New York

Ellen Levy and Susan Wilmarth

Bertha Urdang Gallery and Rosa Esman Gallery

Though Ellen Levy and Susan Wilmarth make very different looking pictures, each does a kind of abstraction that is contemporary and terribly academic. Levy’s pictures have long strips of wood (long, bare 1- or 2-by-4s) attached to them, usually along one side. Certain parts come very close to these wood strips in color, and there is usually a mild illusion that the painted parts are actually more wood, or that the wood has just been painted with trompe l’oeil precision. The remaining area is generally a field of dull beige, gray or yellow, painted brushily, or scraped so that a different colored undercoat shows through. Wayward triangles, rectangles and so forth appear around the field in unpredictable places. The casualness with which these shapes and fields are done suggests that we should look for the clue to the pictures in their original puns of color on wood, which are their most salient feature.

Levy’s work is, above all, indecisive. On one hand her semi-transparent, brushy colors suggest that she is interested in the expressiveness of color, and is looking for a color which will key feeling. Her shapes look as if they are meant to be “logiclessly” expressive, but also as if they are supposed to subject her pictures to a reductive, anti-expressive order. Meanwhile, the puns that are the starting points of her pictures are the most arid, reductive kind of visual gesture one can make. And while the wood strips she uses recall all those pictures which made their framing edges or stretchers conspicuous so as to undercut the theatre of painting, Levy lays paint down as if she does believe a picture to be a theatre where loaded, meaningful gestures can parade themselves. In short, she keeps a foot in each of two worlds of painters—one concerned with developing and heightening the dramatic effects of visual gestures, the other with trying to get along without them.

Rather than competing with each other in some way which might be significant in itself, these two painterly attitudes just coexist uneasily in Levy’s pictures, each sapping the other’s strength. And since her work does not attempt to push either attitude to its extreme, but merely takes them intact from painting’s recent past to set them uncomfortably together, they themselves lose meaning. Levy’s pictures make one want to ask what is so important about the idea of expressionism or the idea of reductivism. These ideas came after the fact of certain kinds of visual gestures—a shimmering crimson orb, or blank white expanse dotted meticulously—which communicated viscerally. Levy has begun not with seeing, but with ideas that are too often supposed to have substance by themselves. As she herself has stated, she takes the arrangement of forms as an end in itself rather than as a place where meaning is deposited, or a thing which can convey meaning. Her pictures are collections of formal exercises, and while abstract pictures can easily confuse with the fact that they are all form—that they contain no explicit statements—she seems to have forgotten that a blue triangle can and must have all the significance of a figure drawing, not just be proof of a point which may have been trivial to begin with.

Wilmarth’s pictures are almost the opposites of Levy’s in several ways. They are neither arid nor reliant on theory, and they are quite elegant in fact, but they do contain the same kind of conflict between painterly ideas, and this limits them seriously in the same way. Wilmarth’s pictures contain two things: rich, misty, moody colors, and geometrical schemes according to which everything is laid out. Each one of her pictures is a variation, or recombination of these two gestures: one will be three squares and three rectangles in light blue, another two and two in crimson, and then two more pictures in the same patterns, but now in orange and blue-green.

What is most interesting about Wilmarth’s work is that neither its colors nor its geometrical patterns are ever absolute. One never gets pure blue, but blue-white, blue-green or blue-yellow; everything is vague and always shifting. Meanwhile, a Wilmarth geometrical scheme—say, a square on top of a rectangle repeated three times across a canvas—dissolves as it repeats itself from one side of the picture to the other. Usually geometry dissipates in a rush of color, while color itself is always contained by, and straining against, pronounced borders. Thus where geometry and free expressiveness reside uncomfortably together in Levy’s paintings, in Wilmarth’s they interact affably, almost merging at times. Each seems to be saying to the other, “After you,” and in fact, what most characterizes Wilmarth’s work in general is its politeness.

This is also what disturbs me most about it. For whatever force there once was in the kinds of gestures Levy employs, it has collapsed, in her pictures, into empty intellectual bargaining. In the same way, the force inherent in Wilmarth’s colors and big, blunt canvases dissolves into benign elegance. Though her pictures are built on a very obvious opposition, she shies from a contest between them, and leaves one feeling that her pictures are anticlimactic.

I think that the work of both artists says something about the kind of problems abstract painters face right now. For until the most recent period, every abstract painting was the taking of an extreme position on art, an argument whose authority rested in its being extreme and seeming to be at the end of history. Most art of the present decade, in order to come into being at all, has had to retreat from those extremities. It has often enough found its strength in reviving and reforming old gestures and strains, at times coming close to pastiche. But Levy’s and Wilmarth’s pictures, by the very fact of their being absolute abstractions, cannot help occupying an untenable, extreme position. I think both understand this, and try to temper that position by synthesizing styles that once belonged to, or generated, opposite polemics.

Unfortunately, as their work demonstrates, when one takes an extreme position yet has lost the urgency that once motivated taking it, one winds up in a muddle. Here is Ellen Levy describing the way her paintings work:

As a framework for clarifications, my paintings use a logic of addition, removal or transposition of forms to mediate between outward progression and self-containment. An initial color set is established between the wood and at least one painted form. Layered and removed paint or theoretically additive or subtractive colors establish a hierarchy of increasingly complex features as drawn and literal boundaries are crossed. Although viewing the surface of a painting is different from perceiving objects in the world, my paintings involve the viewer in tasks of organization similar to those of an animal seeking food or avoiding a predator. A demarcated [sic] territory is scanned, and correlations are made among pieces of information.

Leo Rubinfien