New York

Billy Sullivan

Fishbach Gallery

Sunshine—darling!—splashes on the pool’s surface, glints in your hair, which I want to tousle for some electric charge, flowers the garden. Drink it down like iced tea with mint, sip it like Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1985, cut swags of it for the crystal vase—peonies, dahlias, hollyhocks. “In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again/whom we love.” And what we love, too. Frank O’Hara decided to list all the stars, heartthrobs, and walk-ons in his life, and those who had moved him, and his love of their glamour was a love of light and shadow, flickering, glowing, a way of saying, Sunshine, darling! Billy Sullivan is enamored of sunshine, vegetable explosions of light, the brightness of Long Island, beachy and well-tended. His love of flowers—and bodies—springs from this love. Flowers are a light so exuberant it took concrete form. And bodies, well. . . .

Light and spaces filled with light might be a French invention but that invention was given a needed jolt when it got drowsy, in the form of Fairfield Porter’s work. Painters as different as Alex Katz, Jane Freilicher, Robert Greene, and Sullivan learned from Porter’s looking and from what he chose to paint. Radically different as these painters are—their surface excitements differ as much as Los Angeles and New York—they share tonal affinities: a recurring interest in everyday glamour. A grammar of light, everyday glamour acknowledges life is life, I mean, light it light—regardless of its source, though that which illuminates the personal is especially prepossessing.

Sullivan’s canvases bustle with activity as a garden does with insects and ripening, but they are always quite precise. His paintings deal with how now is composed, the light of now—sunlight, flashbulb, lamp. Looking at his work, you notice that rather than plebeian yellow, orange, red, blue, or purple, there is buttercup, sunflower, nasturtium, dahlia, delphinium, sky, violet, and plum: a shade of ochre, in Jack, 1994, to be known as “Jack’s blond doubt”; a maroon in Self-portrait, 1994, to be known as “Billy’s bathing trunks.” In the riot of tiny swirling eddies which is P. F. W.’s Hollyhocks II, 1994, it is weird to see how busy and full a canvas can be, crawling and fragrant, which is to say, how lively life is. How strange a thing it is to see. When was the last time you really looked? It is easier not to, because you might see something that you don’t understand, often in the ordinary. Dahlias, 1994, is a still life that is anything but still. The dahlias flare, but where are they placed, and where is the viewer in relation to them? Even when it is explained to you that the dahlias sit on a Frank Gehry corrugated cardboard table which itself seems to float on a Persian sea, nothing is less interesting or unsettled. Even in the more straightforward A Rosenblum, 1994, to look is to encounter a philosophy of the floral—a lesson in Sullivan’s esthetic genealogy (in view is the cover of Robert Rosenblum’s book Musée D’Orsay) and a lesson in the sheer thrill of representation, of paint—since the bouquet in bloom on the table is echoed by the bouquet in bloom on the cover of the book.

How was anyone ever convinced that “reality” is more “real” when it exists among the downtrodden, the menial, the serious, and dull. It does exist there, but it does not exist only there really. Light is Dina Merrill; Grace Jones shows how dazzling a body can be. Life moves swimmingly; smarts and style are fun, or should be. Glamour is life, too, darling, and after Sullivan’s luminance, I can’t bear anyone who insists pleasure cocktails come with guilt chasers.

Bruce Hainley