New York

Adja Yunkers

The Painting Center

This rare exhibition of the work of Adja Yunkers, who died in 1984, was an important if modest survey of his art from the last 20 years of his long career. While Larionov, Malevich, the Italian Futurists, and the Mexican muralists figure among the early influences of the Russian-trained Yunkers, the seven paintings and three works on paper in this show demonstrate the degree to which his mature work was informed by postwar developments in abstraction. While formal affinities with the work of artists as diverse as Mark Rothko, Lucio Fontana, and even Yves Klein are evident, the unassuming and somewhat “awkward on its edges” quality of Yunkers’ work clearly values poetic introspection over formal cohesiveness and expressive intensity.

The Illusionist—Third Version, 1973, with its Rothko-like floating rectangle painted in thin washes, is a palimpsest, a tabletlike surface covered with overlapping autographic inscriptions. As if unable, or perhaps unwilling, to reach the absolute, Yunkers built his image from layers of abstract, amorphous erasures, which nevertheless interact harmoniously, building overall order and coherence. Pueblo X, 1977, with its two rows of embossments that recall the sponges in Klein’s late-’50s and early-’60s monochromes, downplays a virtuoso technique so dear to the French artist in favor of a more ascetic preoccupation with surface sensuality as the mark of emotional experience. Executed in a reductionist palette of earth colors, the work has an organic quality and manages to communicate the onset of decay as well. The brushstrokes in the gouache The Hour of the Bullfrog, 1961, reveal Yunkers’ mastery of painterly gesture while conjuring the fluidity and fragility of a primal chaos. These works take us in different stylistic directions; avoiding the false sense of security that can emerge from taking refuge in a single painterly convention, Yunkers largely forsook stylistic consistency in his quest for direct expression and relentlessly pursued the right, introspective note.

Given the extent to which Yunkers drew on the poetic impulse of postwar abstraction, it seems appropriate that the exhibition was accompanied by an extract from a 1979 Art International article by Mexican poet and philosopher Octavio Paz (whose book containing the poem “BLANCO” was illustrated by Yunkers in the mid ’70s). Both Paz and Yunkers attempted to combine an interest in the universal with “local” concerns, particularly the private domain of memory. Just as the Mexican poet often referred to his “lost” Aztec heritage, Yunkers never forgot his Russian past. Like Malevich, who perceived the white fields around his geometric figures as an all-inclusive void beyond the personal feeling those figures evoked, Yunkers vacillated between seeking to express the materiality of painting and attempting to transcend this materiality in order to reach an analogue of the open universe. Referring to one of his acrylics that depicted a Greek column, Yunkers said: “The column does not matter; it is static. But the aura around it counts. It breathes.”

Marek Bartelik