New York

Howard Buchwald

Howard Buchwald is also concerned with painting as a thing in the world, as, in his own words, an object to be looked at. His new paintings—all made very recently—are small in contrast to the piece he exhibited in the Whitney Annual a couple of years ago, but are similarly involved with an achieved equilibrium between “opticality” and objectness. I find the new paintings much more successful than the larger, earlier work, which involved a large orange field surrounded by squares of varying size. My take on that was that not enough seemed to happen in the middle of the painting that could respond to the activity on the perimeter. And the color of the field—while in tension with the space outside the painting because of this—seemed, on account of the property that orange has to “advance,” to bleed out the color of the surrounding squares.

The new paintings—made, as before, with oil paint—seem more resolved. But they also raise slightly different questions. Buchwald draws attention to the painting as an object, now as before, by “cutting in” to the surface—using stretchers which are built so that in places there’s a gap where there might otherwise be a line. In the earlier painting, the small squares were separated in this way on their sides that ran at right angles to whatever edge of the canvas they happened to occupy. Now, these gaps tend to divide the smaller areas of the canvas among themselves, or to occur at one or more of the corners of the painting as a short diagonal. Because these paintings are small, the cuts or gaps play a much larger part in them than they did in the earlier piece, where the squares have a tendency to register as blocks and seem—in part—to be about bringing some reminder of the carved frame into the work, making the frame function as part of the object instead of as a transitional zone between the space of the painting and the space of the world.

The cuts now seem to have a more direct relationship to the color of the work. Since they now extend a long way into the painting—relatively speaking—the part the cuts play in determining color relationships appears to be much greater. Buchwald paints on stretched canvas, which means that for him color must follow drawing absolutely, since the cuts are established before he begins to put color down. He changes the color a lot in the process of making the work; what ends up as blue may have begun at the opposite end of the spectrum, and to know this is to see his paintings in terms of a violent alternation of the mutable and the immutable. Beyond this—which is akin to the feeling of suppressed gesture communicated by Brice Marden’s work—one comes to understand, I think, that what Buchwald is concerned with is a question of proportion.

What is manipulated in these new paintings is the balance between the painting as an “optical” phenomenon and the painting as a thing—between the material and the dematerialized—and what’s extraordinary about that is that this balance is conceived in terms which can be expressed within the work rather than around it. Buchwald attempts to relocate the question of proportion within the space of the painting, rather than in a situational set of tensions that involve real—“exterior”—space (the sort of solution offered in the recent work of Doug Sanderson). Internal proportions are the stuff that classicism’s made of, and Buchwald’s interest in them therefore becomes—because of his emphasis on the objectness of the stretcher—an attempt to transform one vocabulary of painting by placing it in dialectical opposition to an awareness it had always sought to undermine. To do this within the surface of the work—within a planar, conceptual, “optically” accessible space—is to suggest that the reliance on the edge of the stretcher (the area where the space becomes an object) that characterized the painting of the ’60s is no longer a necessity even though it may remain an option. Or, rather, perhaps one should say that Buchwald’s cuts suggest a way back into painting’s space for a sensibility that’s spent more than a decade straddling the perimeter.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe