New York

Alexander Liberman

André Emmerich Gallery

For a number of years, Alexander Liberman seems to have been working toward something ambiguous, searching, step by step, exploring through controlled experiment, as if working out some unknown problem, working through a block. His background is Abstract Expressionist—large, simple geometric paintings of rectangles and triangles in dynamic arrangements—a kind of loose Newman. I think back to those paintings, and remember their authoritative confidence. Liberman’s next step was a confused synthesis of the gestural and the geometric—a triangle standing on its point that was really an accumulation of small, nervous paint strokes. The question was whether these were geometries disintegrating, or gestures composing themselves. The answer, in a new suite of paintings, is that freedom for Liberman has meant freedom from geometric structure. These paintings are all stroke.

This is a reversal, an arrival, a reevaluation. There is still a lingering Abstract Expressionism here; you can feel it in the scale and breadth of execution. They are abstract without the underpinnings of landscape or the human figure (they aren’t just spaced-out black-and-white de Koonings). The paint isn’t transformed at all—this is the big difference, the big change. The black strokes on thickly painted almost-white fields don’t structure anything (the way they do in a Kline). But they don’t meander either; they maintain a tension between our expectation for the structure to be revealed and the complete absence of anything other than these arbitrary, automatic strokes. These strokes are distributed more or less “evenly,” but there are not enough of them to produce a dense “over-all” unity of surface. Liberman’s slapped and dragged paint is rambunctious and rude, but hardly crude or unknowing. This is not a man who is flinging around in the dark, looking to do something “new.”

The strokes don’t double back on one another. They don’t cross each other and get in the way. They’re not clogged or fussy. They are nonrelational in the oldest sort of way—the unity is really only by touch and color—as if Liberman’s presence were the single most important source of integrity. (This is enough to make the paintings virtually unique among contemporary art.) There the paint sits, as if saying that any other stroke would have been just as good as this one. The touch is elegant but sloppy (not sloppy but elegant), and is really a new kind of individual painting action: languid and lean, carefree and precise. This could be delectation painting: either you get the sensuous experience of paint, with its marvelous bodily properties, or you don’t. But it isn’t the texture of the formalism of Olitski and Company; far from it. There is no “finish,” no problem, no emptying out. The only problem is: how does he sustain the tautness of surface, the kind of wall-like opacity, and keep it together with so little internal structure? Because formality has become expendable as a formality.

These are serene paintings. They don’t look “bad,” or affront good taste. They don’t concern themselves with advance. They are the least aggressive of expressionist paintings. They are a little gentle, relaxed, even funny (not ha-ha funny, but the grin of the person who grins because someone else is grinning). Perhaps I am being a little presumptuous, but I can’t think of comparing Liberman at this point to any other painter; I have to go to the latest Buñuels and late Nabokov for the kind of self-absorbed, amused playfulness these paintings display.

Jeff Perrone