New York

James Juszczyk

Rosa Esman Gallery

James Juszczyk is a “pure” abstract painter, in the manner of Mondrian, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt and others. He borrows substantially from these artists, producing works of rigorous rectangular geometry and deep, resonant color. The typical Juszczyk painting is divided into even thirds, quarters or fifths, which in turn contain a few small elongated subdivisions. Sometimes, these parts will be separated from each other simply by difference in color, but Juszczyk frequently draws boundaries between them by extending the color of one area into the territory of its neighbor. The dark crimson of the left side of Unless, 1,77, for instance, narrows abruptly to a single line which then splits the brighter red of the picture’s right side into apparently autonomous sections.

While there is a sense of mathematical calculation in Juszczyk’s compositions, then, they are subject to all sorts of small but detectable irregularities. The rectangles in any given frame are close to exact fractions of that frame, but their distribution around it is a matter of subjective choice as are their sedately varied shades of crimson, brown or blue.

What Juszczyk adds to the austere tradition from which he proceeds is essentially a synthesis of Mondrian’s structural devices and Reinhardt’s coloristic ones. He scraps the purity of Mondrian’s extensive white fields in favor of uniformly rich color, and complicates Reinhardt with comparatively prolific geometry. He has accomplished this with great facility, resolving all the classic formal problems of spatial tension, color balance, scalar variation, unity and disparateness, etc. His work cannot fairly be called derivative of Reinhardt’s and Mondrian’s, because it looks different. It cannot be called bland, because it is in fact extremely luxurious, seductive and dramatic. Yet these pictures do seem weak, perhaps because they are guilelessly misplaced in time.

Several writers have cited the eclectic tendency of the present period—the current esthetic permissiveness, so to speak—as background for Juszczyk’s work. A time dominated by no cohesive movement, it is argued, allows widely different styles to coexist fruitfully, and encourages artists candidly to refer to past modes. But it does not follow that all styles can speak meaningfully to that time. Juszczyk’s paintings lead one to think that our ability to be moved by a work is inextricably bound up with our knowledge of history. We will never be able to view Mondrian’s or Reinhardt’s works innocently, to disconnect them from their respective periods and see them as pure visual chess games. It is precisely because we cannot do so that they continue to be powerful art. Mondrian’s stark, geometric idealism pertains to a period in which technocratic utopianism flourished; Reinhardt’s moralistic sobriety functioned as a stern sermon in a period of complacency and political hubris. The works of each artist still belong to those eras, and are believable partly because we still see them as gestures in context. They survive on the social memory they participate in maintaining.

But with Juszczyk’s work, which is of the present, the devices of Mondrian and Reinhardt lose their moral power and devolve into decoration. Recycled by the present artist, such austere didacticism fails to touch the contemporary mind. It should be clear that we are disregarding the issue of pure quality here—if there is such a thing—for Juszczyk is a highly competent painter, whose own gesture-in-context is unfortunately too much a gesture at the past. We may see his work as elegant but implausible, at best; at worst, we must see it as naively affected.

Leo Rubinfien