowed; she doesn’t even appear to be a model. But, more like a Hopper nude, she is depicted as a naked woman lying on a couch, reading a magazine. The body is just the body of that person. Secrets I is an almost identical painting, but the nude is gone from the couch and replaced by two books. The other main difference between the paintings is that Secrets II is lit by sunlight, and in Secrets I, it is night; the light is from a lamp on the table in the foreground. Still Life is a painting of almost the same situation, but the picture plane is closer to the subjects, and the table, with ornate cloth, lamp, and other incidental objects, dominates the painting.

The paintings in the other groups become progressively more austere in the furnishings and the kind of light depicted. The group of paintings done in 1971–72 have an internal relation similar to that of the earlier group. Within this later group, the same room and furnishings are painted with nude and without, with other differences as subtle as a pack of cigarettes on the floor of one painting but not the other. The third painting of the group is a seated nude in the same setting, reading by lamp light. Like the third painting of the earlier group, the subjects are closer to the picture plane, as if the artist had zoomed in. The most recent group of paintings are of more modern, Art Deco looking furnishings, arranged symmetrically within the painting, and entirely frontal. The colors are solid and brighter, and the light is harsh. The variation from painting to painting is as subtle as in the earlier works. One painting is easily mistaken for another.

As the paintings were hung in two rooms at opposite ends of the hallway, and the groups seemed intentionally dispersed between the two rooms, trying to distinguish these pairings of paintings beyond nude or no nude was just about impossible, and a severe strain on legs and memory. Wiesenfeld’s variations are so insignificant and trivial that they seem to become significant and puzzling. One wonders how long it must have taken to make such minute variations on already accomplished paintings. There is something Proustian in the demands made on memory, and even in the look of these paintings.

Bruce Boice