New York

Joan Thorne

The Clocktower

A timeworn but timely verse came to mind upon seeing Joan Thorne’s new work: “Waste not, want not. . . . for you never miss the water till the well runs dry.” This stanza could appropriately be the Marseiliaise of international ecology and probably occurred to me because of the prodigal use of paint that makes Thorne’s canvases look so insouciantly luxurious. In recent years there’ve been a lot of artists who are part of the thick-paint school—Joe Zucker, Mary Grigoriadis, Cynthia Carlson—but Thorne certainly deserves the position of doyenne, for her paintings are the most extreme example of conspicuous consumption.

On view: nine paintings, largish, of carefully premeditated complexity. Description is difficult because the profusion of color and line makes a painting impossible to focus upon. Description of parts of paintings is possible, not their wholes. Thorne apparently applies paint straight from the tube; no mixing, what’s in the tube is what she gets. Background and foreground are obsolete organizing principles; what can be talked about are the top layers of paint and the submerged layers.

Color is astringent, brazen, not unlike the plums and oranges of Elizabeth Murray’s color. Another affinity with Murray: the recurring use of trapezoidal shapes. But where a Murray seems carefully composed, all the parts having some relation to the whole, Thorne is chaotic, disjunctive. An acrophobe, the first time I experienced this malaise in front of a painting rather than on the top floor of a building was at Thorne’s show; it’s a terrible sense of being at a precipice and dreading to gauge how deep the drop is. There’s an illusionism to Thorne’s disjunctions: some parts of her canvases suggest great depth, other parts look like random lines on a surface.

My troubles with Thorne’s work are in some way the reciprocal to my troubles with Bowling: her color, use of oil and her surface are all elements I’m favorable to in painting, but with Thorne, as with Bowling, you never miss the content until you notice the empty receptacle. What Thorne shares with other painters of her generation is a fondness for wild color and bravura gesture—reactions to minimalism. The richness of her paint and color certainly are powerfully at odds with the economy of a reductivist palette and materials. Thorne’s strengths are actually her weaknesses: a ferociously additive painter with abundant bustle in her work, the paintings are full of reaction, not action. There’s no center, although there are plenty of significant fillips. There’s no whole, only parts.

Carrie Rickey