New York

Barbara Schwartz

Willard Gallery

Perhaps it’s the shift from her past references to the body to her present references to the spirit that makes me nostalgic for Barbara Schwartz’s earlier reliefs. Maybe she wouldn’t even know what I’m talking about. What shift? If the titles are to be taken as in any way indicative, these new works have for Schwartz the same kinds of connotations as the old.

Maybe so, but the sources of those titles have always been somewhat obscure. Unlike the source for the work itself: as Jeff Perrone once noted, the pieces from the middle ’70s are “humanized,” specifically, sexualized. They feature clefts, knobs, smothered layers of pigment—all sublimated in a gestalt that holds its place on the wall as stubbornly as a piece of bone does in a hamburger. They are “primitive” forms, with a heft only abetted by their plaster composition.

Then came work that seems more tortured. If the previous stuff is impervious, this is groping. Twisted like a Möbius strip, a typical piece will turn in on itself in convolutions that, in retrospect, are as solipsistically (no judgment intended) woven as a cocoon.

I say “in retrospect” because the new work reminds me of butterflies. It’s difficult to invoke that image without sounding silly, and Schwartz’s work is not the least bit that. But it does boast a new set of colors—jewellike yellows, blues, greens, and fuschias (quite different from the earlier, earthier tones) that are, without exception, zoned off from each other in distinct areas, like those in the intricate patterns on butterfly wings. (Actually, in the semidark these hues glow like fireflies.) Each piece expands outward in a series of scallops; some are bilateral, so that pairs of wings do indeed seem intended. Beyond this, the new mood is diaphanous. The material is as weightless as possible—handmade paper instead of plaster. This allows for larger dimensions, but a new flatness moots the increase in size. These are reliefs by virtue of their irregular edges and their hanging out from the wall; there are holes in the surface that allow you to test that distance. Still, the main surface is a plane, and “frontality” is written all over it.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this. Technically, in fact, the work is faultless, and logically it makes perfect sense in the evolution of Schwartz’s style. Maybe the problem is that, although butterflies have traditionally been symbolic of a more refined existence, they don’t have the staying power of grosser beings.

Jeanne Silverthorne