New York

Frances Barth

The confusions of the art world right now stem from its recent history, a history which valued the stripped-bare solution, the risk of repetition, the integrity of the void. This state of affairs could be seen as the logical, even natural, outgrowth of a series of moves culminating in Minimalism and Conceptualism. The problem today is to proceed out from that position into something more pictorially complex without becoming reactionary. The appeal of realism and photography is the appeal of conservatism, of reaction. (The repetition of the solutions of Minimalism and Conceptualism are likewise conservative.) We know why art of the ’60s succeeded, we know what makes it good; what we must discover is what it left out of the picture—in a word, the serious artist must find out what can again be possible.

Frances Barth’s paintings are getting more complex, and that’s a healthy sign. Whether you like them or not is irrelevant. She is sizing up more possibilities, adding things here, extending material there. Her first work grew from a small set of geometric motifs—drawn triangles on subtly modulated fields. She then moved to large paintings with two clashing, filled-in figures—a rough circle and triangle, both competing for pictorial space, their edges overstepping the boundaries of the canvas frame. The surface got messy, roughed up. The color darkened. These were very likeable paintings—simple, binary shapes, direct and handsome.

Her new paintings extend the possibilities inherent in those paintings, in an unexpected way. They imply narrative-abstract narrative reading as a successive transformation of shapes. They are long, narrow, friezelike compositions of alternating circular and triangular forms, advancing, receding, stretching out beyond vision. Although the repetitions lessen the drama of the preceding work, they allow Barth to investigate something more elusive and ambiguous. And it is repetition arrived at anew, growing out of a concern for overt temporality. You can read the figures only by walking down the wall; they don’t make sense from a distance.

The strongest feature of the binary-form paintings was their high degree of individuality: they didn’t all look like each other. Barth loses some of this quality, and it is a consequence of color. Every painting is dark, with bright, hot and dry passages between forms. The painting style itself is better: nonchalant, complicated, sometimes sloppy. Outlines are created by scraping, as an additional emphasis on top of color. Sometimes cascades of frantic scratchings, which start thin at the top and proceed to a vigorous density at the bottom, draw our attention away from the forms. Brushstrokes naively follow the outlines of shapes, not in an attempt to create or mimic structure, but as a method of filling space with a clash of horizontal and vertical gestures. Although these paintings seem a little out of hand, not quite under control, they show that Barth is not sustaining herself with known quantities or solutions; she seems to show how eventual success can be predicated only on her ability to take on more than she can handle.

Jeff Perrone