New York

Stephen Rosenthal

John Weber Gallery

The occasion of respected dealers showing work derived from that of their better artists takes one’s breath away. Recently, at Castelli, Alan Charlton’s gray panels linked Robert Morris and Ellsworth Kelly. Now, at the John Weber Gallery, Stephen Rosenthal seems to take Robert Ryman’s dead-pan use of materials to its most absurd and obvious extreme. (Rosenthal and Ryman were featured on the same page of the first issue of Newsletter of the John Weber Gallery, a recent gallery publication, the equivalent of about a dozen press releases, written in the benignly self-satisfied tone of a nonprofit organization.)

Rosenthal’s motivations are serious and positive, I’m sure, and his painting is not ironic, but I learned this more from his statements than from the work itself. Much abstract art combines polarities of public and private meaning, of general and specific aspects. In Rosenthal’s work these polarities are at once indistinguishable and totally unrelated. On the one hand there are squares of canvas, unstretched, raw-edged, tacked to the wall. The material in its natural state has been covered with a thin wash of ink resulting in a fairly even, monochrome gray stain. The only exceptions to the grayness are a number of spots and horizontal lines, threads in the weave, which have not absorbed the gray wash and are relatively white. Their occurrence seems natural and random, but this is hardly the case. For on the other hand, there is the technique, private and illegible, invisible in the fabric, which causes these lines and spots. It turns out, upon explanation (I don’t think one would realize it otherwise), that Rosenthal has sized the canvas and then scratched almost all the sizing off with a fine sharp tool, thread by thread. Various strands, because they absorbed the sizing too completely for the scratching to make any difference, remained protected, hence the white. What we end up with is gesture used too privately, embedded in material used too anonymously. These gray surfaces evoke painting only by the most determined kind of concentration. Rosenthal has been working this way since about 1969, but over the past few years his work seems to have become even more reduced. This gives him a look of perpetual immaturity; every exhibition seems to be his first. His work is one of the many misreadings of ’60s art which abound today—taking Minimalism, literally, at its word.

Roberta Smith