New York

Gary Stephan, Nancy Holt and Joe Zucker

Bykert Gallery

An involvement with the relationship between the shape of and the shape(s) on the canvas, between what Michael Fried called “literal” and “depicted” shape, is evident in much 20th-century painting from Mondrian through Newman and Reinhardt to Kelly, Stella, and Mangold. A recent, developing involvement is seen in the paintings of Gary Stephan. Like Stella and Mangold, Stephan does not always maintain a strict distinction between the two kinds of shapes; they are often combined, resulting in a third category: implied shapes. Stephan has accepted the dictum that external shape must determine internal shape, but he is not above messing around with it a bit; he both simplifies and complicates the notion. Each canvas shape has a depicted shape which relates to it in some eventually comprehensible way, but this one-to-one relationship is confounded by the fact that Stephan’s canvases consist of two or more different shapes combined and overlapping. This means that their respective depicted shapes are also combined, over- and sometimes underlapping the paintings are done on raw canvas or linen which functions as another color. Four of the six paintings in the show are variations on the combination of a square with a circle; the variations result from the sizes of the shapes and the degree of the overlap. 

In Alkahest D the overlap is so complete that only a narrow, curved portion of the circle protrudes from one side of an otherwise normal square. Centered on this square is a smaller white (depicted) square which is in turn cut into by the larger portion of another circle (a negative shape of bare linen). The relationship between this depicted circle and square is identical to that between the actual ones, but each combination shows the part which is not visible in the other, the part which is internally or externally implied. In Alkahest F the circle and square do not overlap as completely. Again a smaller circle and square are depicted at the center of their respective literal shapes. But the circle· is flat on the inner side and the square is concavely curved on its inner side. In an instant it becomes clear that the literal circle is cutting into the depicted square; the literal square into the depicted circle. Both literal shapes are overlapping each other at once and, though this is actually impossible, its depiction is not. This painting is more complicated than the first one discussed because the relation relationships between the literal and depicted shapes are both analogous and interacting. 

There is a lot to admire in Stephan’s work, in particular, the ways the painted and actual shapes simultaneously implicate the seemingly neutral areas of raw canvas and the ways one shape (the white one in Alkahest D for example) can really be two. It is interesting that the components of Stephan’s combinations always become distinct regardless of how single they seem at first (the opposite is true of Mangold). It is also interesting that the paintings are extremely simple, yet sustain elaborate analysis. But looking at the paintings is really about taking them apart and putting them back together again like a puzzle. My objection is that the most prominent aspect of the work is that it induces geometric analysis which has too little to do with its physical nature as painting. The raw canvas and thick, beautiful colors are bold and attractive, but they have no clearly intrinsic relationship to the central ideas of the work. I could almost be talking about ink drawings—it would not be as enjoyable but the ideas would be as clear. I like the work, but not the suspicion that the paintings could have been made a number of ways, in other materials and sizes, and still be much the same. 

In Nancy Holt’s piece Mirrors of Light, ten small circular mirrors (diameter 9 1/2") are placed in a diagonal row across an end wall of the gallery. A strong light shines on the mirrors with the result that ten circles of light are reflected onto one adjacent wall in a diagonal extending around the corner and onto the wall directly opposite the one with the mirrors. The opposing diagonals of mirrors and reflected circles converge in an upper corner of the room. The reflected circles increase in size and distortion proceeding out from this corner; around the next corner their distortion, but not their size, diminishes. The two walls are in essence stopping beams of light sent off by the mirrors at angles which relate (probably inversely) to the angle at which the single light is directed at them. These lines lengthen and fan out from the upper corner of the room, implying an invisible geometric network. The circles of light reflected by the mirrors can also be seen reflected in them. Thus the piece, which is seen on and which connects three adjacent surfaces, is also visible simultaneously on one, making the mirrors function like holes in a wall through which the piece is seen; the network extends by implication on either side of the mirrored wall to a space which is inaccessible (and actually nonexistent), and our view of it is eclipsed by the boundaries of the mirrors. Focusing on the mirrors and walking toward them, it is possible to see successive circles of light in any one mirror, creating the uneasy illusion that, not only is there another wall back there, it is moving. If the idea of that inaccessible space is ignored, the two sets of partially overlapping circles form a succession of different eclipses.

 Like Stephan’s painting, Holt’s piece offers a series of relationships (geometric in their own way) to be analyzed and deciphered. Holt’s ideas are more intrinsic to her means than Stephan’s with the result that, once the deciphering is over, there is practically nothing left to look at in Holt’s work. In fact, I would say her ideas are too intrinsic to her means; the piece seems to center on the nature of mirrors more than on anything else. The connections established in the piece are clear and interesting, but the work should attempt more than it does. 

Joe Zucker, sharing the Bykert space with Holt, is, like Stephan, involved with the depicted versus the literal in painting. In his case, the duality centers not on shape, but on surface. Zucker’s paintings are made of cotton balls dipped in acrylic paint and mushed onto the canvas, forming a continuous surface and, more or less, certain images. The three paintings exhibited form a series on the subject of ships in battle: spacecraft in one case, Spanish galleons in the other two. Zucker’s imagery is not as explicit as Pop imagery. He works with clichés which derive from earlier art rather than contemporary life, although, unlike Lichtenstein’s art clichés, they have diffused into contemporary life. The cotton balls are pulled and stretched about, losing their ballness and becoming somewhat unclear as cotton, but remaining distinct as particles. Zucker’s technique, like Pollock’s, is initially outrageous and bizarre, but it represents a serious position about the continuation of painting, and is also ideally suited to his needs. It gives a certain point-by-point clarity and articulation to his paintings. All parts and a single whole are equally and simultaneously visible. I like the fact that Zucker’ s surface is neutral in terms of material (it’s obvious he’s tired of paint); it is not clear just exactly what the surface is. However, its quality is, like the particles, not at all vague: the surface is assertive and defined. Zucker’s work has a peculiar sense of suspended animation; the images might not necessarily move in the next instant, but the surfaces might. The frozen turbulence is disturbing, but also quite beautiful and sensuous. 

Zucker’s color is rich and complicated; the color of each particle is highly mixed. One sea battle is dominated by rusts, blacks, and purples, the other by pale, grayed yellow, pinks, and blues. The application of color, in the cotton, maintains the individual complexity of each color while allowing it to mix and combine with the surrounding colors into even greater complexity. Similarly, the diversity of color keeps the particles distinct, as do the various pushes and pulls with which Zucker applies them. There is a related exchange between image and surface. I don’t think the paintings could be abstract, at least not right now. Without images, they would be total texture, more literal, but not really more abstract. The images remove us somewhat from the physicality of the surface; these weird strokes add up to something which just never quite takes over. Its presence accounts for some of the neutrality of material referred to above and doesn’t neutralize the visual quality. Like the indistinctness of the cotton, the images also make the surface more a quality, less a physical texture. The relative failure of the painting of the battling spacecraft illustrates what I mean. In this painting, Zucker seems to have invented the space ships, they are not familiar. Also, for some reason, possibly a preoccupation with the image, the color is a relatively homogeneous range of dark blue green, nowhere as diverse as in the sea battles. As a result, it’s never clear what image is being looked at, it doesn’t momentarily flicker through the surface to be comprehended, accepted, and to some extent forgotten. Likewise the surface itself is too physical and static to be gotten away from. Nothing gives. In the other two paintings the color, surface and images make each other work; there is a continuing vibrant tension between the three, as each repeatedly absorbs and is absorbed by the others. 

Like a number of painters (and sculptors), Zucker seems bent on having his cake and devouring it. He deals aggressively with abjectness and illusion, with process and imagery, with content and abstraction. The work is complicated and unified; nothing can be taken away from it. All of it seems necessary.

Roberta Smith