New York

Brice Marden, David Novros and Kes Zapkus

Bykert Gallery - Downtown

Brice Marden’s recent drawings are delicate, brilliant, and central to one of the most pressing problems with which serious painting is currently concerned: the problem of working with a pictorial space that doesn’t deny its function as a subdivision of real space. Marden uses drawing (line) exclusively as a subdivider of the rectangle that continually refers to the dimensions and proportions of the original format. Line, in these drawings of Marden’s, is the means for an intuitive procedure that amounts to a constant revision of the pictorial space. Linear accumulation transforms the space, but persistently returns to the original paradigm so that drawing becomes a method of specification which elaborates but doesn’t conceal its support—conceptual and literal. In this, Marden ultimately confirms his closeness to Cézanne, whose attitude to drawing is analogous.

These drawings were made with sticks dipped in ink, which provided a tool as mechanically imprecise as the improvisational purpose it serves. It also allows Marden to reiterate that the work he makes is addressed to a pictorialism preoccupied with surface. As the sticks trace a line they inevitably splash some ink on the paper, so that while the progressive subdivision of the rectangle comes to look more and more like a plan for an object (implicitly, a painting) this latent illusionism—a subdivided object floating in space—is countered by the reinforcement of the object status of the drawing itself. In this way, one is able to experience the work as a space that operates within a continuum represented at one extreme by a controlled denial of gravity—the abstract scheme set up by the lines drawn across the page—which is also the denial of objectness, and at the other extreme by an uncontrolled subjection to gravity, the splotches. There is the hint of a pun in that the splotches mark the drawing as an object in the physical world. The splotches are a by-product of the line that are nonetheless crucial to it, because they pin the drawing down to the page. That is why it’s necessary to see the “line:splotch” continuum as one that provides a tension between properties that are perceived as equal. As in his paintings, which present underpainting in simultaneous tension with the final surface, Marden is concerned here to tie an experience of space to the recognition of the object which supports that conceptual spatiality. The explicitness of that concern maintains the credibility of Marden’s articulation of pictorial terminology. The concern to demystify pictorialism or pictorial communicability sets the continuity with real space—a property of the painting as an object—in tension with the discontinuity with real space, resulting from the “optical” signification for which the object’s surface is a vehicle.

By the same token, an apparent indifference to that concern undermines the work of David Novros. The difference between Marden’s painting—and the whole body of work that relates to his in respect of any concern with a “deconstruction” of pictorialism such as that which I’ve just attributed to him—and Novros’ is the difference between Brecht’s theater and melodrama. Brecht said he wanted the audience to be aware of the separateness of the actor from the dramatic character he or she represented because he wanted the audience to be presented with an argument. In Marden you get an argument and in Novros you don’t. In Marden you get “opticality” and its support. In Novros you get a painting that needs to make you forget the support altogether in the course of entering the fluid, architectonic space of a traditionally illusionist pictorialism, just as melodrama wants to make one identify with the character and forget it’s a person’s interpretation of a fictional role. To look at Novros’ work is to feel that one is in the presence of a manipulation of received terminology that’s indifferent to the possibility of its own fundamental revision. For the most part, Novros’ painting is about a space that’s emphatically discontinuous with the space of the viewer. But one painting in his recent show seemed to qualify this general rule, and possibly to indicate another direction. This painting consists of two panels, one on top of the other. The composition of the top one is directed toward self-enclosure, while the bottom panel seems, in contrast, to propose a space that’s more open-ended. The two panels are united chiefly by midtones, by secondary colors that blend with one another in each panel while the main colors—and the composition—incline toward mutual contradiction between top and bottom. This suggests that, within the conceptual restraints imposed by a traditionalist attitude to pictorial space, Novros is prepared to posit an opposition between the open and the closed—and this is, of course, reinforced by the physical separateness of the two panels—that might in some way connect him to the opposition of real to pictorial space that his work seems to ignore. But it’s questionable, perhaps, to speculatively identify art with an ambition it seems to explicitly oppose.

However, it is interesting that a traditionalist indifference to the painting’s identity as an object frequently leads to a preoccupation with values that are indirectly connected to the physical aspect of the work. In Novros, one is struck by the elaborateness of the underpainting, by the traces of the sophisticated decision-making that’s gone into the manufacture of the surface. What this seems to suggest is that one is meant to gain access to the work through empathizing with the conventions it brings to mind. The retention of oil paint is meant to provide continuity with a tradition, and implies that entry to the space of the work is dependent on the preservation of a myth rather than on its revision. This is the case with Novros and also with Kes Zapkus, whose work, enormous, detailed, painstakingly executed with a paintbrush—but with acrylic paint, possibly for the sake of speed—reads as much as the record of productivity in the service of myth as anything else. Zapkus’ paintings, which are based on a grid, are about a densely populated pictorial space that—like Pollock’s or the Cubists’—is at once shallow and infinite. Zapkus seems determined to keep alive an idea of painting as the vehicle for a space that’s in tension with real space only to the extent that it replaces it. Zapkus is unarguably a good painter, as is evidenced by his control of an incredibly complicated surface. Unfortunately, the tacit commitment to illusionism implied by his work places limitations on one’s experience of his painting that make his competence look like pedantry.

––Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe