New York

David True

David True first gained widespread attention in the late ’70s, when his paintings were included in the Whitney Museum’s “New Image Painting” exhibition (1978), along with work by Nicholas Africano, Jennifer Bartlett, Denise Green, Michael Hurson, Neil Jenney, Lois Lane, Robert Moskowitz, Susan Rothenberg, and Joe Zucker. While the others either placed an emblematic image within an abstract field or incorporated nontraditional materials such as Rhoplex and cotton balls into their compositions, True used oil paint to explore the relationship between image and a layered space. Since then, his repeated investigations of spatiality, along with the resulting changes in his approach, continue to distinguish him from his peers. Rather than reprising aspects of Modernism as codified by formalism (an emphasis on flatness, literalness, and the use of new materials), True explores ways to introduce an irrational spatiality into his work.

True’s recent exhibition consisted of 15 untitled paintings on paper, all from 1987. In all of them, the artist applied acrylic, gesso, ink, and watercolor in various ways, including pouring, staining, drawing, sponging, and the layering of one medium and color over another. The painting becomes a container for abstract passages, atmospheric color, and tightly rendered referential forms. For True, the process of painting consists of a series of assertions and self-reflexive responses, an approach that stems from a desire to be continuously engaged in the formation of a contradictory spatiality. Behind this desire is a belief that he will eventually arrive at an invented image of the self within the fluctuations, elisions, contradictions, and layering of an interiorized world.

True’s ambition is comparable to Arshile Gorky’s, particularly as it blossomed in his late work. Given the very different pictorial conclusions each of them reaches, it is clear that True has embarked on a course all his own. Understanding the deepest aspects of Gorky’s work, True explores a destabilized world where images, color, and abstract forms and gestures slip among such cognitive modes as reference, symbol, metaphor, and self-referentiality. The strongest paintings in the exhibition propose a vision that is simultaneously vulnerable and delicate, assured and voluptuous. The colors range from deeply sensual blues, reds, and greens to faded traces of these hues, while the surface varies from granular and gritty to smooth and worn. The paintings are both optical and tactile, a consequence of the artist’s sensitivity to materials and process.

In all of the paintings, True uses a grid as a way to break down his habits of attention as well as a sign of a rational, ordered world. By pouring, staining, and bleeding the different mediums, the artist ruptures, contradicts, and subverts the grid, achieving a shifting spatiality. Clearly, he is trying to discover the contours of his irrational and rational perceptual modes in order to extend them in unforeseen ways. In one of the strongest paintings, a winged, mannequinlike figure toils in the hull of a small boat that resembles those used by ancient Egyptians or Phoenicians. The tininess of the figure’s wings suggests that they are a vestigial remnant of an earlier time. Beneath the boat, and seemingly on the same plane, is an enormous white fish, similar in size and shape to the boat (in fact, almost its mirror image). Here, the grid is transformed into a net. In the background, a row of pyramidlike mountains (or are they bloody fangs?) rises toward the top edge. The references to Egypt, the New Testament, and 20th-century dehumanization remind us of the losses and gains inherent in every view of man’s relationship to time and place. Along with being an economic construct, civilization is an organized attempt to transcend mortality. By finding a way to fit different pictorial modes together, the artist reveals his concern with identity, place, and time.

Currently, there has been a lot of discussion regarding spatiality in painting. Most of it has been focused on Frank Stella’s elaboration of formalism’s notion of space as a literal and empirical construct. Stella’s antipsychological “what you see is what you see” stance has been a determining presence in contemporary art for nearly three decades. However, a slowly growing number of artists have rejected this academicized definition of space. The changes in David True’s work since the late ’70s can now be understood as a result of his rereading of the last works of Gorky and Jackson Pollock, their potent spatiality and subject matter. As he continues to evolve, he will have to decide whether the grid aids or blocks him from reaching uncharted territory. Like the wings, it too may be a vestigial device.

John Yau