New York

Stephen Mueller

Annina Nosei Gallery

For anyone who considers the idea of an artistic canon to be more than apolitical blasphemy, the question inevitably arises of where to plunk the adherents of Formalism, after the movement’s fall from ideological grace. There are a number of ’70s painters diligently exploring pictorial space within the well-defined limits of formalist abstraction, most notably Joan Snyder, Louise Fishman, Thomas Nozkowski, and Stephen Mueller. Work by other painters with similar artistic pedigrees, such as Elizabeth Murray and Mary Heilmann, represents a more twisted variety, whimsically playing with the psychological possibilities of abstract painting. Younger artists, like Jessica Stockholder, further displace the formalist esthetic by coaxing it out of the picture frame and into a world of polymorphous shapes and materials.

This lineage, though crude and speculative, helps to explain why, when looking at Stephen Mueller’s paintings, one must choose between simply dismissing works created with few direct links to the world outside the studio and finding a new way of seeing them. Mueller’s sensibility can be traced to Color Field painting, though he has wholly abandoned that movement’s tedious obsession with flatness. Where washes and stains of vibrant color, and instantaneous, almost gimmicky visual effects, are Mueller’s trademarks, his compositions have become both increasingly complex, formally and spatially, and increasingly personal over the years.

In his most recent show Mueller seemed to have left the sublime aspirations of mid-century abstraction far behind in favor of a kind of wild exoticism, full of naive cross-cultural esthetic references and hovering circular and ovular gaps. In a miasmic void, shapes fell into and were born out of these gaps of noncolor. Over Yonder, 1992, contains a pair of white ovals at its base, transformed by concentric blue and black circles into upward-looking cartoonish eyes focused on grisaille circles and flamelike flickers floating in a bright-blue field, as if into a sky filled with northern lights.

A kind of self-portrait, Over Yonder is a model of dumb visual fascination, representing the self-absorbed, inward stare characteristic of the Formalists’ attempt to bypass conscious thought by auto-visually tripping out. Now that Formalism has been silenced (or, rather, now that its historical distance renders it neither threatening nor worth reacting against), it can perhaps be witnessed without fear and viewed for pleasure’s sake alone. Mueller’s work has this purpose: the creation of a field from which to obtain pleasure and to forget for a moment that life is full of far more complicated problems.

Matthew Weinstein