New York

Ron Davis

Leo Castelli Gallery

To say that this year’s Ron Davis paintings are an improvement over last year’s is not saying much. What he is doing now looks like typical “early” work which theoretically might have preceded his more daring paintings of the mid-’60s. Those paintings were made of polyester resin. They were isometric shapes whose perspectival illusionism was countered by their overt materiality and eccentricity. Davis had in effect lifted shapes out of paintings, cast them, and put them, bold and a little raunchy, right on the wall. This year, Davis has simply put the shapes back into the canvas and once more he’s dealing with the rectangle, with pigment and cotton duck. Many of the same devices persist: the spacey scale, the tastefully intense pastels, the varied manipulations of paint (wet, dry, scumbled, dripped, stained).

These aren’t paintings, they’re environments. In each, a horizontal ground plane zooms back into space while other forms rest on or float above it. In addition, the space is riddled with a network of lines, defining it, the shapes and, I suppose, the surface, and often converging on a single point somewhere. These don’t actually set up conflicting systems of perspective, but they suggest that Davis doesn’t want to give it to us straight; he’s Raphael toying around with Piranesi. But not to forget the 20th century, these receding shapes can still be read flat. An orthogonal square by any other name is a diamond, as the title to the painting illustrated confirms.

Like Frank Stella, Davis is pursuing an ambitious decorative art, an art that would be so strong and effective in scale and design that its decorativeness must be taken as a highly serious matter. Stella has just succeeded, again, ravishingly, in this ambition. He continues to try new materials and to invent in terms of pictorial space. Davis has never really succeeded in this ambition, but now his failure seems more complete. His infatuation with Renaissance space is not inventive; it has always been implicitly conservative, and now his treatment of it makes it explicitly so.

Roberta Smith