New York

Betsy Kaufman

Patrick Gallery

Contrapuntally active, even a bit jumpy, rather than contemplative, Betsy Kaufman’s new paintings are wonderfully adept at coaxing color into revealing its ways and means. Most of them take off from a basic grid structure, but one that is deployed differently on each occasion, with unexpected syncopations counteracting any simple regularity. The complex interrelations of brightness and hue among contiguous blocks of uninflected color in Sugar St., 1994, produce a spatial illusionism that suggests a blown-up, digitalized photograph, for instance, whereas the brushy and somewhat more translucent squares (each a sort of tiny picture in its own right) that spread across the white ground of Rose Garden, 1993, evoke a sequence of staccato movements within, across, and off a neutral space. The two paintings are so different in effect that it’s hard to remember they are both basically grids composed of predominantly pink-to-red squares. Kaufman’s concentration on detail allows each painting complete particularity.

In 1986, Kaufman was using a kind of deep space derived from Giorgio de Chirico. The foreground and middle ground were defined geometrically by checkerboard pavements of the sort that regulate perspectival recession in late-15th-century Florentine paintings, the background would be the flat plane of a map, and the space would be inhabited by a fragment of statuary—a broken female figure—standing in for an absconded human presence. Kaufman’s subsequent work gradually clarified and flattened out, eventually leading to the use of simple, isolated, bloblike forms retaining all the flatness of the maps that had originally served as grounds, while also recalling the irregular forms used to denote the geological features of the charted terrain. Kaufman’s work has now complexified in a new way. The flatness of the recent paintings no longer relates to the distances of the maps, but, rather, to the sense of close contact and the reassuring support of the floors with their geometrical regularity. If those early paintings were about the artist’s difficulty in placing herself as an active and expressive being in the representational space of painting, the new work suggests that there is no longer any such distance felt, and no further need for any particular representation of the self. This painter is just, to borrow a phrase, “in the painting.”

Where Kaufman’s paintings once evoked disquiet, even anxiety, they now represent a kind of happiness. These paintings have many puzzles, but no problems. Or if they wrestle with a problem, it is disclosed only at the level of facture, which, though not quite finicky, evinces a greater care and finish than is strictly necessary to the elicited effects, the last anxious edge in the ceremonious playfulness of Kaufman’s style.

Barry Schwabsky