New York

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe

John Weber Gallery

The question about Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe’s new abstract paintings is not whether they’re good or bad, but whether or not it is valid to make them today. This question has nothing to do with the fact that they look outdated, if elegant; it is not a response to the current whirlpool of artistic opinion that favors alternately figural “expression” and semiotic “wit.” Rather, the issue is whether the language of these pieces still works to give us the illusion of revealing secret yet inevitable meanings, “metaphysical” truths available only by implication or innuendo. Behind art’s self-justifying myth of autonomy is a subtle search for realms of connotation not available through other means; abstract art has bogged down not because it has become art-historical—Gilbert-Rolfe’s work expands “the planar dimension” toward spatial illusionism through extremely dramatic color contrasts and perspectival tricks—but because it no longer touches any world-historical nerve with its metaphysical linkages. It is only by touching such a nerve that a sense of subsumed meanings is evoked, meanings which make luminous the esthetic terms through which they are available. In Gilbert-Rolfe’s Gustavus Adolphus, 1983–84, progressively explosive eruptions/disruptions on the right correspond to the angular arms of the implosion on the left; in effect, equivalence is established between deconcentration or diffusion and concentration and (con-) fusion. Without necessarily effecting some powerful ideological meaning, does this structuring suggest one? This is the question one must put.

The traditional basis for nonobjective painting is antimaterialism, typified by the work of Wassily Kandinsky, but this is only the point of departure for two further aims: attention first to what Kasimir Malevich called the nonobjective feelings made available by art, and second to abstract art’s destructive, oppositional character, which Mondrian once said was neglected. What Malevich called the “nonobjective sensation which pervades everything,” the “feeling as such” which “nonobjective representation” was to “liberate,” is the secret subject matter of abstract art. It is to be realized, as Mondrian suggested when he wrote about his art’s resemblance to “true Boogie-Woogie,” through the destruction of the unity of appearance which makes it seem melodic, and through “construction through the continuous opposition of pure means,” generating “dynamic rhythm.” What one asks of Gilbert-Rolfe’s pictures is whether their rhythm—their oppositional interlocking of relatively differentiated angular gestalts and of primary colors grounded by black and white—generates a fresh sense of nonobjective sensation, connotes a realm of “feeling as such” that is, in Roland Barthes’ phrase, “general, global and diffuse,” but also inextinguishable, irrepressible, and finally indispensable to a sentient being—a crucial part of what it is to be sentient. If abstraction is finally a way of connoting the movement of consciousness itself, then the question is whether Gilbert-Rolfe advances its power to connote, and to destroy anything resembling the easy unity of natural appearance.

I don’t think so. Gilbert-Rolfe takes us back to the Cubism that Mondrian left because below the surface of its disruption of space it always conveyed an implied—secretly actualized—bedrock unity of appearance, which could never be denied or destroyed however much it might be made to shiver and shake. Both Malevich and Mondrian saw that a serious attempt must be made to destroy this unity so as to release full awareness of feeling as such; as long as the melodic line of unity held, a sense of naturalness resulted which inhibited nonobjective sensation. In other words, art must move toward chaos, even if it finds it impossible ever to arrive there.

Gilbert-Rolfe, I think, moves away from “true Boogie-Woogie” back toward Cubism. Trick perspective involving an interior frame creates transparent unity in More Middle Class Pleasure, and the erratic blue diagonal, with its decorative density, binds the screen South North, 1983, into a facile wholeness. In Gustavus Adolphus and Silence, 1983–84, there is a push toward chaos, but the pure means signify too precisely the strategies of painting (more quasi-illusionism, and a demonstration of framing strategies). The nonobjective sensation is lost in the sensation of picture-making—a kind of “conceptual” sensation, it can be argued, one so well known that it no longer ties us to feeling as such. Gilbert-Rolfe’s new paintings show that for all the purity of its means nonobjective art can no longer be pure in its results, and that these too are becoming “regressive” in function. This does not mean that abstraction is gaining a new power to connote; on the contrary, it shows its sensibility in trouble, no longer able to attain the metaphysical in response to world-historical stress. More Middle Class Pleasure is a less ironic title than Gilbert-Rolfe might think, and Silence has almost become endearing, even though it still smacks of that old-time dynamic rhythm. Gilbert-Rolfe shows us that the discourse of abstraction is over, it has become a small, pleasurable silence.

Donald Kuspit