New York

Stephen Rosenthal and Martin Bressler

55 Mercer Street

Stephen Rosenthal and Martin Bressler are holding a two-man show at the 55 Mercer Street Gallery. Both artists are concerned with line for what it is, and not for its academic design-oriented potential. They regard line almost as a given within a geometrical theorem—line in its conceptual context as Ready-made. Rosenthal has had several exhibitions, but has somehow managed to elude recognition. He works primarily on sections of unstretched canvas, which he first stains with a pale monochromatic wash of india ink (larger ones are done sectionally, sometimes leaving marked areas where the previous wash has dried). Later he systematically scores in long freehand parallel lines using the canvas weave to help guide the path of his pencil. On closer inspection one quickly notices the accidents—they are not mistakes—where the pencil has apparently slipped off its guide on the fabric. There is no attempt to clean up these accidents and they are left as evidence of a natural or chance occurrence, just as he accepted the weave of the canvas as the pencil guide.

Seeing many of Rosenthal’s paintings together, one gains an impression of similarity. But that’s just the point. You are forced to recognize the bulk of workmanship and its process. You are forced to imagine a rational and intelligent man tediously pushing a pencil over the warp and weft of a stained canvas, hour after hour—the real prerequisite for what Duchamp called a “craftsman.” The work conjures up little dignity or importance beyond what it is, pencil lines on a canvas. Yet the work is presented in a gallery situation and, therefore, automatically commands attention as art. Several factors aid in breaking down this contradiction. One is the physical space of the gallery itself—which in its dilapidation offers little of the sanctions toward the artworks that we feel in an immaculate gallery. Rosenthal further erodes a “hands-off” situation by not presenting his work in a refined, finalized state. His canvas is not stretched, but instead is loosely tacked to the wall by its upper corners with steel pushpins.

Martin Bressler’s work also addresses itself to the idea of line, but more for its effect on the surface of a material. In the earlier works shown he used a wire grid in determining the exact placement of his lines. The grid was first aligned over the paper and short, quick parallel pen-strokes filled in the open spaces. The more recent paper work is embossed with the shape of the grid and the lines are either manually inked in as before, or cut into the surface with a razor blade. Others in the show are executed on packing cardboard and white foam-core backing board. Here the grid was placed behind the opaque surface and used only as a measuring tool. Measurements were then transferred and extended as pencil lines or used directly to align a straight edge as a guide for the razor blade. The cuts, sometimes indiscernible—depending on the light conditions—form narrow strips of equal width that project slightly from the paper’s surface causing a shallow relieflike effect. These works more closely approach the pragmatic function of a grid, a negative element to divide or cut up equal units of space. The artist explains in an exhibition broadside that beyond the decisions of color and direction of line, the work is nothing more than “just activity.”

One is tempted to make a comparison between Bressler’s and Agnes Martin’s use of the grid as a tool. In this way they both deny perspectival and compositional values codified since the Renaissance. However, Agnes Martin presents the grid in its unaltered state. Bressler’s variations on its structure read, however, as more anticlassical, and consequently more Romantic than Martin’s.

Francis Naumann