New York

Richards Ruben

Erickson Gallery

Diagonals are not new to Richards Ruben’s work: he has painted such bands on a grand scale for several years at least. Now, though, there is only one diagonal, and the scale of the work is much smaller. Also the diagonal is now a “cut.” As a line it is subtractive, not compositional or descriptive of any motif. In effect, it subtracts the surface from itself in order to make it the “image” of the work. It also cuts through the surface to expose the many surfaces and many colors that make it up. (The colors, often garish, often earthy, seem also to be added directly to the cut) As the surfaces and colors appear at the edges, the diagonal seems less a figurative line and more a literal edge—a necessary form. But it is only one element of Ruben’s drawing: there are also “bands” that lie on the surface along some of the edges of the painting. They seem to frame the work and mediate its status as both “painting” and “picture.” The bands are to the cuts as, say, parentheses are to slashes: they enclose the surface, control its texture, and bind the image as a whole; whereas the cuts separate the whole and oppose it as two parts (just as a slash articulates two meanings of one word; e.g. in/difference)

It is as risky to paint diagonals as it is to paint grids. They are either redundant or bogusly necessary: redundant because they are all but perceptual givens of a rectangle and necessary because they seem to be the logical end of its form. The effect is often exhaustion or easy submission. This is not the case with Ruben; he is neither shy nor coy with the diagonal. He works through what it is and makes it more.

Not all the diagonals are the same: some go from top left to bottom right; some right to left; others extend from the sides, not the corners. The left-right diagonals read as lines (that is, narratively) inasmuch as they conform to our cultural reflex to see all things left to right. The right-left diagonals read as slashes; they are all but effaced by the two halves that they define: these paintings are less narrative. The diagonals that are askew suspend the logic of the other diagonals: here one tends to ghost the rectangle that is “proper” to the diagonal onto the painting.

There are three multicanvas paintings in the show: two “diptychs” and one “diptych in three parts.” The canvases are set up so that the diagonals form a triangle. Here the subtractive nature of Ruben’s line is explicit; however, as with Robert Mangold, one is not quite sure with Ruben as to which lines are literal (i.e. edges) and which are figurative (i.e. drawing). The opposition of figure and field is thus not a given (often the field is incomplete) and one is made aware that one is part and parcel of the other. (The opposition of surface and stretcher is also not a given: except in one painting, the stretchers are not deep—the paint seems to be its own support.)

Each work is entitled City; but this does not mean that the paintings are cityscapes made abstract: nor are they diagrams of design or pictures of a concept of the city. Rather, Ruben takes an experience of our urban condition and reexperiences it in terms of painting. It is important here to recall that the diagonal is both a narrative line and a delineator of space and that the surface is at once one textural plane and a series of such planes. The diagonal reminds us that any division of time and space is artificial: they articulate each other dialectically. Here they are articulate in terms of the city as a perpetual operation (not just subtraction and addition) of geometric forms. The many surfaces within the one remind us that our vision is archaeological, complicated by memory: each new visual frame effaces, even as it consists in, prior frames. This last is particularly important to our intuition of the cityscape.

Ruben takes on two sets of conditions—that of painting and that of the city. He is able to use the first to work through the second; and I admire this. In terms of style, he is also able to renew an Abstract Expressionist idiom by contact with later idioms (e.g. the minimalist critique of perception).

Hal Foster