Washington D. C.

Robin Rose

Baumgartner Galleries

This exhibition of recent paintings by Robin Rose, titled “Binary Arc,” left little doubt that the Washington Color School still influences younger artists in the D.C. area. By rejecting the formalist conception of color-field painting that Clement Greenberg articulated around the work of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, Rose’s work draws attention to the movement’s more spiritual and mystical aspects, as exemplified by artists such as Leon Berkowitz, Thomas Downing, and Howard Mehring. As one might expect, the primary element in Rose’s work is color. Used to suggest the immateriality of light, color acts as a metaphor for transcendent experience. Rose never suppresses the material aspects of painting; quite the contrary, he insists upon their presence. His work relates to the tradition of American Luminist painting whereby the materiality of form and the immateriality of light create a polarity in which fact and nonfact, thing and nonthing, coexist as a totality.

The verticality of Rose’s paintings is countered by an insistent horizon formed by the juncture of two equal but opposing areas of color, texture, and imagery. Layers of heavy, translucent encaustic are used to produce an illusion of depth: what Rose refers to as “deep structure.” At the same time, unframed sides expose the painting’s aluminum honeycomb support, emphasizing not only the contrast between modern materials and the ancient encaustic technique, but also the traditional duality of painting’s materiality and imagery’s illusionary nature. The works are projected away from the wall; they appear to hover as dematerialized gossamer veils of colored light in space. Lacking rigid frontality, they encourage movement by the viewer to garner subtle textures and hues.

Rose’s work is purposefully romantic, and it continues a line of development that invests painting with meaning while avoiding irony and appropriation. His format owes something to Rothko, but it differs significantly. In Many Mansions, 1988, a series of dark blue concentric rectangles above a dissolving grid of amber and weak aqua, image and color don’t quite gel. The work’s two panels only simulate Rothko’s harmony, and they remain separate entities. In Vacant Will, 1988, undulating “waves” made of greenish-gold metallic paint abut a contrasting panel of deep maroon with vertical striations. Here, Rose straddles a thin line between decorative and profound, sentimental and sentiment, a line he comes dangerously close to crossing. In Luminist paintings, transcendence is evoked as a plane of thought where complex ideas are intuited as sensations and not conscious facts. Rose’s strategy is similar; he is less concerned with stating a dialectic of disparate parts than with presenting dichotomies as resonant wholes. His works are relatively small and non-confrontational, proffering intimate experience over grandiosity. Rose quietly lures viewers to works that slowly reveal themselves to be made of contradictions.

Howard Risatti