New York

Esteban Vicente

Andre Emmerich Gallery uptown

Just as recent Christensens can be substituted for recent Olitski’s, Esteban Vicente is now painting in a manner interchangeable with, say, that of Stamos. In short, the danger of adherence to formalist painting is revealed not only in Vicente but throughout that group of artists we take as representative of the position. The danger of formalist painting is its inherent reduction to “ten-flavors,” a certain number of rigid pictorial components that must be preserved in order for formalist painting to survive. What has happened is that such painting stopped evolving beyond the point of mere flavor substitution, a kind of conscious trade-off. This season you stress, say, ABC while I emphasize DEF. Next season I’ll do ABC and you can do DEF and a touch of G. Certainly things are never so sanguine and impersonal. The artist may assume that he is answering the imperatives organic to his painting’s evolution, but, from the outside it doesn’t look that way. Thus, this paragraph is written with pained perplexity. What can one say of an artist whose public career can be traced to the richer uncertainties of an earlier Abstract Expressionist mode? Twenty years ago, Vicente’s synthesis was liable to a mul-tiple reading; today, he is entirely indentured to Rothko. Unless we state the problem in reverse; Rothko is so visibly the model for this work that I note nothing that Vicente cannot possibly want me not to note.

So the question becomes: what does it mean when an artist comes up with work revealing the attitudes of another model? The answer is in biography—in information pruned away from canonic formalism. I assume that Vicente reached a point at which he said to himself, whatever it was that I was doing is no longer capable of engaging me. Like a neophyte in search of a Sadhu, he has entrusted himself to a truth of another’s devising. I argue not with the truth, which was Rothko’s, nor with the esthetic purification, which I take to be sincere and honorable; I take issue only with the results, which, considering the bigness of the break, has led to such a minor variation. Yes, Vicente occasionally splits the resonating, soft squares of Rothko, inferring by this fission an organic germ foreign to Rothko’s atmospheres. Yes, Vicente works with a paint of greater body and slightly denser viscosity, adding sheens where Rothko was taciturn and nonreflective.

Perhaps I miss Vicente’s point. Is it that he believes that radicalism is no longer an act of issues germane to the process of painting but functions of the public acknowledgment of discipleship? If this is so then Vicente has broken, in a profound way, with the Baskin-Robbins mannerism of formalist painting, in that what he is manipulating is not form but an ethical principle viewed as form. In this, he must be likened to the disenfranchised minority painter who sees in iconography—what the formalist calls “literature”—not subject matter, but the will to form itself. And, if this is so, then Rothko has become Vicente’s Kunstwollen and his Achilles heel.

Robert Pincus-Witten