New York

Mark Schlesinger

Amy Lipton Gallery

Like many abstract artists who survived the ’80s, Mark Schlesinger’s subsequent paintings have been seen infrequently and mostly in scattered group shows. His approach to abstraction challenges the prevailing taste for formal reprisals of earlier styles and for knowing but critical nods to the past. In this respect, his paintings counter the general feeling that abstraction is no longer viable.

Schlesinger’s paintings not only vary in size and format and employ very different color combinations, but the surfaces range from rough, relatively thick (though clearly defined) areas to thin, smooth ones. In all of the works in this exhibition, he interlocks three different-size shapes or fields, the constantly shifting interactions of which undermine conventional postwar figure/ground relationships. Rather than depicting a stable fluctuation between image and ground, a static design, or a well-balanced composition, Schlesinger dissolves these conventional dynamics with his loose, quirkily shaped, interlocking areas of color.

In On Too (all works 1991), a thin, tapered blue shape (I was reminded of the Concorde’s fuselage) appears suspended in a field of orange scumbled over reddish pinks. Somehow, Schlesinger manages to get these warm colors to retain their separate identities, so that, while the orange predominates, it does not overwhelm the red. Meanwhile, the cold, blue, rocketlike shape (it evokes the sleekness of art deco design or futuristic cartoons) shifts effortlessly from abstract image to quirky form, from stylized tear or rip in the field to imagined “thing.” Schlesinger is able to achieve these simultaneous visual experiences by introducing a third small, yellowish-green element contiguous with the blue shape’s hooklike ending into the composition. Although the painting’s horizontal format evokes landscape, the tilting blue shape, which divides the composition like a horizon line, defies gravity, while both the relative thickness of the ground and the combination of red and orange denies spatiality and atmosphere.

In Perhaps, a tapering yellowish shape capped with a slightly bulbous reddish form extends down into a large blue-green and white field. As in On Too, the two colors (blue-green and white) that comprise the ground maintain their individual identities. Because the ground is neither one color nor the other (is it a whitened blue-green or white and blue-green?), it remains an unknowable, elusive entity. For just as the viewer experiences both colors by shifting his or her attention from one to the other, the ground is formally articulated as two shapes. It is these oscillations that give Schlesinger’s paintings much of their power.

There is something both oddly comical and disturbing about Perhaps’ descending shape, its downward thrust into a large unknowable expanse, which evokes sexual terror as well as a sense of isolation from one’s environment. That Perhaps is capable of provoking these associations, without becoming either literal or insistently serious, affirms the power of Schlesinger’s abstract vocabulary. Schlesinger’s painterly language conveys unspoken psychic experiences more effectively than that of most artists, and, in the process, jettisons the notions of formal self-sufficiency, universality, and social purpose that have previously afflicted abstraction.

At this point in the history of abstraction, Schlesinger’s paintings are refreshing because they make us realize how few artists have actually challenged, let alone imaginatively transformed, historically accepted compositional conventions. Thus, while some will continue to mourn abstraction’s demise, Schlesinger’s paintings affirm its continued vitality.

John Yau