New York

Moira Dryer

Jay Gorney Modern Art

These first two posthumous shows reveal that Moira Dryer was an artist who combined pragmatic experimentalism with a deep concentration of feeling. Dryer promised to be a central painter of her generation thanks to her completely persuasive (because deeply intuitive) synthesis of two apparently incompatible strains of post–Abstract Expressionism: on the one hand, the literalism of Robert Ryman’s “investment” of the entirety of the painting-object (edges, hardware, and so on, along with the painted surface), and on the other, the allusive, quasi-literary nature of Ross Bleckner’s historicism. To do so, of course, she had to jettison central aspects of those artists’ works as well: the “minimalism” of Ryman, his fundamentally dandyish preference for the least-marked means to achieve a particular effect, or Bleckner’s sanction of conventional representation with its concomitant potential for flat-out sentiment. She more than made up for this by what she added of her own: an eccentric theatricality, a whimsical fantastication of the quotidian, a piercing coloristic gravity.

Though she was an unemphatically masterful painter, Dryer’s work began well before the application of paint. Within the support itself, devices like holes (Random Fire, 1991), grommets (The Wall of Fear, 1990–91), and scalloped edges (Untitled, 1992) affirm the object by attacking it. They irritate certain lovers of abstract painting the way my teenage niece’s nose ring irritates her grandmother: “Why must you do that to such a pretty face?” The fact is that Dryer could never reconcile herself to the criteria of wholeness and unity, so dear to formalist esthetics, that would cast an aura of false naturalness around the formal radiance she so resolutely pursued. For her, it seems, the ostension of artifice was the true hinge between beauty and truth—or at least between beauty and wit.

Occasionally that wit could become scathing, as in Random Fire, a work produced during the Gulf War. It’s a kind of diptych whose larger half is a white-and-green field full of glary hotspots pierced by a multitude of bullet-sized holes. To the left of this, displayed on a music stand, lies the “score” for this performance, a green-and-white target motif. The contempt for violence expressed here takes on an even sadder undertone if you let the music stand remind you of how central metaphors of music, of speech, of sound always were to her work (a concern evident in titles like Short Story, 1987; NBC Nightly News, 1987, Country and Western, 1991). All of Dryer’s best paintings possess a resonance, a vibratory amplification of some small motif, some private awareness of her own, that is projected and then internalized by the whole body, as sound more easily than sight can be.

Two days after Dryer died I came across her card in my Rolodex. I had to—even while telling myself it was crazy—call her number one more time. Strangely, the answering machine in her studio was still working. I heard her voice one last time. But it’s the richly-timbred, strangely cool-warm voice of her paintings that’s still with me.

Barry Schwabsky