New York

Rudolph Baranik

Lerner-Heller Gallery

Rudolph Baranik’s new paintings, Words, deal with the relationship of writing to painting. In each large rectangular canvas—Words #1 is 70 by 55 inches—there are lines of words cramped in a register-like format which covers almost the entire upper surface not quite out to the edges; remaining areas including spaces between words are black. The words immediately draw us to the paintings. We respond to Baranik’s words on canvas in the same way as we do to words on pages, by wanting to read them, by wanting to understand them, by wanting—in other words—to get the message! Baranik is an artist who writes. And his interests not only in art’s relation to society—his Napalm Elegy paintings 1971–74 describe his feelings toward the Vietnam war—but in art’s relation to communication are well known from his published statements. According to Baranik: “Art states.” Knowing this, we concentrate even harder on reading what he has written in these paintings. But still, it is impossible to understand the majority of the words here, some are partially erased, others are composed of letters from the artist’s personal alphabet.

What we can read easily are his markings, the traces of his hand in the milky-gray script with its intricate twists, turns, and pauses. We experience, thereby, a vivid sense of the passage of time. But are we reading or seeing? And is Baranik writing or painting? Only when we step away to get a complete view of the paintings do we finally understand that we are reading a message, and it is one which Baranik has painted, and it is one which is more about forms than words.

Formally, Baranik’s large paintings are iconic images with black- and word-decorated surfaces in vertically disposed rectangles which bring to mind the ultimate message-forms—ancient hieroglyphic sculptures. In this context, his “illegible” words can be read as the signs of some eternal mysteries in which the paintings partake and communicate to us on an emotional level. The black surfaces here emanate an aura of deep calm and lend to the paintings an authoritative presence which commands our respect. Words are contemplative images and their message is one which depends, largely, on the depth of our responses to them as forms. Baranik succeeds in making us want to know this form as intimately as possible.

Accompanying these paintings there are several oils on paper echoing the paintings’ format on a smaller scale. But instead of words in registers, there is a skein which is drawn in white/gray/black in a narrow band on the upper surface of each. The skeins bring to mind Jackson Pollock’s drawings on paper. And like writing, these images vibrate against the otherwise black surfaces, offering us, finally, an intimate and lyrical experience of form.

Ronny H. Cohen