San Francisco

Harry Fritzius

Bruce Velick Gallery

Harry Fritzius has been typecast as a shamelessly wayward Romantic fabulist, laying his heart bare in the wrong epoch. But he is really as timely as any other post-History history painter. In pursuit of a grand manner, he has run up against a sublime as knowingly degraded as Ross Bleckner’s and as erratically self-propelled as Julian Schnabel’s. Like theirs, Fritzius’ big statements are based on an attitude of will in place of belief. His low is a kind of mock frenzy set thrashing among great, hoary themes; his high is a poignancy as calibrated as despair. The show here featured anywhere from 10 to 15 paintings (all from 1988), depending on when you saw it. (Typically, Fritzius would snatch some of the works back from the gallery for further alterations. And there was one last-minute addition, a luminous Pietà.) With his flamboyance intact but somehow judiciously stabilized, Fritzius has turned his art intoa more finely honed version of itself, now coiled tightly within its own range. Gathering together his gifts as a painter and making them click more consistently, he’s gotten himself out of the way of his work.

Fritzius’ allegorical approach is both literate and manic. Negotiating the shallow depths of his pictures—or else getting lost in their melted-prism effects—you sense that, behind all that thwarted imagery, there lurks some personal, outlandish, possibly harebrained, cosmic scheme capable of generating an art of exceptional power and illumination. But Fritzius’ reorderings of iconography are esoteric without any visible system. In place of system there is method, the hands-on method of fashioning an image on paper or unstretched canvas, then tearing it up and recombining the parts—either by shuffling bits and pieces or just by transposing halves.

The new pictures are secured by black asphaltum spread flat between figures and drapery as well as at the borders. Almost every one of his patchwork surfaces accommodates tumbled fragments of an episode from the life of Christ. Although the arrangements tend toward either an irregular square format or horizontal frieze, everything in them seems to happen vertically. The best is Portrait of an Old Man, which reads as a moralized landscape of which the multiple views, like cropped chunks from some demented thicket, double as a kaleidoscopic anatomical index. Other pictures show backdrop moons, masks and ribcages, humanoid frames of assembled, dusty-looking vegetable matter, and a succulent rose amid trumpeting thorns. Their lavishly wrought surfaces appear inexorably haunted by antique figures, condensed as if from drifts of partial yet troubled recall.

Fritzius’ major theme is pity as experienced in the bewildering pause between catastrophes. His atrophied Christs offer no respite. The one in Pietà is a life-size puppet with dowels at the joints (and the mater dolorosa is a bramble bush); another, in The Last Supper, has rocks in his heart. Such images evoke the power of suffering recollected and understood as prophesying more of the same. They advance a distinct form of emblematic contemporary grandeur—what Wallace Stevens called “the stale grandeur of annihilation.”

Bill Berkson