New York

Judy Rifka, Gerald Horn and Joshua Neustein

Bykert Gallery, O.K. Harris Gallery, and Rina Gallery

Judy Rifka’s paintings dominated the show. I’ve left her work until last because it has some—vague but insistent—affinities with that of Gerald Horn and Joshua Neustein, to whom I shall come in a moment. Rifka’s work is done on cardboard, which provides a soft, brown field for an image made out of one or two colors. 

This image is the result of a procedure that begins as a way of getting from one mark to another, across the surface of the piece, and ends with the creation of a kind of envelope made out of layers of paint. In the work illustrated here, the black shape, which was initiated by tiny squares and rectangles—displaced intuitively and then connected—began and ended the painting process. The white shape, introduced after the black configuration was more or less established, is literally sandwiched—painted in and then mostly painted out—by the black, and this is also how one visually experiences the work. Rifka has put her finger on a neglected but ostensive feature of painting’s conventionality, which is that opticality may be as much a consequence of physical actuality as of—for example—chromatic interaction. In this, she addresses the question most crucial to painting in general at the present time: the question as to how far the—currently compromised—abstract “depth” of pictorial space can be newly considered—retrieved—through attention to the material basis of the conventions on which that experience of “depth” relies. Rifka’s paintings are flatter than almost any other work that comes to mind, including that of others—Robert Ryman, for example—who are concerned with the material qualification of the painted object. At the same time they suggest a space infinitely deep, and it’s the scope of this evocation and accommodation of paradox—of a subjectively considered material dialectic—which leads me to say that Rifka’s is the most devastatingly original formulation of painting’s identity that I’ve encountered in some time. I need hardly add that this effect is immeasurably enhanced by her use of materials which are uncommon in painting and familiar in the everyday world. 

Gerald Horn’s paintings are made out of masonite. Like Rifka, he seeks to relocate an inherited vocabulary of pictorial space within a use of materiality. In Horn’s case, linear conventionality is undermined—or made explicit—through making lines also be the edges of things, as in the squares of masonite stuck on the front of Untitled (S–2,8), 1974. These squares are arranged in a descending order of size down one side of the surface—an equation of conceptual diminution with literal progress—and identified with the surface to which they’re applied through paint. The object identity of the work is further reaffirmed by the paint’s continuing around the edges of the stretcher. In all of his Horn seems closest to a painter like Jake Berthot, an analogy that’s strengthened by the window set into the largest painting in the show. 

Where Horn differs from a painter like Berthot is in his use of color. He uses acrylic, mixed into a streaky mud tone, usually grayish. This might mean that Horn is concerned to acknowledge the extent to which the material preoccupation, which at present characterizes the most interesting painting, has developed in response to an initiative that originated in sculpture, which does seem to be the case. 

The same acknowledgment of sculpture’s recent precedence seems to be basic to the work of Joshua Neustein. Neustein’s drawings respond directly to the situational emphasis of late Minimalism. His work relies on an awareness that we recognize as drawing that which is gray, not printed, and made out of paper. Our coterminality with an experience of drawing becomes, in Neustein’s work, copresence with a thing or group of things. Fragility, readily identifiable as a potential property of line, becomes a function of a torn edge rather than a mark in a conceptualized space. Neustein’s use of sprayed lacquer—which means that there are nowhere marks resultant from something’s having been dragged across the surface—reinforces this relocation of the drawing’s space. Which is what Neustein’s involved with. The space of a Neustein drawing isn’t a space located “in” a piece of paper, but a real space read as the space of drawing because of the conventional—institutional—vocabulary it employs. 

The apparent impermanence of his drawings—pieces of paper pinned to the wall—declares their occupation of real space while it also reminds one that drawing and sculpture have in common a responsiveness to both architectural and pictorial space. The only reservation I have about Neustein’s work has to do with his insistence on a carefully maintained frontality. Although this may be obligatory at this point in Neustein’s explication of drawing’s conventionality, it indicates an association with an attitude to pictorial ism that’s still committed to a shallow—modernist—space. That commitment, in its adherence to acknowledgment of physicality through pictorial convention, rather than the other way around, seems questionable at the moment for reasons that have already been discussed here. But it isn’t the most important aspect of Neustein’s work, which is concerned with a far more comprehensive exploration of the material basis of institutional language. It’s a pity that his work will get overlooked because of his habitual absence from New York. 

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe