Andrea Belag

John Davis Gallery

Andrea Belags first solo show in New York featured recent paintings that revealed much about new abstraction in the late ’80s. In several of these, Belag imparts a luminous energy to the surfaces that is remarkable. In Palimpsest, 1986–87, which was the largest painting in the show, the main source of this luminous energy is in the relationship of image to mark. Here the image is hung on a multipanel structure of three sections, the two on the ends wider than the one in the middle; through the use of painted lines, or fields of contrasting color, each section is subdivided into rectangular and triangular sectors of different sizes. The image appears to arise from the areas of colored pigments covering the canvas and to gain its exhilarating vitality from the topmost layer, which consists of a sea of zigzagging black and dark-blue marks. As the eye follows the repetitive patterns of the marks, they appear to pulsate on the surface. This phenomenon is helped along by Belag’s sensitivity to the constructive role of value contrasts and by her ability to use white actively to create the illusion of relief. At the moment when the mind registers what the eye perceives as movement—i.e., when the areas of color and the dark zigzags seem to pull away from each other—the image emerges, born in the intense flash of luminous energy produced.

There are two things that I find new and exciting about this luminous energy. The first is the forceful way in which it evokes a rich array of ideas and feelings; in the case of Palimpsest, these revolve about the universal power of creation and the passage of time. The second is the picture’s distinctive graphic quality, the very aspect that pulls the associative trigger on which the more-is-better sensibility of much current abstraction depends. It is discernible in the fast and direct manner in which image and marks come across, which is more in the fashion of a print than in the traditional manner of painting.

Yet Belag developed this graphic quality via a painterly route, a progression that can be seen throughout these recent works, from Drawn Out, 1985, to her latest paintings such as Palimpsest and Epipolic, 1986–87. Its source is shown to be the tension between two-dimensional surface and three-dimensional mass, one of the venerable issues in 20th-century painting and one that is at the forefront of progressive tendencies in abstraction. Belag’s instinctive handling of this issue—the way in which she draws these elements out, pushing the tension to its abstract limits while imbuing the planar facets with a mysterious resonance—is the catalyst for her approach.

Ronny Cohen