New York

Robert Harms

David Beitzel Gallery

The lush setting of Robert Harms’ Amagansett studio serves as the point of departure for his radiant abstract paintings. In many of the paintings Harms takes a recognizable image from the landscape and attacks it with arbitrary marks until it nearly disappears from view—an old Willem de Kooning trick—and the resulting bramble tantalizes the viewer with the insistence of a half-remembered name. The remaining traces of the landscape and human figure haunt the work. The clumps of olive, white, and blue in Side of the Road, 1995, might be a pastoral valley by Cézanne viewed through the haziness of memory, and the yellow swipes glimpsed in the desultory cross-strokes of Fallen Yellow, 1995, suggest a Georg Baselitz–like specter flickering in and out of its surroundings. In Hollyhock, 1994, a close-cropped view of foliage becomes an allover web tinged with green and maroon.

Deriving their power from the interplay of bold complementary colors and high-speed collisions of thick brushstrokes, Harms’ canvases bring just the right amount of grit and offhandedness to the tradition of the abstract sublime. Working within a known set of conventions can have its pitfalls, however. For a young artist (Harms is 33) painting in an Abstract Expressionist style today, creating a successful work is perhaps less a matter of purging landscape and figurative references than eliminating tics of the hand that seem so passe. The latter are more noticeable in Harms’ watercolors, which show his reliance on the mock-Oriental calligraphic gestures so common in AbEx work. But the same zigzagging strokes when deployed in the creation of his oils are more successful. Subjected to the successive reworking that the infinite malleability of oil paint allows, these paintings relinquish much of their artifice and artiness. With each revision Harms’ personality comes to the fore, giving him the confidence to apply the painterly elegance of Philip Guston’s middle phase or Joan Mitchell’s mark-of-Zorro brushwork without being derivative of either.

Harder to shed, however, are AbEx’s ideological trappings. Discredited in the ’60s as overindulgent and ridden with cliches, gestural abstraction has been the whipping boy for successive generations of artists, from the Minimalists to the multicultural academy. During the ’60s and ’70s gestural abstraction declined from a heroic tradition to the noodlings of a thousand bad imitators, and many artists (e.g., Alfred Leslie) left the fold for the figurative camp. In that enervated condition, the charges seemed even more plausible that AbEx was a tool or plaything of an elite power structure—if only because its adherents lacked the strength to fight back. But when younger artists infuse a seemingly moribund vocabulary with new life and energy, it becomes less easy to dismiss the gestural tradition as simply vacuous. Harms’ paintings may not singlehandedly restore the tradition to its former glory, but they do much to dispel the element of doubt.

Tom Moody