New York

Wallace Putnam

Luise Ross Gallery

Putnam’s late work is joyous, stylish, witty, and bright; whatever is portrayed (a field covered in snow, flowers, the beach in high summer) captures moody happiness. It’s deceptively simple, in the way Wallace Stevens can be. You return to the paintings over and over again, astonished at the way they continue to surprise, delighted by their evocation of something other than pure joy. This exhibition of paintings by Wallace Putnam, produced between 1950 and 1978, showed a mature artist, pursuing a distinctive and idiosyncratic style of drawing in paint.

The best of these paintings are of animals in landscapes. Deceptively spontaneous, their power comes from the strange interaction of the illustrated moment (time and place and subject coalescing in zenlike oneness) with a seemingly effortless execution in paint. And the work is nothing if not painterly, playing constantly with technique, while somehow maintaining a light touch: underpainting, rub-outs, and complicated impasto alternate with bright primaries smeared on straight from the tube.

His paintings flirt with line, marking it as something common to both language and image, to a painting and its title. In Now Cow, 1957, a somewhat hieroglyphic work, Putnam whimsically indicates through the title that the painting of the cow is actually made up of the lines of the letters n, o, w. The playfulness of the title’s conceit contrasts with the spareness and elegance of the painting itself, which, reminiscent of Florence Knoll’s furniture, Eero Saarinen’s architectural designs, or Japanese interiors, resounds with stylish simplicity. Ebullient wit straining against a lovely spare esthetic, mania bumping up against tact and restraint, the immediacy of line-drawing confronting the endless subtlety of paint, collectively form the dynamic central to these paintings.

Is it possible that this tension describes a spiritual unease—simplicity confronting complexity, instinct confronting worldly knowledge? Perhaps. Throughout his later life, Putnam was on a mystical quest: he gradually worked his way through Eastern religions, turning at last to Sufism. It’s easy to see the connection in the work: Putnam’s vibrant pictures of animals and flowers, of animal happiness and summertime brilliance, spin with life—the paintings evoke the ecstatic whirling of the Sufis. In the end, sensation defeats constraint, dizziness transports.

Throughout the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, Putnam created works that remained consistently outside the mainstream: works that were almost uniformly figural, graphic, and pretty, full of joy and painterly wit. If painting describes the range of human experience, then the late Putnam may be, in Wallace Stevens’ words, “a genius of one note,” but that one note is one as full of complicated spiritual feeling as any whirling dervish: a strange bright bell tone, sounding distant in the autumn afternoon.

Justin Spring