New York

Christian Eckart

Rubinspangle Gallery

Resuscitated most recently through the auspices of appropriation and “neo-geo,” abstract painting is indelibly stamped with ambiguity and irony. Though the formalist idiom just won’t die, the legacy of its freighted history is a widespread ambivalence concerning its contemporary meaning. Among the several “can’t live with it, can’t live without it” approaches to formalism, we find a lot of symptomatic hair-splitting: painters who purport to make paintings that aren’t real paintings; artists who make paintings but claim they aren’t painters; and painters who make paintings but incorporate perverse twists that function as built-in escape clauses. Such works reserve the option of existing either as straightforward formalism, sans the send-up of Modernist esthetics, or as elegant pastiches presumably intended to further a critique of Modernist conventions. One suspects that many members of the “having one’s cake and eating it too” school are truly painters at heart, but feel they must apologize for it. The salient question with respect to those who hold forth in this camp (and Christian Eckart figures prominently among them) is how skillfully they negotiate the inherent ambivalence of their practice, and, of course, whether or not they give the perverse twists top billing or cameo roles.

With his current series of glossy lacquer-and-aluminum paintings entitled “Sacra Conversazione” (Holy conversation, all works 1991), Eckart denies the conventions yet claims the integrity of the formalist tradition. Technically, these are hard-edge stripe paintings and, as with his empty gold leaf frames of several years ago, the “conversation” in question here concerns, among other things, the relation of frame and framed. Each work consists of an ensemble of four flawless lacquered panels, in various color combinations, that seem to float in the middle of a perfect milled aluminum frame. No event interrupts the immaculate reflective surfaces, which suggest more the idea of a painted surface than one actualized by the painter’s hand. Platonic reverie, however, must hold its own against a number of pranks that Eckart introduces into his schema. The pristine panels are the result of multiple layers of lacquer, each mechanically sprayed on and then hand-sanded and buffed in preparation for the next application. The hand, of course, is not Eckart’s but that of an anonymous technician whose skill is exercised primarily in the production of custom paint jobs available to consumers of luxury automobiles. Eckart made his color selections from sample books for car paint, but his inspiration flowed directly from Correggio’s Saints Peter, Martha, Mary Magdaleine and Leonard, a depiction of the four figures in conversation. Partaking of the spiritual in Modern art, the idealized harmonies of High Renaissance composition, Modernist formal values, and the vulgarity of cars and conspicuous consumption, Eckart’s work invites a smorgasbord of interpretations.

Surely the meat of this “conversazione” is not that fine paintings are as much commodities and status symbols as fine automobiles are, or that Greenbergian, ivory-tower formalism can be toppled by a shotgun wedding of the sacred and the profane. One suspects that the ploy of equivocating on their status as handmade paintings, the chitchat about car culture and Correggio, and even the mystical channel of empty space that mediates the dialogue between frame and panels may be necessary pretenses, but pretenses nonetheless, to license the manufacture of exquisitely beautiful paintings. At best, Eckart’s “sacra conversazione” satirizes his own position—that of a painter steadfastly committed to formalist abstraction and the cult of beauty for its own sake, yet compelled to pay lip service to the contemporary impulse that would dismantle the body and dispossess the soul of painting. At worst, Eckart apparently doesn’t realize that the question “when is a formalist painting not a formalist painting” has just about been talked to death, and that it will take more than a few rhetorical nods in the direction of irony and ambiguity to fire it up again.

Jan Avgikos