New York

Howard Buchwald

Howard Buchwald’s abstract paintings are didactic in the best sense: they present themselves as advanced lessons in the art of seeing. Since his last New York gallery exhibition five years ago, he has abandoned his idiosyncratic method of constructing elaborate supports shot through with holes at various angles to reveal the wall behind the painting. In this regard, the formal postulates of the recent paintings are less stringent than in Buchwald’s work of the ’80s.

As before, Buchwald’s method is a crisp distillation of gestural abstraction—of Pollock’s allover composition in particular. But Buchwald has reduced the expressive gesture to a single constructive element, a generic, all-purpose mark: a finger-thick acrylic brushstroke that is somewhat fatter at its edges. This stroke is always long enough to be clearly a line and not a shape. Its textural quality allows Buchwald to build up areas of the same color which always reveal themselves as aggregations of these lines, so that they remain areas rather than shapes. In other words, they preserve an injunction to absolute abstraction: Buchwald’s line, as Michael Fried said of Jackson Pollock’s, “bounds and delimits nothing—except, in a sense, eyesight.” Such lines neither describe nor represent shapes or forms of any kind: they are simply themselves. They structure space in two different ways: through their literal layering, and through the interaction of colors. Likewise, they convey energy in two ways: both as individual vectors and through their interaction with each other, their brittle dynamism often suggestive of Futurist “lines of force.” As a result, Buchwald succeeds in reclaiming composition and other types of formal complexity without abandoning alloverness or thorough-going abstraction, despite his self-limitation to a single building block.

Buchwald uses color allusively as well as for formal purposes. In part, this maintains connections with the history of painting in ways that give each work its own emotional flavor. A Blind Eye/A Prospect Obscured, 1993–94, dominated by “Spanish” black, implies a different kind of classicism from Remarked Cavalier, 1992–94, with its more “Cubist” inflection toward brown, and both of these contrast with the “Expressionist” discords of In the Blink of an Eye, 1994, or even the blanched luminescence, recalling Seurat, of Sensitivity to Initial Conditions, 1992. In general, however, it can be said that in comparison to Buchwald’s earlier work, which often seemed to look to Matisse for its notion of color, the recent paintings allow themselves less immediate sensuality, openness, or ease. Just as compositionally they are tenser, coloristically they are more ascetic and inward-looking.

Along with his paintings, Buchwald showed two groups of drawings. One group, linear in style and very spare in composition, looked like skeleton paintings. The other, evoking Buchwald’s long interest in pointillism, employed a profusion of dots rather than lines. Unlike the paintings, these works suggested potentialities of almost rococo voluptuousness and envelopment—a rejection of the rigidity that can result from critical distance.

Barry Schwabsky