New York

Abby Shahn

Midtown Galleries

In this show of recent paintings, Abby Shahn succeeds in reinventing the grid, which is no mean feat. Using primarily the vivid medium of egg tempera on paper, she turns the gridfrom a symbol of Minimalism and the reductive impulse in abstraction into a metaphor of sensualism and the exuberant tendency also implicit in abstraction. However, the exuberant side of abstraction is the very one that many artists have sought to tame, particularly those with a theoretical or conceptual bent, from Mondrian and Malevich to Sol LeWitt. Without sacrificing either the fundamental rigor of geometry or the elemental harmony of structure, Shahn offers a vision of abstraction that is breathtaking in the freedom of opportunity it represents.

Ice Out, 1985, a very large wall-size diptych, is a tour-de-force display of Shahn’s talent for constructing images with multiple layers of meaning. The two panels are variations of the same basic format, a tripartite structure consisting of two rows of colored rectangles (four on the top and three on the bottom) enclosing a central checkerboard of colors. By keeping the overall form consistent but varying the colors of the rectangles and the colors and sizes of the individual squares in the checkerboard, Shahn avoids the predictable while maintaining order. Even the repetition of certain key colors (red, blue, yellow, black, and white) contributes to the illusion of movement and spontaneity. Another source of the resonant energy that permeates this image is the gestural brushwork. Shahn’s expressive streaks, particularly in passages of white, are like the first traces of some burgeoning force–in the case of Ice Out, nature’s resurgent force on the verge of spring.

The power of Shahn’s symbolic vocabulary within a grid format is also evident in Anna Livia: The River and Fire Dreamer, both 1986. Anna Livia’s orderly rows of grids containing different configurations are interrupted by the curves of a wave, while in Fire Dreamer the grid pattern is overwhelmed by the swirling rhythms and high-pitched colors, evoking conflicts that take place within the unconscious mind. Such works suggest the dualistic character of nature—constant yet ever changing—through the dynamic interplay of color and shape.

Ronny Cohen