New York

Robert Moskowitz

Hudson River Museum

To say that Robert Moskowitz has shifted from a Platonic idealism to a phenomenological concreteness is no doubt tantamount to walking around with an unusually big and tempting chip on one’s shoulder; yet that does seem the most accurate way of describing Moskowitz’s recent output.

The rear end of a car and an X (Cadillac/Chopsticks); a building and a cross (Wrigley Building); a cane and a hat (Retirement Painting)—the works from 1975–78 feature objects such as these floating in canvas space. This unanchored quality suggests the image seen in the mind’s eye, since only there can form be apprehended without foil, that is, without the gangue of contingent shapes. A viewer may stare rather sightlessly at these paintings, trying not so much to see as to be enlightened; but the veil of symbolism that interposes itself between the ineffable and the uninitiated never lifts, barely twitches. This is not to attribute to Moskowitz any horror of hoi polloi, only the reluctance to profane that informs the stance of the obscurantist. Because the images remain obdurately mysterious, or, to the degree that they are interpretable, obfuscatingly simple, one remains staring, meanwhile subliminally absorbing matters of texture, color, etc.

Then, voilà, one sees: these earlier works have underpaintings of girderlike lines, so faint as to seem imaginary. Once they are noticed, something curious happens. This scaffolding, which, perhaps by reason of its reading as “structure” or by its illusion of deep space, had seemed almost ghostly, comes to seem more substantial than the primary object, which appears to flicker like a projection on a screen. One work in particular, Wrigley Building, looks like a slide gone askew in the Carousel. Presented tilted on a diagonal, the building will not stabilize, but the Geist of the beams in the background looks as solid as the temple columns before Samson pulled them down.

On the one hand, this persistent pentimento recalls the idea of the noumenal realm “behind” the apparent. On the other, it’s a near-perfect illustration of Plato’s allegory of the cave, where mortals see only the poor wavering shadows cast by real entities in the substantial world—the girders defining the wall, while the objects, of course, are the shadow forms. Perceive it either way.

In the new work, we are outside the cave but in the dark. With the black-on-black compositions of 1979–80 objects are virtually bumped into, like furniture in an unlit room. Only in Eddystone do we see the light before we see the light: from a distance nothing more is discernible than a white gridded rectangle, locked in its pitch canvas—an illuminated window that strands the viewer on the outside looking in. On closer inspection, a slight distinction in the shades of black allows a shape—a lighthouse—to detach itself from its umbrageous surround. Its recognizableness, its nameableness, constitutes a safe harbor into which the percipient, like a ship, has been carefully guided. The light in the window now welcomes rather than ostracizes. This is work that comes into being only as it is engaged and that unmakes itself for each new reception.

Most of the more recent production shares this nascence. Monoliths loom unexpectedly out of the blackness. No longer enigmatic, the new configurations have to do with palpability, physicality. They are phallic: mountains, smokestacks, skyscrapers. They have overwhelming, even menacing presences, but the power to bring that presence into existence lies with the viewer. An air of dangerous negotiation that may or may not end in peace results. A red percolates through the drawings, glimmering out from under another color, seeping into a building, or suffusing a background; it can seem to ring an insistent alarm, but it can also heighten the sanity of the man-made (architectural) forms it laps. In two post hoc studies of Moskowitz’s 1977 paintings, Swimmer, the pastel drawings are identical except that in one the waters are a touch hematose, as if a shark attack had bloodied the sea, or as if, simply, the sun were setting. It’s all in your point of view, and yet the red is irreducibly there. The fact that Moskowitz felt compelled to execute these sketches three years after the completion of the painting suggests the seminal nature of that work, not only because its tactility (Moskowitz applied the blue paint with his hands) constitutes a prologue to the “lived-ness” of the present work, but also because the act of swimming is so meet a metaphor for the balance between submission and control experienced by the individual in a fluid universe.

Jeanne Silverthorne