New York

Richmond Burton

Matthew Marks Gallery

Richmond Burton confronts a by now familiar issue: the reconciliation of the field of seemingly spontaneous and hopefully grand gestures with the fixed structure of the grid. He resolves this dilemma in a new if not completely unprecedented way. The problem is to fuse contradictory means: to achieve the engulfing effect of alloverness without rendering the stasis of the decorative deadening. That is, the painting must seem to expand beyond the canvas, so that its abstractness seems unlimitable—a surge of alternative vision, with the inner recognition of primary process (what Husserl called inner time consciousness and Bergson called duration) as a ripple effect. If this elated visual complexity does not emerge from the “stereoscopic” integration of gesture and grid (the double technical dimension obliquely corresponds to the double dimension of the effect) each tends to fall flat. The abstract surface looks like a field too fallow to ever become fertile again.

These works have a peculiarly affectless if eloquent look—one of premature wisdom—that is characteristic of Burton’s earlier architectonic paintings, such as Fractured Space, 1989, and Thought Plane 24, 1990, cerebral works that do not represent a particular concept, though they are thoughtful constructions. One could also view them as apotheosizing the idea of construction, which these days means, more than anything else, the idea of a work as a completely conscious production, with no “accidents” producing inarticulateness.

In his new paintings, Burton has let himself go, relatively speaking, with some intriguing results. In Spiral Screen, Echoing Green, and Here (all 1993) he has become more impulsive, as though releasing the energy that was impacted in the earlier architectonic works. Does Here dare allude to Barnett Newman’s work of the same name, a sculptural idolization of the zip? (Burton’s zip seems dangerously close to becoming slapdash mad, undermining the stateliness of Newman’s epic one) The discharge is now eloquently “off”: the impulsive gestures do not precisely coordinate with the grid skeleton, except its controlling, “screening” pattern. It becomes a fragile, ghostly linear armature while the gestures acquire more body and expression, becoming more expansive in the process, until they threaten to overrun the grid altogether, dissolving it. But it holds steady, like a dull eternity; it no longer seems something to hang one’s spontaneity on, but Burton continues to do so. In the newest paintings, the gestures, which have come into their own as physiognomies, seem to actually constitute the grid. Yet their integration is less seamless than it looks: the discontinuity and tension between gesture and grid, which Burton exploits as he moves from subliminal to explosive gestural excitement, remains self-evident.

The virtue of his paintings is that they undermine the naive effect of transparent pattern that was a staple of the pattern painting of the ’70s—the sense of pattern as a procrustean bed into which painterly gesture must fit—without giving gesture absolute authority, that is, without demanding that the grid unconditionally surrender to and subsume its geometry in gesture. It is the sense of both grid and gesture as rhetorical concepts that makes Burton’s paintings relatively brilliant. That is, they are paintings about the dilemma—the aporia, even—that painting must address in order to survive with any credibility.

Donald Kuspit