New York

Michael Young

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

Michael Young is frequently associated with the “new” geometric abstraction, but his work diverges from that of many of his colleagues in significant ways. Unlike them, he is not involved in making “signs” for paintings, or in displaying lack of faith in the medium’s capacities. Instead, his work is awash in reveries on the possibilities of painting. His is pure painting, which takes as its object painting’s inherent properties and creates of them an esthetic world, firmly divided from its quotidian surround.

Young’s recent exhibition for the museum’s “Projects” series was conceived as an installation of 15 paintings, all of which are small, square, and unframed and involve the motifs of the cross or the circle. These 15 works, all from 1987, were arranged on three contiguous walls above a single long painting that stretched across the lower part of the walls—a continuous band of sand-coated canvas in which silver circles were set at regular intervals. The sand referred back to the discrete works, whose grounds (and many of the geometric forms) were made by sifting soil and sand onto polymer emulsion. At first glance, Young’s use of this natural material seemed to be at odds with the implications of his formal configurations, in which the two motifs are pushed through numerous variations of internal elements and their relations to ground and to frame. A circle, for example, could be read as a target, a record, or as a staring eye, according to the number, dimensions, and relations of concentric bands; sometimes it appeared to extend outward beyond the canvas boundaries (as in Atopia, 1987) or stand immobilized in the middle. Frequently Young scrambles his motifs’ terms by placing small dots or bars within the crosses or circles and by painting these shapes in colors that contrast sharply with the larger, determining forms.

Young’s paintings are affirmations of the Modernist picture plane. He stresses their flatness by overlaying the canvas with a coat of polyester resin, whose dull luster also unifies the surface of each work and reinforces its discreteness. The paintings declare their distinctness from their surround both through this unified surface and through Young’s focus on internal pictorial relations. By calibrating and then precisely adjusting the relationships between shape, dimension, and hue, he makes forms seem to recede or advance, contract or expand, while maintaining the order imposed by the plane. Thus, a near-identical configuration in two works yields different effects through the use of different schemes of color and color values; or a recessive, earth-tone work is brought short by a rectangle of intense green. Young has a wondrous way with zingy colors, and his sharp accents of acid green or buttercup yellow have a poisonous appeal in their strident assault on the eye. Such pyrotechnics enable him to milk the maximum from pictorial mechanics using just a limited number of motifs.

These paintings recall early geometric abstraction, especially Constructivism, yet they also diverge from these sources. Here there is none of the cosmic symbolism common to early 20th-century circle motifs and none of the spiritual yearning of Kasimir Malevich. In an accompanying brochure, assistant curator Bob McDaniel makes much of the interest that Young has expressed in elementary physics and natural phenomena, which is not perceptible in the finished works. For example, although Young may employ sand because it is “the smallest particle of nature visible to the naked eye,” the material is so transformed by its pictorial use as to become inherent to the painting’s surface. The limitations imposed by Young’s formalist fixation lead to a kind of treadmilling circumambulation of purely visual questions that precludes the treatment of larger issues. But if you like your painting neat, and straight up, this was the exhibition to see.

Reviewed by Kate Linker.