New York

Robert Swain

Robert Swain’s painting is involved, purely and exclusively, with color, with the variety and interaction of color, and with the alternation between color as opaque pigmented surface and as illusionistic light. Swain’s format is relentlessly consistent; for some time now he has divided his canvases into 12-inch squares, each painted flat and precisely with one color. The paintings in this exhibition are either seven or nine squares (i.e. feet) on a side. That’s either 49 or 81 different colors per painting, since no color seems to repeat on a single canvas.

There’s a poker-faced intellectuality to Swain’s format which he subverts through sheer numbers and through the fact that the richness and sensuousness of color increases with the exclusivity and directness of its presentation. Seven rows of seven colors relating in all possible directions can seem almost baroque, and it may be no coincidence that the most assertive transitions of color usually establish strong diagonals between the opposite corners of Swain’s paintings. The lower left corner square is invariably white, while the upper right corner square is usually black, almost black, or blue. In the two remaining corners are colors which are either very close (yellow opposite another yellow) or very far apart (red opposite green) on the color spectrum. Swain sets up the four corners as points of departure and investigates the seemingly infinite number of ways to connect them. In his best paintings, Swain makes you understand color as a matter of artistic choice and also as a natural phenomenon, something that exists in infinite variety in the atmosphere, merely waiting to be made visible. The colors fan out from these four corners in a lush array that warps the surface of the canvas spatially. Each square of color is affected by the adjacent ones, creating intermediary colors. Together they lose their flat monochromatic appearance and assume a gradated glow. At this point, Swain’s matter-of-fact arrangement is appreciated as an attempt to keep the interaction of colors from getting out of hand, so they can be read separately. The size of the squares also keeps them distinct, as indicated by a number of smaller studies with four-inch squares where the colors shade together too completely, and their surfaces become parabolic blurs.

This blurring also is a drawback in some of the bigger paintings. While Swain’s format allows us to concentrate on his color, its rigidity makes you think he ignores or takes for granted other aspects of his painting. His consistently airy, glowing dissolution of the surface becomes a bit wearisome, painting after painting. This is especially true when Swain’s color fans out in the more predictable, even transitions (as it does in several of the paintings with red-green or warm-cool corner oppositions); space, light and surface blend into an easy, homogenous smoothness, a unity as uninterrupted as it is undemanding. In the paintings where he puts closely related colors opposite each other, Swain creates, and often meets, a greater challenge. The best of these paintings, and the best in the exhibition, is Untitled #904, which has yellow in two opposite corners. This painting is peculiar in several ways: its lower left quarter is a series of white squares; the yellow in the lower right quarter makes abrupt transitions, setting up a checkerboard pattern; and the red in the painting occurs unexpectedly in six squares toward the center of the right edge, where, like the in-and-out of the yellow below, it particularly disrupts Swain’s usual evenness. Generally it’s the quality of disruption, of uneasy unity, that distinguishes this painting; neither the color nor the space is predictable, nor is the illusion of light so pervasive. Each square and each quarter retains its individuality, not just in terms of color, but also in terms of space and light.

In general, the richness and complexity of Swain’s abstraction is encouraging right now; his paintings are always rewarding to look at. Gertrude Stein once said something to the effect that if you enjoyed it you understood it, and Swain’s paintings, in providing an immediate sensation of color, provide immediate and elaborate knowledge of it. And, as Untitled #904 indicates, when the selection of the individual colors and their arrangement is most intuitive, the other aspects of his paintings and our sense of Swain himself are brought more fully into play.

Roberta Smith