New York

Harvey Quaytman

David McKee Gallery

By itself, the cross at the center of Harvey Quaytman’s recent compositions implies solidity and geometric order. But the cross sits in front of what seems at first to be an unstable interweave of forms. On closer examination, though, this apparently shifting scenario turns out to be fairly consistent: behind each cross is a single tall rectangle, which is flush with the left edge of the canvas. Wedded in this way, cross and rectangle sit before a more or less uniform background, most often white or black. The square format of Quaytman’s canvases further emphasize the play between stability and disruption. In two pieces Quaytman has butted together two square canvases to make one long horizontal, but these underscore the essential order of his schematic structure: in each case, only the left half bears the cross and rectangle, with the right half painted a solid echoing color.

This simple set of terms produces a surprisingly active, nervous mesh of forms in which the slightly off-center rectangle contradicts the balance of the cross in front of it. Both forms together parse the background into a constellation of proportionate but unequal rectangles. By varying the widths and colors of the arms of the cross and the sides of the rectangle, Quaytman introduces yet another level of interaction between forms.

Despite their shared geometric vocabulary, these compositions have neither the transcendent lyricism of Malevich nor the strenuous reductiveness of Mondrian. Instead they are shrewd formal wagers, setting up edgy, knowing games about the interplay of space and surface, form and line. For all the compositional smartness of images, though, it is the artist’s use of evocative materials that gives these works their real power. In particular, the rust paint that has become a hallmark of Quaytman’s recent work provides the pictures with a rich range of emotional references, from a nostalgia for the machine-age optimism that inspired Constructivism to a purely sensuous celebration of the delicate reds and oranges that can be achieved with this material. The rust color also prompts an appreciation of the passage of time, a sense that runs counter to the timelessness implied by the geometric compositions themselves.

These two apparently conflicting directions combine most fully in Wanderer, 1987. With the square canvas given a half turn so it becomes a diamond, the cross and rectangle are allowed a new freedom within the compositional structure of the picture. The massive cross, now pinned lightly at the corners to the white background, gains a lightness that is further accentuated by its uneven swirls of pale brown rust paint. The black rectangle behind it is truncated by the edges of the canvas, with the white ground taking on a greater prominence as a result. This remarkable painting makes clear that the two sides of Quaytman’s method work toward the same implicit end, the transcendence of time and materiality.

These paintings retain a guarded faith in the capabilities of geometric form to bear emotional and intellectual weight—a stance that may seem outdated at a time when geometry in painting tends to be used ironically or nostalgically, as a kind of corporate logo for a discredited Modernism. Bat through his close attention to the specific properties of his materials Quaytman retrieves his geometries from merely being images, and gives them a physical presence that affirms them as objects in the world rather than simply as intellectual games, whether idealist or ironic.

Charles Hagen