New York

Raymond Rogers, Steven Gilbert and Richards Ruben

Max Hutchinson Gallery

Raymond Rogers, Steven Gilbert and Richards Ruben are three painters whose pictures look quite different but are pervaded by a similar tone. The work of each is derived and synthesized from major abstract styles: Rogers has adopted the floating shapes of Hans Hofmann and the impoverished red suns of Adolph Gottlieb, Gilbert the broad blue and black bands of Franz Kline and the chaos of de Kooning. Ruben does less traceable work, but his narrow, brilliant stripes hark back to Barnett Newman. From the most sympathetic point of view these works seem to be homages to Abstract Expressionism, variations on themes which are by now pieces of the history of modern art. The problem that Rogers, Gilbert and Ruben have looked over (though not honestly tackled, I’m afraid) is that of making a strong and meaningful picture out of visual gestures that are not merely the property of another artist, but are such art historical monuments that they can hardly carry much personal inflection at all anymore. The Gottlieb sun and the Kline stroke are already in the public domain, so much a part of everyone’s consciousness that they have transcended their original meanings.

Hyperbole, overextended, turns back on itself and becomes irony. With enough excess of repetition, a paean comes to ridicule what it began by praising. In different ways, Rogers, Gilbert and Ruben all press the grand, hyperbolic devices they have adopted so far that they lose their tragic content completely. Ruben has wrenched his Newmanian stripe out of alignment and gotten a seething diagonal gash rather than a slender, aspiring prayer of a line. His paintings are all about a thick, clotted, greasy impasto, which he may literally slap on with a trowel, letting it spill out over the edges of his pictures and harden in ridges that look perpetually glutinous. Meanwhile, the thin, diagonal line which is his pictures’ central statement is really a small trough filled with nubs and curls of luminous, hardened oil. Far from being refined and dignified, these stripes are like strips of highway bedecked with neon; they seem to be filled with every color there is.

Of course, Barnett Newman’s paintings are notable above all for their solemnity and purity of emotion. It is because of this that they live up to the religious sentiments their titles indicate, and it is also because they are so austere that they communicate such authentic grandeur. Now while Ruben’s pictures have sources other than Newman, they do aim a mild parody at Newman’s famous stripe, and illustrate the ambivalent attitude toward Abstract Expressionist style which I think is at the heart of all three painters’ work. Ruben’s pictures are neither solemn, pure, austere nor grand, but are instead riots of color and texture which no black-and-white photograph can reproduce. Yet his pictures are not deliberately satirical, but in fact indecisive. What they present in the end is the awkwardness with which any would-be heroic painter will find himself speaking at the present, cynical moment in time.

We could say much the same of Raymond Rogers’ paintings, although Rogers is a considerably more inventive artist than Ruben. Rogers also works up a kind of overextended hyperbole through absurd thicknesses of paint: at times he will make a line simply by squeezing it out of the tube and leaving it there like a strand of ballooned, chartreuse spaghetti. The artists Rogers looks back at—Gottlieb, Hofmann and Joan Mitchell, among others—were much less somber than Newman to start with, and Rogers’ adaptations of their gestures become a circus of crazy shapes and colors. These are very playful pictures, and begin to live up to their prosaic billing in the gallery’s press release as “paintings which are a celebration of the medium itself.” Nonetheless, Rogers ends up with paintings composed entirely of “asides,” lacking a central subject.

Steven Gilbert’s pictures are the most sober of the works at hand. They are fairly orthodox Abstract Expressionism, but their broad, black Klinean strokes are flaccid, and limp rather than surge across the canvas. I think they have been placed alongside Ruben’s and Rogers’ work because, despite their academicism, they too contain tongue-in-cheek elements. Gilbert’s paintings sneak little bursts of pink and lavender among their Klinean gestures, contradicting the stark, tragic emotion of Kline’s original idea, which quite literally involved seeing things “in black and white.” The manichaean world of Kline’s pictures (and of all the gestures that derive from them) leaves little room for the kind of play that Gilbert tries for. But Gilbert’s problem is not that he is too lighthearted, but that he is half-hearted. While he seems to want the grandeur of Kline’s style, he is unable to manage its stresses. With Gilbert’s work one has the sense of some weighty conversation which continually digresses into not quite-relevant jokes.

What underlies all three painters’ work, and what it really communicates, is a kind of embarrassment about the heroic tradition in painting from which it derives. Their pictures seem to joke, but not so much because they are authentically hilarious as to avoid the discomfort that comes with seriousness. All this arises, I think, from the uncertainty about what and how to paint that one finds everywhere now, the old party lines having come to an end. While we may be able to look back in ten years and see a few themes joining the best work of the present period, things nevertheless look as if today’s best painters have extremely particular styles, arrived at by following unique paths that have not been followed before.

The most obvious aspect of Ruben’s, Rogers’ and Gilbert’s work is its closeness to the granddaddy of American movements, but the unfortunate fact about it is that, while it describes with eloquence the uncomfortable position of the contemporary Abstract Expressionist, it never explains why one might want to continue painting in this style today.

Leo Rubinfien