Roland Ginzel

Gallery 400, University of Illinois at Chicago; Dart Gallery

Roland Ginzel is a painter of many parts—too many, perhaps. On the one hand, you have to admire his grit. The retrospective at the University of Illinois’ Circle Campus, where he used to teach, summarized a career of over 40 years in which Ginzel continually addressed the most urgent issues of modern painting. The exhibition of current work at Dart Gallery showed that this “Chicago” painter, who is remembered and still highly respected in his hometown, though he now lives in New York, continues to be as serious about the medium as ever. There’s a youthful vitality in everything he’s done, as if he never lost the enthusiasm and idealism with which he began. On the other hand, his work has encompassed such a variety of abstract styles that it seems to have no ideological center.

If Ginzel has remained forever young as a painter, it could be that he’s the kind of earnest youth who’s too impressionable for his own good. In the late ’50s he began to veer away from Abstract Expressionism toward a hardedged abstraction; then, in the late ’60s, he was suddenly taken with Minimalism, a trend he followed throughout much of the ’70s. In his transitional work of the early ’60s, violent, gestural figures appeared, like demons that had leapt out of Willem de Kooning’s “Woman” series (1950–61) and briefly seized Ginzel’s imagination. Now, in his most recent paintings, it is Post-Modernism’s sunny beams—zigzags of color and vaguely figurative shapes like bits of graffiti—that break through his clouds of Abstract Expressionistic impasto.

I believe Ginzel has been sincere in each phase of his work, but what’s missing is the blinkered focus, the megalomania, of true genius. The drawback in staying young and open to new ideas is that the work never matures to the degree it does when painters pursue a single idea until either they or it are exhausted.There’s almost nothing in Ginzel’s imagery that has lasted him his whole life long. The one strong motif that does reappear is a border, a field of floating color or a band of geometric forms, between the central composition and the canvas edge. The frame within the frame that this border creates puts the central image in quotation marks, as if the statement being made had really come from someone else. To a large extent, the effect of Ginzel’s career is just such a paraphrase.

Although I don’t think Ginzel has the originality of a really great painter, I do suspect that he was a wonderful teacher; like his work, he may not be innovative but he is perceptive. Ginzel might be said to have a good eye in the same sense that a gifted mimic has a good ear. In fact, his career thus far has been at the least an astute commentary on the history of postwar American painting. Even if nothing in that history has originated in his work, a great deal is reflected there, and while I haven’t praised him highly as a painter, I am, as a critic, somewhat envious of his powers of observation.

Colin Westerbeck