New York

Andrew Spence

Barbara Toll Fine Arts

For their sense of wholeness and resolution, Andrew Spence’s paintings are indebted to the work of the late John McLaughlin; Spence’s receptiveness to naturalist influences, both architectural and organic, recalls Ellsworth Kelly. All three artists, Spence most literally of all, understand abstraction to be abstracted from something else, to constitute some kind of parallel, plastic essence to reality.

Only one of the eight canvases here, most from 1983, builds from the eccentric biomorphism of last year’s paintings. Though as a group I found the latter overly quirky, hence almost illegible, their feelings of motion continue to inform this most recent work and impart a welcome bounce to the imagery. 83.2, my preferred painting, happened to be this direct descendant of the earlier pieces. A drab olive rectangle, its right side canted, is animated by three concentric white curves joined at their tops by a vertical line; the piece realizes the fusion of land-scape and geometry that so much occupied Spence last year.

The other new paintings have considerably more staid, almost obdurate, messages. Usually a single color figure on a white ground, they read as particularized symbols of a universal if entirely nonutilitarian language. They assert their own beauty first; meanings follow. Different perspectival readings are imposed from picture to picture, so that we seem to peer down into paintings like the rounded orange grate of 83.11, or the black grill of 83.5. Face on, the two-panel turquoise-on-white window sash of 83.7 becomes apparent, just as there are skeletal suggestions of a fenestrated log-cabin wall in the oxblood-on-white 83.9.

Figurative references, always elusive, become less and less direct in the other paintings; simultaneously the implied vantage point becomes more ambiguous. The large (84 by 60 inches) Untitled 129, 1982, tilts away from the viewer, its central black spine receding toward the top as it courses across evenly spaced, parallel, horizontal black lines. Conversely, the black ground of the oddly shaped vertical parallelogram in 83.8 establishes a kind of nonspatial field, whose illusionistic flatness a white grid in the lower-right quadrant struggles to counteract.

In all the paintings Spence’s empirical working method makes itself felt, as ghosts of underpainting and the like are more or less visible. These worked palimpsests underscore the importance of drawing to his enterprise, even while confounding the initial perception of its holistic nature. Both McLaughlin’s and Kelly’s legacies to contemporary art are rich and largely unclaimed; Spence’s steady development as an abstract artist may confer heir’s rights to his work.

Richard Armstrong