New York

John Walker

Cunningham Ward

John Walker’s paintings are Studio School, Tenth Street, ’50s. The scale is heroic. The geometric rectangles must be read as antigeometric. The color is predominantly earthy, muddy, primal. For the added touch of personal synthesis there are the pieces of canvas collage out of Cubism, the tentative black lines from Matisse. Slapdash and thrown together with machismo, these paintings rage tough. The philosophical discourse that envelops them must be dragged out of the existential closet. The references, the ambitions, the influences are all ripe for devastating parody. It’s as if the artist has been in deepfreeze for the last 25 years.

I see Walker’s paintings in a hostile historical environment, and for that reason they become more than what they are; they assume a thoughtful character, which makes me want to re-create a more tolerant world. They trigger this action because they so clearly represent a different idea of the viewer than does the endless parade of post-Minimal, post-process, post-modernist blank-works. But Walker’s art doesn’t particularly appeal to me either, and I deplore and resist its aspiratory aura. I am bred on the convention of the holistic image and here there are whole sections that seem utterly unconvincing and inattentive, while there is an overall obviousness that is downright embarrassing. Is this Walker’s intention—the old Abstract Expressionist idea that we must be made uncomfortable with the work of art? The paintings are raw; Walker seems to be present in every struggle of mark against mark, plane against line. The artist is laid bare, creating a familiarity that is embarrassing.

The paintings reach from the floor to the ceiling and you can’t get back far enough to take them in all at once. They fail to cohere, focus, relate. Jaggedly cut, colorful parts from other paintings are stuck right on top of the densely textured ochre and sienna rectangles. (The similarity of this procedure to Lee Krasner’s is inevitable, even if done for entirely different reasons.) These patches are large because you are forced close to them, but they are small compared to the total canvas size. As much as you can’t see the whole picture at one time, the jarring shifts are disturbing. In one painting, what appears to be a large blow-up of a Kandinsky stops at a mellow, rather crisp, sandy rectangle, which is subsequently dropped in favor of an ambiguous, slightly arched line wispily drawn on a blank space. I wonder how Walker sees these things in a large studio, if they “work” if you can get back far enough from them. But then their main characteristic, their embarrassing clumsiness, would disappear.

So you don’t move forward and back, you move from side to side. Since the work approaches some ideological concerns of the heroic phase of Abstract Expressionism, it is odd that it does not mimic its formal stance—the unitary format. Although the paintings are aggressive enough, they lack one powerful image or signature. The composition, the color, the textures are too complicated. Perhaps that is wrong: maybe they are complicated enough so that a viewer will understand how they move from simplicity of a model to clutter.

On a formal level, I must rethink the need for reduction. It was once meaningful for artists to strip their paintings of the inessentials (in the late ’40s), but there can be no merit in doing that now, in 1978. Why must art express what the artist has in mind only in the most economical way? I can see in Walker’s work a clear distinction between what art is and does, and what science is and does. Science proposes an ideal economy which will hold in every case, and is the appropriate answer to every question. Walker’s paintings are much closer to abstract Rauschenbergs than Barnett Newmans, as if Rauschenberg were not adversary to, but in fact an extension of, Abstract Expressionism. But that is only an analogy. The difficulty in Walker’s work is that it posits a reconciliation of transcendental idealism with materialism. Is that ambition the source of my embarrassment?

Jeff Perrone