New York

Deborah Kass

Baskerville + Watson

From the first tentative glance to the last lingering look they invite, Deborah Kass’ most recent paintings never cease to amaze. For those who have become accustomed to the artist’s landscapes, these works may come as a bit of a surprise. As a group, they do signal a shift away from nature and the recognizable world and back toward the more conceptual concerns of an even earlier body of work. In each of her paintings from 1980–81, a particular scene of rocks and water, inspired by Kass’ keen admiration for Paul Cézanne and her own observations of nature, is simultaneously fragmented and its expressive potential liberated by a dynamic box-in-box format, the leading formal motif of the series. In her paintings of the mid ’80s Kass broke through the boundaries of this rectangular format, isolating and abstracting elements from her earlier landscapes.

Now, in paintings such as Natural Symptom #I and Natural Symptom #II, both 1985, the familiar rocks appear oddly angled and radically foreshortened, more straight-edged geometrical, and they have been enlarged to boulderlike proportions. Nature is left behind almost entirely in Stack o’ Rocks, 1985, as the pictorial vocabulary enters deeper metaphorical ground. Turned on their side, one supporting the other, the rocks mark the way into the painting’s sentient dimension. With their tensile edges, straining surfaces, and weighty mass, these forms trigger thoughts about the mutual provision of support and balance, and the desire for harmony. But this composition has another side as well. The manner in which the large yellow-and-red form physically overwhelms the one beneath it as if threatening to crush it evokes a mood of imminent danger.

Elbow at Emmaus, 1986, also provides the viewer with more than immediately meets the eye. The “rocks,” for example, now barely rooted in nature, alternately suggest some fantastic, futuristic building, a space station, or perhaps alphabet blocks. Whichever interpretation one might prefer, the impression of constructive universal forces at work is woven through the visual fabric of this work. This quality arises from a powerful illusion of speed, of primary elements in the process of rushing through space, coming together, and splitting apart to create a new reality. What this show demonstrated is that it is still possible for an artist to work within the by now well-trafficked area between abstraction and representation and not take any of the roads leading to trite, ho-hum expressionism.

Ronny Cohen