New York

Alan Cote, John Walker, David Diao, Robert Zakanych, and Lynton Wells

Cunningham Ward Gallery

Of the five painters exhibited in Cunningham-Ward’s show of gallery artists, Alan Cote and John Walker seem the most venturesome. Cote and Walker are at least prepared to entertain the idea that painting might have to see itself as more than an affair of internal relationships if it is to retain its viability as a context of communicability, as an activity within which more goes on than the manipulation of those inherited notions of good taste that the best art of recent years has seriously undermined.

Walker’s Untitled, 1973 is the largest painting in the show, and in many respects the hardest to like. Predominantly black, it’s painted with thick acrylic paint that is in some places laid on with considerable gestural emphasis, and in others subjected to what looks like the imposition of a wire mesh that has been pressed on, and then withdrawn. Around the bottom left corner of the canvas, color begins to occur in the form of a cluster of irregularly shaped pieces of canvas, each of which has been stained and then stuck on to the surface of the painting. As one gets closer to the corner itself, these pieces of canvas overlap more than they do toward the outside of the cluster, i.e., further into the painting. This stained color is subdued, which allows the applied pieces of canvas to coexist with the thick paint instead of jumping off the surface. Similarly, the irregularity of each of the applied pieces seems to have some correspondence to the varied materiality of the thick paint of the main part of the painting, and this too relates the stained and applied pieces to the work as a whole.

My difficulty with Untitled, 1973 is the result of something which might in another artist—Stella, for example—actually be the work’s main strength. Philip Leider wrote an essay on Stella (Artforum, May, 1970) that talked about Stella’s ambivalence toward abstraction on the one hand, and literalism on the other; Carter Ratcliff referred to the same dialectic—which he termed the “optical/ literal” continuum—in the work of Jo Baer (Artforum, March, 1972). With possibly less erudition than theirs, I have suggested that a comparable—optical/ material—opposition sets the terms for experiencing the achievement of Olitski and the recent paintings of Clinton Hill. Walker, by sticking stained pieces of canvas onto a thickly painted surface, sandwiches that surface between canvas on top and buried canvas, the canvas beneath the thick paint. In this Walker accounts for the picture as an object, but so indirectly as to concentrate attention on that aspect of the work which might be termed “compositional.” Ultimately, then, Walker is concerned to subvert the “literal” into the service of the “abstract,” and that is what seems problematic about his work. The placing of the applied pieces of canvas, and the distribution of areas of thick—extremely gestural—paint elsewhere, concentrates attention on internal relationships to an extent that separates the space of the painting from that of the real space in which it hangs. Pollock, too, subverted materiality through gesture, but in a way that permitted material to remain insistently present even as it was transformed into an experience of pictorial space. Walker is more concerned with internal relationships than Pollock. Walker’s Untitled, 1973 stops at the edge of the canvas as Number One, 1949, does not, and to that extent Pollock’s painting exists in real space more completely than Walker’s. Nonetheless, Untitled, 1973 is an interesting painting, since it’s interesting to see an artist of Walker’s delicacy propose an internal space that’s summoned up almost exclusively by surface rather than color.

Alan Cote’s painting in this show addresses the same set of conditions that Walker’s does, perhaps more successfully, because Cote seems more prepared to lay out the problem of relating painting’s space to the space outside the work. The painting that Cote shows is a simple one, and this simplicity allows one to focus on the range of oppositions it suggests. Cote has produced a work in which there are four elements, two of which are entirely confined within the rectangle of the work itself, and two that go beyond it. More than half of the painting is dominated by a large, thickly painted black shape, which crowds toward the top left-hand corner, but only touches the edge of the painting at one point—about a third of the way down the left side. One reads this black mass as sitting on top of the canvas and in front of the white paint that—slightly thinner than the black except where it’s adjacent to it—fills up most of the rest of the painting. Both the black and the white are brushed on with a stroke that is primarily vertical, and this counters the horizontal emphasis of the painting’s format, as well as relating it directly—through the agency of a mutual verticality—to the viewer and his or her space. Where the black area is contained by the painting, the white flows off the edge everywhere but at the bottom left and top right of the rectangle; this sets up an inside/ outside opposition which is echoed in the other two elements. These are two configurations, one large, one small, one black, one white, one that flows off the edge of the canvas and one that’s completely contained by the black shape. The configurations are made out of adjacent arcs—touching but not overlapping—and the effect of each is to qualify the overall significance of the area in which it occurs, as well as (by virtue of the fact that an arc implies the circle from which it is derived) acting to reinstate the horizontal emphasis of the picture as a whole—a qualification of the vertical brushstrokes. The big configuration goes off the painting at the bottom right, while the small one is situated in the top left corner, a diagonal relationship evocative of, and responsive to, that already proposed by the white field.

I think this painting is impressive in its capacity to extend its focus beyond the confines of the rectangle while being so internally cohesive; it seems to be helped in that direction by a more restrained attitude to gestural emphasis than Walker’s or, to come to an artist whose work seems to me to be about little else, David Diao’s.

More than any painter currently at work that I can think of, Diao seems to be imprisoned by his own facility. His color is never difficult in the sense of being awkward, and his use of the squeegee to apply paint always allows him a stroke which is elegant to the point of languor, with the peculiar effect that his use of the squeegee results in an impersonal, rather coy, gesturalism. His painting is seven feet high and five and a half feet wide, a kind of extended anthropomorphic scale—extended enough to prevent it from being vertically contained within the space of the viewer. Diagonally bisected—from top left to bottom right—the painting consists of two areas of paint, one that is yellowish green on the left of the diagonal, and the other cerulean. Toward the bottom of the canvas, across the diagonal, there’s a broken patch of hot pink, which takes a vertical direction on top of the yellowish green, and follows the diagonal on the blue side of the division. The yellowish green part is squeezed on horizontally, the blue vertically, and traces of the blue are allowed to extend over into the other half of the painting, and reassert the verticality of the whole. In response, the yellowish green breaks across into the blue at the bottom of the painting, below the pink patch.

All the moves that Diao makes, a concentration on the top and left hand sides of the canvas as the source of the squeegee mark, countered by an intensification of visual incident at the bottom right, concentrate attention within the work, and within the traditional view of picture making that this suggests, he is successful. So too is Robert Zakanych, who continues to use the grid as the ground for paintings that undertake to use process as an organizational motif to an end that obviates—up to a point—the question of “composition” without thereby obliging him to deal with more than what goes on within the work. In Zakanych’s work the grid is always cropped on at least one side of the painting, never derived directly and literally from the format of the piece, and the part of the painting that is complete—in contrast to the sections that contain only underpainting—is always arranged so as to draw attention to that cropping. Like Walker, Zakanych is concerned to subvert an explicit materiality—in his case the materiality of process —into the service of an opticality totally contained by the painting. And, like Walker and Diao, he does this very well.

Lynton Wells is a different kind of artist from the other four. His work involves photographed images transferred to photosensitive linen canvas. His picture of two chairs, brought into convergence with the painting’s surface by means of a fragmentation that qualifies the illusionism of photographed space, seemed well done but hardly worth doing. For one thing, this kind of didactic concretization of an automatically achieved pictorial space has been a feature of art-school life for God knows how long.

The one point in the picture where spatial ambiguity might provoke a pictorial incident that could be at least “interesting,” the meeting of the floor with the wall behind, is obliterated by a kind of atmospheric haze that begs the question completely. Wells is, perhaps, supposed to be taken as an artist working in the gap between photographic and painterly space, if such a formulation can be said to have meaning. As far as I can see, he’s working in the gap between Cubist pictorialism and my sense of what’s credible and serious.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe