New York

Peter Schuyff

This two-gallery exhibition of recent work by Peter Schuyff featured acrylic paintings and watercolors. At Castelli's, Schuyff showed six very large untitled paintings, all from 1987, and three smaller ones, from 1986 and '87. A grid underlies all nine of these paintings, although it is often distorted in some way, sometimes suggesting the complex visual effects of Op art, especially the works of Victor Vasarely. In one, the grid is painted as if seen through a fish-eye lens; in another, it is implied by a regular pattern of blazelike spots; in a third, it seems to throb subtly on the surface. At Pat Hearn's, Schuvff showed 33 watercolors, from 1986 and '87, some of them studies for the paintings at Castelli's. Both the acrylic paintings and the watercolors have a luminosity that comes from the layering of thin, diluted pigments (one of the acrylic paintings has 26 layers). The watercolors show an especially fine hand. Schuyff frequently uses pure primary colors, which in some of the watercolors he has masked with a thin gray wash over certain squares in the grid, making the other, unmasked squares appear astonishingly vivid in comparison.

All of these works are attractive decorative objects that seek to develop conceptual complexity by incorporating allusions to Minimalism, Op art, and other art-historical references. But these allusions seem to lack much point beyond demonstrating the artist's current taste. The work is perhaps still too bound up with quotational tendencies, which have become rather academic and predictable through their recent overuse. There was a time, several years ago, when quotation was a meaningful critical and theoretical act. It seems now, in the hands of Schuyff and certain other practitioners, to have lost that critical edge and lapsed somewhat lazily into decoration.

As such work increasingly makes the transition from the Lower East Side to SoHo it is time to ask what it means. Is this work, as its most intellectually stimulated advocates would hold, a brand of Conceptual art pure and simple? Is it an honest and forthright revival of abstract art? Or is it based on an ironic awareness of its own inner contradictions? The least pleasant, and perhaps most likely, option is that it is none of these, or rather that it doesn't know what it is, which is much the same as not being anything. Either this work is Conceptual art or it is, as Marcel Duchamp put it, stupid as a painter. In a sense, the question of integrity has come down to this: does a work sell on the market for the same values for which its critical advocates praise it, or is it paraded critically as one thing but then sold to end up in someone's living room as something else? This work, while critically respectable as a fusion form of Conceptual art—that is, as Conceptual painting—seems to seduce the eye and sell itself through its decorative abstraction.

Thomas McEvilley