Peter Joseph

Peter Joseph’s quiet compositions are stubborn, even annoying in their refusal to be situated in current stylistic modes. They are also resistant to reference or association, and to legibility as texts. Mute to the point of being incommunicado, they seem to revel in unstylish Modernist self-referentiality despite their open forms. In this first American exhibition for Joseph, who is an art-world loner in his own country, England, all 13 acrylic paintings, done between 1973 and 1983, share a similar format: a horizontally or vertically placed rectangle of color within a border of a related hue. The paintings hover between dualities of color, form, and slight proportional variation, and between transparency and opacity. It is easier to describe what these restrained, solemn presences are not than what they are, and it is remarkable that they manage to be compelling and authentic at the same time that they withhold information and expression.

The earlier paintings have cream-colored centers framed by narrow strips of dark brown, blue, or black. In the seven paintings from the past three years, Joseph replaces the strips, first with thick borders and finally with broader surrounds. His titles repeat but do not do justice to the unique properties or chromatic intensity of his color combinations, for example, Rose Colour with Brown Surround, Feb. 1983, Green with Dark Green Surround, Sept. 1982, or Blue with Blue/Black Border, June 1981.

The light-colored paintings have the geometric appearance of Minimalist exercises, to which they have been compared. But such analogies are misleading, since Joseph’s works are neither hard-edged nor tough-minded. The concentration on the properties of color, which is so individual in each work, negates the adherence to systematization that the repeated formats at first suggest. Joseph’s colors are exactingly modulated, sometimes to the point of being obsessive, sometimes just stopping before a slow dissolve across the boundary between two tones. The balance between the sizes of center and surround is also precisely adjusted so that there is a kind of pressure or containment, psychic and actual, a necessary interdependence between the two.

The choice of colors and small steady brushstrokes that layer wash over wash to reach the proper density privilege subjectivity and summon up shades of Abstract Expressionism, particularly the paintings of Mark Rothko first seen in London at the Tate Gallery in 1959. Although this analogy is historically and interpretatively more appropriate than the comparison with Minimalism, it still evades the issue of what Joseph is addressing. Clues can be found in the preparatory drawings, really paste-ups, and the process by which he makes the paintings. Sifting through hundreds of sheets of colored construction paper, Joseph selects a duo for center and surround, usually of similar tonal densities but different hues, and mounts one against the other. The artist’s pleasure resides in the intuitive process of selection, and in the drawings his gift is clear, the effect easy and sure; the pleasure for the viewer lies in contemplating the enormous range of color variations in a series of paintings, how each color is transformed so mysteriously in juxtaposition with its partner and how each determines the other in harmony.

If the original choice includes a bit of serendipity, the final painting is a straitjacket of discipline. The size of the painting is determined by the size of the drawing; it is always 61/3 times larger. Joseph begins with the center panel, the “personality” of the painting; what follows is a week and a half of labor to fix a relationship as basic as that of tree to sky, and as impossible to represent. Some paintings do not meet Joseph’s self-imposed criteria and are destroyed. The ones that remain suggest talismans of a ritual which was the esthetic process, acts of grace which are testaments to subjectivity, subdued by the same mute that modulates the colors.

Joseph admires the transparency of Tintoretto. Despite the simplicity of his means, his goals are vast; there is an ambition to render what words cannot articulate—the ineffable. Not all the paintings shown here meet this metaphysical challenge, the most successful being those in which the colors capture the luminosity of the Venetian palette, and the tones are so unbearably close that their differences become even more precious and allusive. Seen metaphorically they are poetic, occasionally melancholic entrances to private domains of contemplation where essential abstraction reigns. The sense of suppression is finally most like the moment immediately after sunset when the absent color is still a presence of loss.

Judith Russi Kirshner