New York

David Novros

Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery

David Novros’ monochrome canvases of 10 years ago offered rather idiosyncratic variants on the literalness, coolness and seriality of Minimalism. Their L-shapes were played off against the shapes of the walls where they were hung. Novros’ next move was to bring internal shapes into play; some of these were painted, some were created by the abutment of canvas panels. These shapes were geometric with a strong architectural flavor. The painting, whether rectangular or not, mediated actual and imaginary architecture. The architectonics of post-Cubist geometrical painting were recalled. As a minimalist, Novros dutifully avoided traditional composition—which, despite a great deal of argument to the contrary, has continued to provide an important formal basis for most modernist painting and sculpture. When he turned away from monochrome and allowed spatial effects to appear full-force, he showed a surprising mastery of compositional possibilities—i.e. the options offered by “relational painting.” His most recent paintings bring another element into play—nongeometrical, even painterly brushwork which makes reference to landscape.

This latest move has preserved composition in order to nuance it further. Suggestions of post-Cubist geometry are extended back to Cubism itself. There are even evocations of Cézanne. Not all the works in Novros’ latest exhibition show this new painterliness. Yet all of them have, at the very least, textured, light-catching surfaces which actively help to initiate references to imaginary light and space. Sometimes there are two or more sections to a painting, each with its own internal pattern of abutting panels. And there are painted color boundaries in addition to those created by this abutment.

Novros uses the boundaries to help distinguish between objects of reference and scales of reference. In a brilliant three-sectioned work (untitled), the two outer sections are divided into patterns of off-white and dark brown. The suggestion is of nearby, mostly shadowed surfaces—whether natural or architectural is not made obvious, for Novros subordinates all his representationalism to the persistent abstractness of his style. Perhaps these two sections refer to weathered, overgrown stonework. It’s certain that other readings are possible. The point is that a programmatic stance is avoided: richly modulated indications of real objects and spaces are made in full self-consciousness, while these indications are prevented from slipping into outright references. The central section of this painting is the most Cézanne-esque in the show. Beige, green, and muddy orange brushstrokes suggest both vegetation and underlying architectural structure. The brushstrokes and internal divisions of the outer section establish nearness by their large scale; those of the central section place the image in the middle distance and in a different “light,” as well. For all these subtleties, Novros makes his means as clear, as accessible to a literal reading, as they were in his minimalist works. The three sections of this painting are all very much there—on the wall—at equal distances from the viewer.

The substance of Novros’ art is not in any single trait or cluster of traits (comparable to Judd’s “clarity” or Newman’s “sublimity”). It is in the reconciliation of opposing possibilities for painting: extreme pictorial literalness, on one hand; a richly nuanced illusionism, on the other. These are by no means new possibilities. Nor have they been exhausted. In Novros’ paintings, they engage, undercut, and ultimately renew one another. These works do have an air of renewed possibility, which serves to place them in the present. It must be said, however, that the stability, the certainty, with which Novros appears to work is owed to the conservative way in which he construes his possibilities. After all, his innovation this time was to make reference to “classic” modernist works—Braques and Picassos painted at L’Estaque and La Roche-Guyon, and Cézannes of the kind that form the starting point for the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Novros is of the present insofar as we live at a time of reconsideration, even retrenchment.

––Carter Ratcliff