New York

Alan Cote

Betty Cunningham Gallery

Carrie Rickey, a writer whose opinions I often overlook (even when I agree with her) in order to savor her well-turned phrases, is a stylist in search of a subject. I went to Alan Cote’s show knowing what Rickey had written about him. What was interesting to read became so much stylish fluff when confronted with the paintings themselves. The twist: this perfectly fit Cote’s paintings, in an ironic, perhaps unconscious way. Rickey unknowingly reflected her subject’s basic appeal, through her style. Her title: “Fashion/Style/Custom.” Her case: Cote is not fashionable, after explaining in many paragraphs about postmodernist “fashion” art. Why preface an article on an artist with a long argument about something which your subject doesn’t embody? Typical defense mechanism, I think. For myself, whenever I read lengthy defenses before any work is mentioned, I get suspicious. For Cote’s paintings (like David Diao’s, Rickey’s other “subject”) couldn’t be more fashionable. They are all stylish fashion and received custom without originality, with no meaning outside their superficial “position.” They cater to a certain audience’s well-known taste for the permissible move.

Rickey intended to distinguish between fashion and custom. But with Cote custom precisely dictates fashion and style. This is exactly the point of modernist custom. Cote’s Portrait of a Maoist, a red and black painting, is a particularly mixed-up reading of Franz Kline via Jack Bush. What could be more fashionable in its adolescent, schoolboy way? The shapes—attenuated and stuck, rather than fitted, together—seem to be asking, “You, the viewer there, are we together or separate?” You could call it ambiguity but I’d call it fence-straddling indecision; leaving esthetic decisions up to the viewer gets a lot of work out of the way fast. One shape is red and matte, another darker and shiny, a third red fading into darker red, shiny fading into matte. So much for “rational” structure.

There is an utter lack of conviction or rigor. The painting style reminds one of Still, then Rothko, then Diebenkorn on a bad day, then any third-rate lyrical abstractionist. Cote dabbles. Red Song for Charles Ives (an iconoclast if there ever was one, certainly done a great disservice by being identified with this painting) has floating fence-like shapes, horizontals and verticals that are like elongated Rothko rectangles. They glow and hover, appearing both flat and illusionistic. All these things are patently clear in their “duplicity,” everything consciously appealing to a properly “ambiguous” reading, but making very little difference. Young Marxist in the Moonlight (Rickey wants the titles to be ironic, but she never proves it and I doubt they are) has a mannered diagonal line on the lower right, sloping down to the left, tastefully composed to offset the mass of activity in the upper lefthand corner. Cote has a fashion-school student’s flair for composition. Alma Gates, far too large at 7 1/2 by 18 feet, is a virtual beehive of jigsaw shapes and studied overpainting. It comes out an indecisive, fuzzy blue, less mottled than motley.

Cote does everything boringly right for our current period in art—a lot of attractive red to attend to big emotion; large scale for grandeur; simple, decorative schemes; lots of references to other artists, as if innovation or originality were impossible. If these were clothes, they might aspire to haute couture; right now they’re off the rack.

Jeff Perone