New York

Stanley Boxer

Andre Emmerich Gallery

Stanley Boxer is another painter struggling, like Poons, to make good the myth of the magical surface—to combine fresh ways of making it mysterious with old methods of giving it “substance.” As with Poons, there is extraordinary self-consciousness about the surface—a refusal to take it for granted, even an uncertainty about the sensibility that could best inform it. And as with Poons, we see a sensibility trying to form itself through a fresh sense of possible surface, without any clear sense of or special desire for the “perfect surface.” This ideal, which once seemed numinously implicit in what Clement Greenberg called “‘American-type’ painting,” no longer exists. In both Poons’ and Boxer’s work the surface is understood as an imaginative creation, that is, as the result more of a transformation of paint than of the simple act of laying it down in whatever process that will succinctly bring out its powerfully physical presence.

For Poons, buoyant foam gives paint this imaginative rather than literal presence, this expansive rather than narrowly conceived physicality. For Boxer, vigorously shaped paint does the same; paint exists for him not as a material to touch, although signs of touch are plentiful, but as one to mold, almost to model. It is the visible form of malleability; it becomes “sculpted.” This bringing out of the latently sculptural potential in surface, whether through Poons’ extravagant, transparently artificial means or through the less shocking but equally ambitious—if not as “heroic” in its results—means of Boxer, is their answer to what might be called the “crisis of surface” that has overtaken abstraction with the arrival of the expressionist agitated figure and its own old age. Under this double pressure abstraction is returning, however self-consciously and theatrically—through the vehicle of making the painting freshly “scenic,” picturesque—to its roots in generic expressionism. It is trying to reconcile expressionism, which insists upon the subjective origins of art, with its own pursuit of the autonomous unique object, its own belief in the absolute independent reality of art. It is slowly beginning to realize that this belief originated to allow subjectivity free play, a utopian sense of possibilities in the context of a medium, however limited. Poons and Boxer exemplify different responses to this crisis in abstraction, as well as the strange self-recognition and consequent self-transformation that have been forced upon it.

This self-consciousness is not easily accepted. Boxer masks it in the kind of playfulness evident in his run-together titles, such as Shrillripofhothoar and Deepeningburstofhush, both 1982. (It is equally disguised by Poons’ more conventional non sequitur titles, such as Corrine and Gala, both 1983.) One can’t help feeling there is something comic in this. At the same time Boxer’s titles insist upon, and echo, the unity of his surfaces, the “all-oneness” of his paintings. It is like Benjamin Whorf’s distinction between the English statement that “the wave is breaking,” which posits a substance independent from its own action, and the Navajo “breaking-wave,” which unites substance and process in one verbal “gesture,” truer to reality. This unity is now so finely tuned, so virtuoso, that it can take all kinds of liberties, giving us surfaces that coagulate, unravel, bunch, and bloat, seeming a microcosm of contradictory forces yet never losing their stability. And all this is done within a generally small format, generally ranging from 4 to 8 inches to 6 to 12, sometimes with one dimension much larger than the other (3-by-20 inches). Fingers, brush, and palette knife are all used; as with Poons, all stops seem pulled out to achieve the effect of dynamically sensual yet strangely coherent surface. There is a sense of the controlled rhapsodic, a use of color/touch leitmotifs in a “musical” composition. Indeed, so-called “musical”—“polyphonic”––painting is here practiced with a new vehemence and intimacy—and yet also with a Modernist detachment, for there are no symbolist overtones.

Boxer’s paintings, like those of Poons, are masterful achievements. I don’t know their worth in the long run, but right now they represent a resistance to the new figural expressionism. They show that abstraction can also have “expressionist” resources without becoming “abstract expressionist,” that is, “depth psychological,” “mythological,” or “animistic”—in general, “primitivist.” Boxer and Poons give us a visual neologism: expressive abstraction that is musical without being predictably melodious (as eventually happens in “ ‘American-type’ painting,” especially that of Mark Rothko), and that makes the surface “profound” without making it a mask for a ’“primitive” depth. They have created work that is all consciousness; it is the absence of any impulse from the unconscious in the pulse of their paintings that makes them heroic. They offer us an intimacy with surface that is full of sophisticated visual surprises which tell us absolutely nothing about ourselves, only about what a painting can be—how it can still be “pure” while playing around, in a daredevil way, with its own purity. This is esthetic sports at its best.

Donald Kuspit