New York

Frances Barth

Susan Caldwell Gallery

Frances Barth’s paintings from her last exhibition inflated a rather personal geometry beyond a credible scale: various shapes, usually two separate triangles, occupied a large field of color, tending to look like objects in space. The shapes, the paint handling and particularly Barth’s somber slightly discordant colors were all emotionally convincing, but a little out of hand. Underneath their obvious seriousness was an edge of indulgence, something that kept the paintings disconnected and imprecise. In the six new paintings here, Barth has a new kind of control, and in two paintings in particular, it’s just the right amount.

The new paintings are smaller and the entire surface is divided; the shapes are locked to each other and to the canvas edge; everything seems taut and more thoroughly considered. Barth is not just staining, she is also working dry pigment into her surfaces; this accounts for her dense color, and it enables her to maintain a fresh surface that she can rework, as staining alone would not. Her color continues to develop: the dark close contrasts are juiced up by a bright, off-key tone.

The two best paintings are Nekkar and Imet, also the smallest (both c. 6 1/2’). In them, Barth achieves what reveals itself to be a genuinely complicated spatial relationship of clearly defined, forward shapes—to each other, to a shallow background space and to the canvas edges. This is a brief description: a circle in Imet and a square in Nekkar fill almost the entire canvas, and each is roughly quartered (Nekkar from opposite corners, Imet from opposite sides). In each, the four resulting shapes start out equal at the center and proceed to establish different spatial readings toward the outer edges. Some colors extend completely to the edge, others give way to a second background color. Thus a dark wedge cuts into the bright yellow gold that is the upper quarter of Nekkar, tilting it in and upward like a horizontal triangular plane. This is a jolt spatially and coloristically and threatens to pull the painting apart. A similar effect is achieved by a whitened blue green section which is the lower right corner of Imet, sharing the circle with deep, heavy sections of blue, black and rust. So within these relatively symmetrical, stable divisions, the eye is forced through a series of spatial readjustments; planes are warped, folded, pulled out of whack, but never too far. These two paintings are thorough, but they are also animated, as if Barth learned something in the process of making them. Her control operates along a narrow edge, as is indicated by other paintings in this show which seem either too resolved or not resolved enough. Tern is what I would call a very “professional” painting, but it looks as if it were worked out on the drawing board and contained no surprises for Barth. Its shapes are layered in a simple spatial sequence. Merz, an ambitious mural-sized undertaking, is compartmentalized into two-color squares, each a different combination of colors and shapes. The ambition alone is convincing; the painting is fragmented, the surface thin, the color predictable.

Absent from these new paintings is a certain emotional largeness and drama which the earlier work attempted and which seems to have fallen victim to Barth’s new control. It’s as if Barth has shifted her sights from Rothko to Stella, which is neither better nor worse, but merely different.

Roberta Smith