New York

Irving Petlin

Kent Fine Art

This small retrospective survey focused on Irving Petlin’s work in the relatively neglected medium of pastel. Besides Lucas Samaras and, more recently, Jane Dickson, Petlin is one of the few contemporary artists to have made pastels an essential part of his ongoing project. Clearly, he believes drawing is still a viable practice, and he makes no concessions to the host of unspoken proscriptions regarding drawing, painting, the use of metaphor, and relevant subject matter. In nearly all of his pastels, Petlin depicts one or more figures in a landscape. But the figure is more a motif than a subject. Among other things, the drawings are philosophical speculations on the relationship of the individual with both the world and Jewish culture. By choosing to focus on biography and culture, Petlin deliberately challenges all the paradigms developed by formalist critics and artists. Moreover, by making his Jewishness a central aspect of his subject matter, he contextualizes formalism’s authoritarian agenda within a political framework, rather than a utopian and esthetic one. Instead of addressing art history, he can be said to ask, What is the world we inhabit and how do we live in it? For the most part, Petlin’s imaginative figures dwell in an arid world of dust and light. The artist clearly prefers yellow, orange, and tan to red, blue, and green, using the pastel as a self-reflexive tool. Mined from the earth, its colored dust becomes irrefutable evidence of a dessicated landscape, which exists as much in the mind as on paper. The dust makes it both actual and metaphorical.

The exhibition traces Petlin’s development and documents his major preoccupations. During the ’70s, for example, he was concerned with the evocative image of a dry lake bed. In his “Echo Lake” series, 1974–75, the pastel dust becomes a comment on, an echo of, both the quality of the lake and culture’s constant effort to renew itself. The theme of circularity forms one of the underpinnings of Petlin’s project. In 1981, Petlin did a pastel that signaled a new phase of his career. In Scenes From a Balcony, Santa Cruz, 1981, he depicted a figure sitting on a balcony, gazing at an expansive landscape. The image of a figure looking on or looking back underscores his preoccupation with being a witness. Throughout the ’80s, both in his paintings and his pastels, Petlin recontextualized and reinvestigated this basic scene. In the “Weisswald” (White forest) series, 1987, Petlin depicted a figure watching (dreaming of, or remembering?) a team of white horses pull a wagon down the street of a burning city. The city is a conflation of Warsaw and Chicago, the figure both a stand-in and a distancing device for the artist. Art, both as practice and as completed act, is for Petlin an attempt to bear witness. He constantly questions how we look at, remember, and use history.

John Yau