New York

“Marking Black”

Exhibitions using a single feature as a basis for cohesion often never gain the added dimension which comes from going beyond preordained connections. “Marking Black,” is distinctively not that kind of show although all the artists represented have been brought together because of their present involvement with black.

The thesis of curators Jeanette Ingberman and Madeleine Burnside is that just as the “black” paintings of Rauschenberg, Rothko, Stella and Reinhardt self-consciously marked the end of “modernist” painting, so the black works in the current scene have decidedly utilized the same line of demarcation to serve as postmodernism’s site of emergence. Whatever “postmodernism” will come to mean, the use of black asserts a modernist bloodline as well as divergence from it.

Whether it is utilized to connote malevolence or wholeness and purity, visibility and thingness or invisibility and space–black is tough. Each piece included in this exhibition attests to its power, but ultimately to the power in the artist’s hand which wields and often subjugates it to subtler concerns.

Contrary to the lyric “black is black,” black does not have a singular color personality. Each of Sean Scully’s striped panels could easily be described as black, but the contrast between and within them by means of a “seam” which bisects each upright oblong canvas, sets up a stagger between slightly different shades and between shiny and dull paint/stripes which, when visually emulsified, are perceived as markedly different colors. Marcia Hafif’s oily black paintings, though all subtitled “ultramarine blue, burnt umber” display the chromatic range of a color which appears not to have chroma. Similarly, Larry Bell’s vapor drawings bring out a light quality in the color supposedly devoid of any light-giving or receiving capabilities.

Black has a tendency to dominate space, yet Richard Serra’s large oil paintstick circle becomes sublimated to the architectural members in which it nestles. In Nahum Tevet’s series, black is also a secondary member, its form generated only after the figure which rests upon it was conceived. Although rigorously reductivist in appearance, Mehlli Gobhai’s arcs and lines are based on the contours of the human form. Serra, Tevet, and Gobhai thwart black from claiming too much association with a style or claiming control of the artist’s primary will.

Black’s coverage capabilities urge its stripping and purgation to release the underlying surface. Colo and Kay Walkingstick focus on the ritual implication of that urge by actually gashing the built-up surfaces of their canvases. Michael Gitlin uses materials of construction and encasement—timber, plywood, cardboard—paints them black, and crudely cuts away at them so that their essential nature is revealed. Pulled across the surfaces of Moshe Kupferman’s quicksilver drawings are incised lines which both violently and methodically pierce the layers of graphite down to the paper’s core. Kupferman’s strange dialogue is between the artist who has laid a blanket of graphite on the paper and the artist who must manually assert his ability to undo it.

That kind of dialogue within layers of hidden, self-negating action is the major component of Joshua Neustein’s work. A series titled “Eros (Nistar),” for the Hebrew word meaning “the hidden,” composed of black canvases which, through folding, partially hide themselves, partially secrete the layer underneath and obscure our visual understanding of their means of structural support. Although the layers cover one another and fold into themselves, we know the artist is there. How very different from the paintings of Ad Reinhardt which, opaque and unblinking, were headstones declaring that “art is dead.” All the works in “Marking Black” are an affirmation of the art’s viability through a reappraisal of the radically existentialist black with its “I’m not here” stance of the artist behind the brush. Black, the purest of mark-makers, symbolic of all artistic gesture whether manual or historic, has been re-imbued with challenge, maneuverability and seriousness without detachment.

Judith Lopes Cardozo