Washington, DC

Robert Moskowitz

This is the first retrospective exhibition for New York painter Robert Moskowitz. Organized by Ned Rifkin, it provides an important occasion to assess the work of an artist who received a flurry of attention in the early 60s, only to be largely ignored by the end of the decade. Nonetheless, Moskowitz persisted, slowly developing an underground reputation, finally regaining public attention since his inclusion in the Whitney Museum’s “New Image Painting” exhibition in 1979. His initial success began with an impressive series of works juxtaposing objects and faint painterly gestures. In Untitled, 1960, a flat object—a window shade—is collaged onto a monochromatically painted field so as to echo the stretcher. In this way, the shade, forced into the pictorial space of the painting, creates a dialectical tension between tangible and pictorial reality, underscoring the fact that a painting is at once both image and object.

Moskowitz adversely affected his career when he chose not to develop a signature style. By the late ’60s, his paintings reflected minimalist tendencies; their pristine, monochromatic surfaces, rendered in close tonal values, recall Ad Reinhardt. However, the sense of emptiness in these works was not achieved through pictorial means, but by the literal depiction of the corner of an empty room. While this corner became a new “theme” in the work, it is actually the pristine surfaces and close value schemes that convey something of the empty, transcendental space that Moskowitz wished to evoke. He began using the room corner as a ground, placing small “elements”—paint drips, smudges—on the surfaces of his paintings. These works reactivate some of the tension found in the earlier paintings, but add something new as well. The extraneous formal elements, having no logical or visual connection to the room corner, do not enter into the illusionistic space of the painting, but remain on the surface, rupturing the seamless illusion that the corner creates. This contradiction between surface and illusion is compounded in other works by the use of images that also have iconographical and narrative overtones.

The iconographical implications of Untitled, 1973, a black painting with a small white swastika, or the narrative aspect of Swimmer, a 1977 painting with a silhouette of a head and arm suspended in a blue field of pure hand-rubbed pigment, exemplify a concern that has continued through recent years. Giacometti Piece, 1983–84, with its single, isolated image, features careful adjustments to the figure/ground relationship that create a sense of presence while forcing attention to shift between iconic image and abstract form. Big Picture, 1979–80, exploits the horizontal format to insure a sequential reading of its imagery and to give that imagery metaphoric meaning. The wedge-shaped diagonal lines on the left come to represent Hollywood search lights, and thus the influence of the film industry on the West Coast; the orderly rectangular forms on the right, the tradition of pictorial abstraction on the East Coast. The most successful of the recent paintings employ a pictorial language in which image, form, and scale achieve symbolic import, while retaining the sense of abstract structure that pervaded Moskowitz’s work from the ’60s.

Howard Risatti