New York

John Torreano, Elizabeth Murray; Marilyn Lenkowsky, David Reed, Herbert Schiffrin

It’s taken me a while to get to a point where I can begin to appreciate John Torreano’s paintings. Torreano makes paintings out of oil paint and plastic diamonds, and I must say it’s very nice to see the medium revered by every painterly pedant around subjected to this kind of interpenetration by dreck. Unfortunately, conventional spirituality’s rape by banality is only engaging when the context thereby ceases to be banal, as is not always the case with Torreano’s work.

With the paintings that are rounded off at either end, however, it is. In these Torreano seems to have found a format which is responsive to the optical capacity of the deep color that he employs to pull you into the pictorial space. The fluid continuity of the edge responds to the movement into the space of the painting that’s suggested by the color, and this gives the diamonds something to do. In the curved paintings the diamonds alone assert the physicality of the surface, while in the rectangular ones the flatness proclaimed by the picture’s edge tends to obviate the necessity of that assertion, and make it look almost gratuitous. When the paintings are curved, too, the whole feeling of uncertainty that is communicated by a color that retreats from the eye in the absence of a perimeter that pins the painting to the wall, and which seems to me to be the subject of Torreano’s work, gives meaning to the plastic diamonds. One looks around them at the surface, but as one does they become possessed by that surface—into which they are physically inserted—and begin to float back into a more ambiguous space, a space that can’t help but suggest the night sky. Torreano, though, seems concerned to develop an attitude to physicality that’s indifferent to this sort of representational allusion—or which, as in these works, can easily contain it—as long as the painting communicates an objectness that’s heavy on enigma, and the curved paintings are certainly that.

Elizabeth Murray’s work suffered from inclusion in a show that is otherwise made up of the paintings of John Torreano and Marilyn Lenkowsky. Torreano is clearly launched into a highly developed obsession, and while it would be inappropriate to say that about Lenkowsky, her work’s unquestionably thematically consistent at the moment. Murray’s isn’t, unless one should say that her paintings exhibit a persistent interest in a surface dislocation of a certain sort, and I’m not sure that that’s the case. Her paintings look very different from one another. And although I’m sympathetic to the idea of a variety of statements united by their origin in a single psychology, it doesn’t seem to work here. Rather, as I’ve indicated, the work of the other two artists in the show tends to make hers look even more disparate and undirected than it might be if it were seen in isolation.

Whether despite or because of this, Mobius Band (1974) seemed to be the most successful painting by Murray in the show. Very small, the main color is a kind of beige—beige is fast becoming a convention that allows the surface of a painting to be readily identified with, and distinguished from, the wall on which it hangs—and is thickly applied over the surface. A horizontally aligned figure-eight—the symbol the painting’s named after—is drawn on the surface, and encloses six little squares. These are distributed in accordance with the dictates of the drawn line, which also seems to have caused the surface to be reworked. With an authoritativeness that’s not rhetorically overblown the painting puts the sign for infinity, which is also the mark that moves one’s eye around the surface, into a dialogue with a surface materiality identified—via the squares—with frontality.

While the smallness of Murray’s work evades the pomp that haunts the kind of academicism which one might attribute to the structure of Mobius Band, Lenkowsky combats the potentially academic look of her work through an ungainly size and a strongly expressionist bias. I’m not necessarily using academicism as a pejorative term—what could be more academic than Die Fahne Hoch, also painted by an artist at the beginning of a career? Like Classicism, that other code word for bourgeois individualism—the observe of the same myth, perhaps—expressionism nowadays tends to be manqué rather than overt. This is rather elegantly encapsulated in Lenkowsky’s case, since her way of working is to build a stretcher, then hack away at it, then stretch the canvas, and then paint it. So her work consists of a sequential alternation of impersonal and personal decisions, which begin with the size of the work. This is always the same size, which perhaps implies a prior synthesis, a decision about scale that’s responsible for all the works she makes.

Lenkowsky uses a stretcher that comes out from the wall, two triangular planes arranged around—or draped over—a central spine. This permits her to identify the stretcher with drawing, in a way that allows drawing to be located within the work—the central spine—rather than just at the edge. This is why Lenkowsky’s work is most successful when the surface is painted with a broken color. It can then be seen to have a provisionality that refers to her modification of the stretcher’s edge. And to amount to a literalist ambition that puts things right in perspective by seeming madly out of place in the second group show that included her work. The other two painters here were David Reed and Herbert Schiffrin, both of whom seem committed to varieties of ’60s abstraction.

Reed’s paintings seem to depend on gravity, as in the downward pull of the striations in 7 (1974), in order to generate a pictorial space that can also acknowledge the material basis of its support. It’s hard to see what direction Reed’s painting might take; at the moment it appears to rely too strongly on a kind of coloration that activates the surface to a degree that’s uncontrollably illusionistic. As far as I can see, this results in an internal contradiction, the use of gravity is obviated—trivialized—by the colors that are used. Bright color of this sort jumps off, or becomes independent of, the surface too readily to be able to contribute to a use of paint that wants to affirm materiality.

Schiffrin’s work uses a squeegeed curve at the “back” of the pictorial space to establish its flatness. In this, it’s incidentally reminiscent of Jasper Johns’ Good Time Charlie (1969), which has a similar kind of arc that does a similar kind of thing. Schiffrin’s squeegee mark may or may not be accompanied by another, painted, curve, as in Chinese Vermilion (1973), where a painted arc in the lower half of the picture runs counter to the squeegeed one at the top. The latter is worked over, responded to as a shape to be filled in. This part of the painting process involves a gestural application which somehow gives the impression that, when Schiffrin works, he keeps the painting as high up as he can without putting it entirely out of reach. But I don’t expect he does. Where Reed’s painting seems to be stumbling along toward a potentially highly original resolution of a particular kind of concern with materiality—but to be doing so with a necessary incompetence—Schiffrin’s painting has the air of being cursed with the competence of the professionally romantic. Direct expressionism of this sort, by the looks of things, became impossible as soon as a certain kind of criticism had connected it to Cubism. Spontaneity hasn’t been a property of the gestural application of paint since.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe