New York

Irving Petlin

Kent Fine Art

It’s quite apparent to me that there is a deep rift in American art that remains largely unacknowledged. On one side are the artists who have chosen to assimilate into the mainstream, while the other side consists of those who refuse to accept the dominant esthetic attitudes and underlying restrictions. Irving Petlin’s refusal to assimilate into the mainstream amounts to a moral decision. He is, after all, a Jew who remembers that all attempts at assimilation have either been doomed or demanded a denial of Jewish culture and history.

Since he first began exhibiting in the mid ’50s, Petlin has addressed a broad range of subjects connected with history, including memory, social inequalities, the possibility of redemption, the individual’s relationship to culture, how the past inscribes itself on the present, and narrative as a vessel in which a vision of the past is handed on to the future. Evolved during the course of three decades, this approach to subject matter is inherently critical of the mainstream’s current notions of appropriation, the debilitating effects of the media, and the emptying out of all images and content. Petlin’s continued refusal raises a simple question: in order to assimilate, must an individual deny his or her own heritage?

Petlin’s recent exhibition was entitled “Weisswald” (White forest), a series of nine paintings, all but one of which are from 1987. As in his earlier series, such as “Rubbings from the Calcium Garden,” 1969–77, these paintings propose a fully realized imaginative space in which various layers of experience and time are compressed. Nearly all of the “Weisswald” paintings show a tenement-lined street in the background, and five of them have a dark green fence or balcony in the foreground. There is frequently a young man on the balcony, who faces toward us or gazes out at the street. The tenements evoke New York City’s Lower East Side, Chicago (where the artist was born), and Warsaw, and remind us that the word “ghetto” used to define the area within a city where Jews were required to live. Various yellows and oranges are used to suggest an intense glowing flame: the buildings look as if they are heated from within, like a blast furnace. In the street between the tenements and the fence in some of the works, Petlin depicts a team of ghostly white horses pulling an empty wagon and rows of equally ghostly figures. The seductive ethereality of the figures—they are composed of flecks of color and a dotted, almost pointillist line—becomes a sign for the way history and memory haunt us as the events of our lives recede further into the past. Through a distinctive treatment of color and form, and a repetitive, almost obsessive exploration of a repertory of symbols—tenements, fence, ghostly figures, cart, fire, ash, water—these stagelike scenes gain a disturbing resonance.

Petlin is an autobiographical artist who suggests narrative through the careful accretion of highly loaded emblematic representations. His method of composition has much in common with Jasper Johns’ approach to a similar subject: the self and its relationship to the world. The difference is that Petlin uses symbols to reveal how the history of the individual is inseparable from the social and cultural history of the world around him, while Johns uses them to examine the splits and knots in his own consciousness that isolate him from the world and prevent him from having a fully integrated identity within that world. Petlin’s ambition is one of the broadest and most deeply engaged in contemporary art.

John Yau