New York

“New Abstraction”

Sidney Janis Gallery

The inference of novelty in the title of this show was misplaced. The 16 paintings, two by each of eight artists, are recent and they are abstract, but there was nothing new here, nor could there be. There were two anomalies—Jerry Zeniuk, with his multicolored, camouflagelike pictures, and Howard Smith, with thinly washed, atmospheric canvases. These aside, the painters were represented by monochrome works of varying scale (mostly large), which seem to address the question of how elementary the painted surface can be made before it forfeits significance.

Within the subgenre of allover painters Olivier Mosset posits one alternative of mechanical, “no-hands” application in a big painting of fluid, evenly put-down black enamel. By contrast, Frederic Thursz exploits the fissured buildup of viscous oil paint in his two luminous celadon paintings. In both of these artists’ work, related but opposite kinds of negation of surface act, paradoxically, to elevate it. Their physical relief serves as surrogate subject matter, so that analysis of the painting turns on the processes of its making. An equally unsatisfactory discourse is provoked by the work of the other two allover painters, Marcia Hafif (who organized the show) and Phil Sims. Each works paint, but only to the point of an uninterrupted aggregation of contiguous strokes completely covering the picture plane. The results, as in all this work, are materialist statements—in fact, materialist restatements. In Hafif’s and Sims’ cases the traceries of brush against canvas, together with the sizes of the paintings and their public colors—the first primaries—become a kind of subject matter. (The smaller Hafif work, Cadmium Yellow, Mars Violet, evades the fate of the larger Cadmium Red exactly because it is small and more privately colored.) Unlike the process emphasis of Mosset’s or Thursz’s work, these paintings alternately strike me as the final apotheosis of op art (that is, as retinal exercises) or as domestications of conceptualism, filling the stretched canvases with predetermined color. Either way, the theoretical underpinnings seem retardataire in extremis. Are we reduced to a discussion of intentionality? Evidently so––especially with Joseph Marioni’s self-styled “deconstruction paintings,” which, with their dripping swathes of paint, look for all the world like yet another variant on ortho dox Greenbergian decor.

That leaves Robert Ryman stranded amidst mostly (I except Thursz) unsympathetic work. The accusations of etiolation, opticality, or determinist conceptualism are not applicable to either of his paintings: Regis, a 4-foot square of white on steel from 1977, or the smaller Bond, 1982. Bolted to the wall with black nuts and washers at each of its four corners, the metal-plate painting establishes an image field that simultaneously scrutinizes the painting’s support and its structure. Similarly Bond, a white band around a small field of dense white marks on darkly translucent fiberglass, operates as a beautiful encapsulation of Minimalist sensibility even while addressing notions of frame and framing.

It may be precisely because of their unabashed willingness to present sensibility, their polite size, their inscribed purity as white paintings, or some combination of all three that these paintings appear outside the academic harangue that suffocates their fellows. Even in its critical heyday fifteen years ago this form of reductivism was productive for few painters other than Ryman; with time, it has lapsed into an anemic stupor. I respect what I take to be these artists’ common desire to sustain something independent of the frenzied figuration, both abstract and representational, of the hour, but a wholesale reprise of the very activities that spawned the present miasma has and can have no real significance.

Richard Armstrong