New York

Eugène Leroy

Michael Werner Gallery/Edward Thorp Gallery

The surface of Eugène Leroy’s paintings is dense but far from sluggish, claustrophobic and epic in its painterliness, yet peculiarly spacious and lyrical in effect. Overloaded to the point of chaos, it remains uncannily, indeed sublimely harmonious as if it had a powerful life of its own. This surface not only “breathes,” in Clement Greenberg’s famous sense of the word, but breathes vigorously. Indeed, Leroy’s paintings give the lie to Greenberg’s partisan belief that American Abstract Expressionist painting is more spontaneously alive than French Tachism.

And yet, Leroy’s paintings are not exactly “informal,” for all their apparently chance gestures. These gestures may seem illogical, but they ritualistically pile up in layers that inwardly uphold the surface. In a sense, Leroy reverses Anton Ehrenzweig’s prioritization of the basic elements in painting. Whereas for Ehrenzweig the surface is conventionally formed of Gestalten, with an underlying Gestalt-free intensity, Leroy’s works indicate that when Gestalt-free intensity becomes the norm of painting, the sense of control and conscious purpose necessary to an inwardly balanced work must nevertheless be apparent, however elusive the Gestalt that suggests this sense seems to be. Indeed, there is a latent, but clearly visible, figural Gestalt in the manifest field of Leroy’s paintings, a “thing” that seems to grow out of its surface of immanent gestures. Leroy gives it many names in his titles—the abstract. Gestalt is supposedly a human figure or landscape, a head or a flower—but all of these evoke the same meaning, the same enigmatic density of being that spontaneously springs or “superejects,” to use Alfred North Whitehead’s concept, from the fluid paint. This illusion of spontaneous generation—this vision of mad, chance actions that build up to a peculiarly “methodical” climax, centering the painting despite itself— is the crux of Leroy’s painting.

Leroy seems to self-consciously cultivate irrational painterliness, reflected in his choice of titles like Tête en folie (Head in madness, 1991) and L’autre terrible (The terrible other, 1991). Is he yet another European master who finds, in the fetishization of painterly madness—“pandemonium,” to cite Georg Baselitz—the only, last-ditch hope for painting? In a sense yes, but in another sense Leroy is simply doing something we have been familiar with since French Impressionism, namely, suggesting that no amount of random, seemingly materially raw and fragmentary actions can destroy the preconceived unity usually attributed to a work of art. But the expressionist edge Leroy gives his “impressionism” suggests that, if the analogy of abstract painting to music holds, he is able to live at that narcissistic depth where, according to Heinz Kohut, every impulse is experienced as a nuance of the nuclear self. Leroy’s richly nuanced painterly music is an optimal expression of the deep sense of creative flow, which, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is necessary for us to have conviction in ourselves. One of the ways such expression integrates us is by restoring our sense of the innocence of all impulses, however, “dark” they may seem. In the end, Leroy’s impulsiveness leaves us with this sense of inviolable innocence.

Donald Kuspit