New York

Gregory Amenoff

Gregory Amenoff has been exhibiting regularly since the mid ’70s. He is considered to be in the forefront of the ranks of abstract artists who address the mythic qualities of landscape while aligning themselves with early Modernists such as Arthur Dove and Charles Burchfield. Although his work has received a big boost by being seen in this context, such a reading leads to tepid generalizations and easy assertions. Critics and curators alike have tended to emphasize the artist’s use of organic shapes and earth colors, as if he is content with revising the accomplishments of the visionary landscape tradition. This shallow analysis pegs Amenoff as an academic artist who is dependent on a well-defined, a priori discourse.

By continually pointing to the visionary landscape tradition, these critics have overlooked the scope of Amenoff’s ambition. In contrast to many artists of his generation, whether abstract, neo-Expressionist, or “neo-geo,” Amenoff has not been satisfied with paying ironic homage to the recent but oh-so-distant past. However, because Amenoff never announced his ambition by developing a timely, hip style, many observers have not perceived the changes that have continued to take place in his work, or the increasing density of his vision.

It is true that Amenoff did begin his career as an artist who looked back to the work of Dove, Burchfield, and Marsden Hartley. But in the past few years he has also been looking at other artists, particularly self-taught ones such as Joseph Yoakum or outsiders such as Martin Ramirez, and has been undoing his own syntax, making it free of the referential constraints he once placed on it. The most obvious consequence of these changes is that his painted shapes now make at best a tenuous reference to the natural world. Amenoff doesn’t begin with an overall design or plan in mind but instead plunges in, so that each of the shapes evolves out of the particular way the paint has been put down. This manner of working recalls an Abstract Expressionist approach, particularly that of Franz Kline. However, rather than finding gestures and rhythms, Amenoff finds shapes and relationships.

Another, even more important change, particularly in the recent work, is the handling of space. The shallow, Cubist-derived space of his earlier compositions has been jettisoned for a space that is both more vertiginous and more complex. This dizzying verticality draws viewers in and makes them conscious of their body and the space they inhabit. The paintings seem to be aerial views, and yet we cannot tell if we are far away or jammed up close. The work should be read as externalizations of an interior world, rather than internalizations of an exterior one.

Although post-Modernist discourse tells us that we are at a dead end, Amenoff––like Brice Marden and a handful of others—says otherwise. In his work, he tries to find something to believe in, however fragile and vulnerable the actual evidence he arrives at may be. In contrast to his generation, Amenoff isn’t trying to prove how intelligent and up on the latest criticism he is. He isn’t trying to demonstrate that he’s more intelligent than anyone else, because he knows painting isn’t about how smart an artist is. It is about something as elusive and old-fashioned as faith.

John Yau