New York

Robert Swain

Susan Caldwell Gallery

Robert Swain is one of those who insisted on continuing to paint after the medium’s death was announced in the late 1960s. His canvases are all divided into one-foot squares, each of which is differently colored. Usually—but not always—there’s a black or almost black square in the top right-hand corner, and one that’s white or almost white at the bottom left. (Or, as I shall soon say, so it seems.) Between these extremes of value, in which the role hue plays is severely reduced if not entirely absent, are a series of progressions established by the chains of colors set up horizontally and vertically from the black-and-white corners. It is my impression that Swain’s use of color is intuitive from the start, but I think it’s also true that these paintings confirm the sense in which things couldn’t be any other way. Matisse: “Color is never a question of quantity, but of choice.” I suspect that this absence of a discernibly objective test for verifiability, beyond all the reasons usually given, caused the momentary disgust with the institution to which I’ve just referred.

In some paintings, Swain introduces series of colors that achieve the diagonal interpenetration that holds the surface together through an overt alternation, but for the most part changes are more linear than that. The diagonal opposition of black to white obviates the possibility of a white hole at the center of the piece. The brightest square is always adjacent to an edge, and makes that corner glow and float, while the black, out of reach above one’s head, pins that corner of the work to the wall. Swain’s work is concerned with balance but by no means with symmetry of any absolute sort. Because of the placing of the black-and-white squares, the painting is darkest in the rows above one’s head—being, in each case, lighter as they move across the canvas—and lightest in the rows nearest one’s feet. So the colors that are out of reach are also those that press down into the space through value, and those that are nearest the floor are also the colors most inclined to deny gravity. This exertion of vertical equipoise is paralleled by the use of recessive colors at the top and ones that advance at the bottom. These are moves that view the workings of the picture to the space and responses of the viewer, a reflexivity which is confirmed in the implication that at least half of the painting shares a ground plane with its spectator. At the bottom right, in, for example Gregg’s Yellow (1974), the brightest square is one square in from the edge, which suggests that another row, bringing the most intense yellow to the corner, remains, as it were, to be added. (I say that this seems true for half the painting because at the other end of the row the brightest white does seem to be at the corner, although that might be my eyesight.) The sense of an implied row is increased by the painting’s distance from the floor—one foot—and by its being eleven squares wide but only ten high. Swain’s last show was in 1966; one hopes to see a bit more of his work before 1980.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe