New York

Dennis Ashbaugh

Whitney Museum of American Art

In all but one of Dennis Ashbaugh’s eccentrically shaped paintings, the major axes are horizontal and vertical. The exception, a striking red painting, which nowhere contains a horizontal or vertical, is still so rectilinear and flat—so wall-like—that it is completely at ease with the others. Ashbaugh is young and his works display some resemblances to earlier paintings; the most obvious connection is with Al Held’s paintings of the middle ’60s. They touch on Held’s bluntness and power, yet they are not so distilled. Instead they are open, being physically made up of sections fastened together, and they remain in conflict with the imaginary surrounding rectangles one tries to impose upon them. Their vocabulary of forms seems consistent with that of Malevich, Rodchenko and Lissitzky in their earlier Suprematist years, as does the color. Ashbaugh’s color seems to me his weakest element. He continually opts for black and white in large amounts against which he contrasts the primaries and an occasional green or violet. The result is that the works, which are graphic to begin with, appear more linear than they need to be, and a fruitful area of exploration is bypassed. The large red painting Zrelish-chnaya Reklama (the titles are unfortunate) is an important exception to Ashbaugh’s usual approach to color, and suggests new possibilities.

Ashbaugh has an acute sense of scale, established by the relationships between the smallest and largest units in each work. In Agitreklama the enormous width of the main black plane is played against a series of long bars varying roughly from five to ten inches in width. Against that basic relationship he opposes a few notched overlaps, such as the blue rectangle at lower left, which extend only an inch or less over a second bar or the black field itself. These subtle overlaps, which occur in each work, set up crucial discordancies, implying that the places where they touch are more alive, more formally charged than the surrounding blander expanses. One reads these tiny, deliberate overlappings against eight-foot bars the way one measures the fragile, linear drips in a Franz Kline against his thick, powerful swaths.

The bars themselves are a kind of energy diagram as they interlock across the field, and this raises another issue. In all of the paintings but one Ashbaugh changed an end of at least one bar, giving it a bevelled point. This occurs twice in the painting reproduced; three times if one counts the large central negative space. The effect is an additional element of velocity in the composition, tying it more firmly to postwar American painting rather than to its Russian precursors.

American Abstract Expressionism, among other innovations, introduced into painting a real, visceral sense of restless energy and speed. One of the techniques shared by Pollock, Kline and de Kooning was to aim strokes violently against the containing rectangle. European practice had been to arrange things carefully within it, and Malevich’s style circa 1915 is a good example. Ashbaugh’s least successful work, the painting with the large circle, is the one work in which he neglects this beveling of a bar to increase velocity. Each bar remains a rectangle parallel to the picture plane, and sits calmly within the imaginary rectangle we supply as a ground for his forms. This work seems almost more Malevich than Ashbaugh, or for that matter, Held or Kline. Ashbaugh’s scale and simplifications make each of these seemingly small decisions crucial. Despite this one exception, he is an intelligent and ambitious artist.

Budd Hopkins