New York

Gary Stephan

Marlborough | Midtown

Gary Stephan began showing work in New York in the late ’60s, about the time a second and third generation of formalist critics were scrutinizing paintings for their own purposes. The “rhetorical posturing” of the Abstract Expressionists had by then been successfully replaced by the critic’s duffel bag of verbal enigmas. Discourse was restricted to the dialectics of surface and support, conception and execution. Terms such as “the framing edge,” “anti-illusionism,” and “the field” were erected as standards to judge paintings with, and those that passed were approved and validated, the closing statements in a one-sided debate.

Stephan’s paintings of the last few years show that he has never quite gotten over his formative period. He has gone through the motions of undoing his education, but he has never really gotten down to examining his origins. The work in this exhibition follows consistently and logically from his paintings of the ’70s, paintings concerned solely with formal questions of figure and ground. Stephan is now in command of a larger vocabulary of dialectical oppositions, but the contradictions are neither as perplexing nor as engaging as he intends. Moreover, the images are neither mysterious nor evocative; if anything, they are abstract glosses on the use of history in recent figuration.

The conical shape that forms the basis of Stephan’s current vocabulary is derived from Constructivism. His approach consists of enlarging elements from Ivan Kliun, Lyubov Popova, and Natalia Goncharova up to the heroic scale of Abstract Expressionism. To complicate this use of history Stephan fiddles with the format of the paintings by incorporating stretcher bars and additional panels, a usage derived from the ’60s “what you see is what you see” attitude. For example, he literalizes Kasimir Malevich’s overlapping rectangles by placing one panel over a section of the painting; this literalness comes out of Frank Stella, whose “Polish Village” series, 1970–73, is also derived from Constructivism. Stephan’s gestural brushwork is elegant and refined, while his palette is comprised of such tasteful acrylic colors as a robin’s-egg blue, a saturated blue, warm grays, raw sienna, and Venetian red.

The dialectical oppositions Stephan presents us with are somehow all too easy and familiar. The narrower, left-hand side of The Children of Children, 1983–84, for example, is comprised of two vertical panels of the same height, joined together by a stretcher bar. A conical shape thrusts down and across the bar. The right-hand side of the painting is a square; its sides are shorter than the height of the vertical panels, and its versions of the cone and stretcher bar motifs are painted as convex in order to fit into it. Like the other paintings in the exhibition, The Children of Children is a banal visual gimmick dressed up in the rhetoric of tasteful abstraction.

John Yau