New York

Douglas Sanderson

John Weber Gallery

In the Orient, death is white; here, black. When Isaac Newton first observed the color spectrum he responded with the disinterest of a scientist and, simultaneously, the dementia of a hubristic philosopher, unnecessarily limiting color to seven hues to align with the seven musical notes. Our approach to Douglas Sanderson’s severe-looking color-band paintings is fraught with shoulder-squarings, spine-straightenings, head-shakings—self-administered pinches intended to maintain attention. One feels reconfined to a boot camp for Minimalist perceptual training. But color has its own surprises.

This is painting as chess match—strategic, recombinant, with sudden moves made in deep stillness. The panels, each with their striated hues, travel in groups, usually of two or three. Thus the viewer reads each work from top to bottom and then scans laterally across the series. In Edith’s Garden, 1985, for instance, each panel of the triptych has six horizontal bars apiece, the thickest bars at the top and bottom, sandwiching the four thinner ones, which widen progressively as they near the base but at different rates in each panel. The wild-card effect of adjacent color, however, constantly befuddles superrational calibrations. Since bright color can seem to take up more space than dull, ascertaining the comparative widths of parallel stripes is difficult. Is the fourth line of the third panel the same size as the fourth line of the second panel, or slightly narrower? Putting the work’s directional markers together makes a perceptual crosscurrent, a rip tide which shuttles the viewer hither and yon. The simplest expression of this is Untitled, 1985, in which red and blue strata, spread over three rectangles, alternate, the red darkening eastward, the blue lightening. What we have, then, is time and natural law checkmated: the sky (blue) brightens to the east, yes, but the sun (red) rises in the west.

Sanderson’s titles lend authority to allegories of nature. Dance to a Day’s Ascent, 1985, also dramatizes a darkening in the east, but as a narrative rather than a map. That is, beginning at the left and working to the right, it’s the diary of a day’s progress. The center—high noon, so to speak—is brightest and as such clamps down on our attention, creating, oddly, not a peak but a hollow between the two darker flanks. Eventually, though, the comparative brightness of the left column engenders a disequilibrium that draws us toward it, like a slow-moving object seen from the corner of the eye. The thrust of progress is thwarted by the drag of memory.

Sanderson seems to have objectified the notoriously mixed reactions provoked by color in the cross-purposes of his paintings. By some subtle law of near misses, The Symmetry of July, 1985, partners Mid Hudson Horizon, 1985, so well that the effect is of double vision, even though one is smaller than the other and the bands in each are of different widths, even different proportions. Symmetry seems to have developed a slow leak that, logically, diffuses its intensely bright color into the faded ones of Horizon, which is, illogically, inflated rather than deflated. Or, to make better sense of the color differences, we could say that Symmetry is the blinding explosion, Horizon, with its lower color saturation, the drifting smoke. Sanderson employs nary a vertical here, as if to avoid unearned transcendence, to stick to a workmanlike edifice that reaches for the sky block by horizontal block. Nevertheless, if this is work that looks its achieved goal straight in the eye, it’s evasive in its very adherence to the horizon, which is, after all, the line that separates the visible from the invisible, and beyond which we cannot see. Not coincidentally, it is also the point from which light, and consequently color, arise.

Jeanne Silverthorne