New York

Joseph Amar

Bess Cutler Gallery

There is a small and selective following for the work of Joseph Amar, the kind of viewership that anxiously awaits each new occasion to observe the latest increment in a carefully measured practice. Amar's approach to painting is quiet and ruminative, almost languid, developing a precisely determined pictorial program and avoiding sharp changes and “major statements.” Much has been made of his relationship to Minimalism, but he lacks Minimalism's obduracy and its focus on specific objects in space. Instead, the issues relevant to Amar's paintings are restraint, refinement, and the capacity of the wall-bound work to arrest the perceptions of the reflective viewer.

Most of the eight works that were shown here (all untitled, all from 1987) are simple rectilinear shapes, crafted through Amar's now-characteristic manner of surfacing lead over plywood forms of differing depths. These surfaces are worked a variety of ways: some support delicate traceries of scratched lines, while others have additional patterns of incisions; many are covered with materials such as graphite, oil pigment, and beeswax. Because the forms are built out from the wall in flat, wedge-shaped, or slightly recessed configurations of panels, the works possess a sculptural quality that synchronizes with the literal weight of lead. However, the deft rendering and dim luster of the largely gray-toned surfaces cause the weighty “boxes” to lose their heaviness, so that they seem to hover in the neutral, atemporal space of the gallery wall. The evanescent quality that results from this subtle handling of surface is notable in a large, vertical work “built” in a wedge formation. Amar also creates a subtle interplay of forces in this work by contrasting the broad horizontal stripes—in an alternating pattern of medium and dark gray, recalling the facades of certain contemporary marble or granite buildings—with a thin vertical element that rises along the entire right side of the wedge. Amur excels in the precise calibration of proportions between the different “weights” of the colors in the internal configurations of panels, and between the secondary geometric forms established by the incised lines and the panels' edges. Thus, an atypical parallellogram, painted a startling crimson and set on a 4-inch-wide black base, has the same visual weight as the gray parallellogram hung next to it.

In his catalogue essay, Christian Leigh interprets Amar's work primarily as an injection of humanistic values into the literal-minded voids of Minimalism. “In the lead-and-beeswax paintings,” he writes, “a conflict between good and evil seems present, as if the sickly beeswax were being consumed by the all-powerful lead . . . a virus on the verge of victory.” I don't know what to make of this pitting of the “good” beeswax against the “bad” lead, with the valorization of preindustrial conditions it implies, but it seems to be a projection of his own interpretive bias. Moreover, he falsely conflates their extreme decorum and sheer visual wizardry with the reductions of Minimalism. Amar's paintings derive their strength from the perceptual dramas that they stage between the terms of weight, mass, and subtly interrelated hues.

Kate Linker