New York

Moshe Kupferman

Bertha Urdang Gallery

I have often wondered what Robert Motherwell meant by a painter’s and a painting’s “ethical consciousness.” But after seeing Moshe Kupferman work, I began to understand. Kupferman’s recent exhibition included paintings and drawings from 1968 to the present. There is no discernible chronological progression, simply because his active but cool surface and line remain unchanged.

The interrelation between the paintings and the drawings is such that neither is forced into parentheses. There is no great interstice between Kupferman’s expression in paint and color and his expression with graphite on paper. The graphite is used like paint—as a medium of surface coverage and as an instrument of linear stroke. Each drawing is worked from border to border either as an endless pavement of gray or a skin covered with positive and negative markings. The same holds true for the paintings. The aubergine stripe painting of 1970 is an example of relatively tight, smooth coverage of canvas and frame while a similarly colored work of 1974 has irregular and spirited brushwork underlying the contrasting stripes.

The paintings and the drawings both can be traveled on the lines, through the lines or between the lines. From a distance, one drawing appears homogenously gray. Upon closer inspection, the construction exposes itself as a horizontal series of gray ribbons of graphite, alternately greasy and dull. Underlying and overlaying these two levels are strokes and erasures. In another drawing the visual “tracks” are incised pinstripes resembling the ordered scratches of his most recent painting.

The warm white of the drawing surfaces stems from the fuzziness of the paper. The depth and resiliency of this fuzzy texture also accounts for the carbon taking on different qualities—greasy and shiny when applied with intense pressure, dull and soft when little pressure is asserted. This mimics the irony of the carbon mineral itself, which appears hard but is really very soft.

This white light is one of the most beautiful and elusive aspects of Kupferman’s work. It is present not only in the drawings, where it can be attributed to the paper, but also in the surfaces of the paintings of 1969 and 1977. It was this quality of light which made me realize that Kupferman’s paintings and drawings are products of implosion rather than explosion. The energy is somehow silent, involuted and absorbed into itself. Arc (1968), with its wide, arm-span strokes, has the heroic imagery of Abstract Expressionism. Offsetting the dynamism of the brushwork is a coolness which owes itself to the pairing of burnt red and janitorial green. Being complementary colors, they cancel each out.

Just as color is suppressed in the painting by the combination of opposites, drawn “colors”—white and gray—are almost negated by being combined. That magical white is to my senses not a pure white; in fact it feels as if it has been underlain with the darkest of grays.

When transposed to canvas, this white serves as an almost metaphoric terrain for the cool equilibrium distinguishing Kupferman’s “ethical consciousness.” It aided me in comprehending what is perhaps the most important work on exhibition here, the painting dated 1969. The square canvas locks within it a bisected square set on its point. In its upper register is Kupferman’s signature, stated twice, with the year 1969 in large scooplike Hebrew letters. All Kupferman’s paintings are boldly signed, but the signature usually sits with gentility on the top or the bottom of the canvas. The act of emblazoning his name is brash in an Abstract Expressionist sort of way, but ultimately arrives at an ethical and intellectual counterpoise by being laid over two golden sections and an expanse of his mysterious softened white. Like the two color complements, the signature is a balancing device, pitting negation and subjective assertion of artistic will side by side. Kupferman, by consistently adding on layers which negate the premise of the previous one, contains the outward-moving tendency of such work by referring back to where his brush has been rather than describing where it is going.

Judith Lopes Cardozo

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