New York

Jan Dibbets

Leo Castelli Gallery downtown

In his recent show of photographic grids of sections of forest and field, Jan Dibbets is working within a more painterly tradition than is generally evidenced in his work. Although they are not the only possible antecedents, a comparison with two earlier field painters, Monet and Pollock, is germane to discussion of Dibbets’ current work.

There are many one-to-one parallels between Dibbets’ photographs and Monet’s late water-lily paintings. In each, the artist begins with a fixed view of a horizontal surface seen from the roughly 45° angle of vision of a standing person. The horizontal plane is then suspended vertically on a wall, causing the original surface to lose its depth and become essentially two-dimensional. Both Monet and Dibbets are producing decorative works in which the emotional and visual content is lessened by the suppression of visual incident into a continuous frieze or field. Greenberg criticized Monet for resolving everything into statements about equilibrium and said, “Monet’s main difficulty was accentuation. Concern with ‘harmony’ and the desire to reproduce the equity with which nature bestowed her illumination could lead him to accentuate a picture too repetitiously, especially in terms of color . . .” I see Greenberg’s criticism of Monet as being equally applicable to Dibbets, who, with the exception of one set of photographs of a daisy-strewn field in which the daisy heads pick out points on the grid, chooses to photograph monochromatic subjects—grasslands, leaf cover, etc., and group them so the particulate forms of ground cover fuse into a single glazelike tone.

Even in the ways they alter the allegedly realistic portrayal of their original subjects, Monet and Dibbets have a certain congruency. Although he did work out-of-doors directly from his subjects, we know from letters of the period that Monet, the arch-Impressionist, took his canvases, especially the series pictures such as Rouen Cathedral and the water-lily paintings indoors and reworked the color and contours to form a unified design. In contrast to his earlier arc photographs, which are clearly about varying camera angles, Dibbets’ recent photographs, both through their use of the traditional rectangular format of the photograph and what appears to be a static camera angle, seem to be exact reproductions of the ground lying under his feet. If they were a reproduction of a stretch of earth within certain perimeters, why not use a single blown-up photograph instead of a sequence of photographs grouped horizontally or vertically?

Dibbets is actually transforming his original subject in a painterly way. He selects certain incidents from a series of related patches of earth and groups them according to his own personal concepts of pictorial unity. The composition or structure of the piece is changed from one dictated by chance or objective necessity to one formed by subjective taste. Through these rearrangements of reality both Dibbets and Monet arrive at the same product—an allover field image.

In certain of Dibbets’s works, one may see in the way he uses the texture and linear quality of, for example, long grass or a bed of leaves, a parallel with aspects of Pollock’s paintings. Whether it is in the long strips or fatter rectangles, Dibbets manipulates the patterns of grass or leaves to invent a surface concerned with visual movement. But, whereas in Pollock’s paintings a field composed of a linear network suggests expansiveness, as if it could encompass an infinite space, Dibbets’ “fields” seem limited, almost dainty. Although the photographs set up a continuous image, you are aware of the edges of individual photographs and the extreme cropping of the field of vision makes you feel enclosed/imprisoned in a microcosmic world.

On many of the pieces, Dibbets includes a small pencil outline drawing of one of the photograph squares. This is an unnecessary bow to the hand craftsmanship of traditional art-making. The drawings do nothing to enhance or elucidate the work.

Ann-Sargent Wooster