New York

Stephen Rosenthal

Stark Gallery

The four paintings and four works on paper in this show would appear to represent the most attenuated evolution of lyrical abstraction. Reminiscent of a certain aspect of Cy Twombly’s work (where what Roland Barthes called “the purity of fact” is paradoxically related to “dirtying” activities), the paintings are pale, almost colorless at first glance, an approximation of the blank canvas that has been described as one of the limits of Modernist painting. Each expanse of off-white appears featureless except for a few scattered smudges or spots of equivocal color—slippery orange/pinks or green/grays, for instance—that are sometimes “whited out” to leave more of a slightly discolored scarlike nub than a trace of definite hue. Like the drawings, the paintings at first glance seem austere almost to the point of vacancy, but this impression is belied by the tactility and coloristic flavor of the marks themselves, which, slight as they may be, are quietly voluptuous, almost rococo in color, as well as by the fluid delicacy with which they’ve been flicked and smeared on.

These relatively perspicuous smudges and lumps turn out to be not isolated markers within a desolate terrain but instruments for the beholder’s initiation into a whole landscape that is far more active and variegated than it might at first appear. One wants to see the whitish surrounds as a “ground” on which these marks have been inscribed, just as people used to regard the white spaces in Franz Kline’s black and white paintings, but, as in Kline’s work, such a view becomes untenable when one notices that the surrounds have been deliberately worked and articulated. Thanks to their coloristic recession and advancement, the smudges establish comparatively definite locations within a space that may be nebulous but is hardly neutral.

These are not really white paintings, though it would be convenient to call them that. They possess a subtly dappled patina, a silvery-to-golden sheen that almost escapes definition. Aside from the more definite smudges, which can make the paintings look as if the painter had used the canvas as a cloth to wipe some paint off his fingers, the overall fields themselves appear slightly soiled or used, though the smudges and stains (and, in one painting, Aqueduct, 1994–95, the drips) that make them up are nearly identical in tone, and therefore more difficult to perceive.

As one becomes aware of the composed or constructed nature of these concatenations of frugal marks, the paintings reveal themselves to be remarkably structured, not at all random or casual in organization. They might almost be the last remains of “erased” (in the Robert Rauschenberg/ Willem de Kooning sense) Cézanne still lifes. One works through to an underlying architecture that is unshakable. Although the very casual sense of dirtying and soiling conveyed by these paintings may link these works with other recent art that turns on themes related to the abject and more broadly “the body” (at this point a term that can only be employed in quotes), their internal structural integrity allies them as well to the much older and broader stream of Modernism.

Barry Schwabsky