New York

Deborah Kass

Baskerville + Watson

Deborah Kass’ first solo exhibition in New York was a strong one. Landscape has been her subject for as long as she has been painting, or over 10 years, and her very methodical progress, like the salmon’s, has followed an upstream trajectory, against the current and ever closer to her source. To simplify things, let us say that it is Marsden Hartley who turns out to be standing there.

This was not always evident. In 1973, for instance, Kass made a painting, The Death of Ophelia, After Delacroix, whose literary theme, art-historical reference, and lyrical, almost neoclassical feeling suggest work by some of Europe’s more effete contemporary artists such as Carlo Maria Mariani or Gérard Garouste. Despite its central figure, however, this painting is a marshy landscape, and most of Kass’ pieces from that time—forest scenes, barnyards with cows—are engagingly direct, naturalistic in a relaxed sort of manner, somewhat genteel, and to recently debriefed eyes, fashionably unmodern. What has propelled Kass upriver ever since is the fact that she is at heart a no-nonsense, boldly aggressive painter, not one to finesse.

Systematically Kass whittled her subject matter down until, by the late ’70s, she had settled on one of nature’s more taciturn elements. For the last five or six years rocks, rock formations, and promontories have determined her paintings. When Kass eliminates options, her pieces, paradoxically, become less refined. For a while she drained color out of her compositions, occasionally leaving only the black, Pop-graphic outlines of rocks on unprimed canvas. More frequently, the rocks and their grounds were gray and framed by elaborately painted, vividly decorative borders full of marks which sometimes looked like Pat Steir’s. As the rocks became more set, the borders became less so, and began to travel through different styles and chromatic values. They also began to travel, rather like contracting shutters, into the actual canvas, stopping, at one confused point, near its center. The borders vanished altogether shortly after this, and Kass has been striding along with great confidence ever since.

Color, a panoply of color, now makes up those rocks, which are more and more frequently engulfed by thrashing, cascading, or foaming waters. The seven large oil paintings in this show were remarkably varied given the sameness of elements depicted. Long Fall, 1983, a from-the-bottom-of-the-canyon vertical, shows a triple waterfall of rainbow-flecked white pouring down from high blue and brown cliffs topped by a jagged sliver of sky. Maine Squeeze, 1983, a horizontal rectangle, brings the viewer to a toad’s perspective of a loudly babbling brook of shallow white water spilling over softened, dappled rocks of pinks and mauves. Kass has a wonderful sense of where and how to inflect; a petulant daub of discordant pigment destroys the peace of longer pastel-hued strokes, and pulls the painting still closer. Kass’ most atypical painting here, Pink Sound, 1983, has an oxymoronic quality. It is rhapsodically quiet, and the balmy cyclamens and oranges that dominate sky and sea are first cut by a blue horizon, then turned cold and deep by two dark distanced rocks, and then still colder by strokes of black and the carnival colors of night, which accelerate toward the low end of the canvas. The exploding wave in The Big Splash, 1983, fills two thirds of the work, nearly its entire middle plane, with a detonation point like a starburst at dead center. Kass is becoming something of a wizard with maximalist white. Because of its telescopic, freeze-frame perspective, The Big Splash is not a conventional painting. It fits very squarely, however, within a tradition whose heyday may have been a while ago but which remains one of the richest on this side of the Atlantic.

Subtlety and sophistication, or for that matter intellectualism of any sort, are not among these paintings’ virtues, but then again these have rarely been considered virtues at all in the U.S. of A. If the American landscape, the theme of nature, and forceful painterly skills are among the values you consider dear, Kass might very well be your young woman of the year.

Lisa Liebmann