New York

Diti Almog

“Look at it this way,” Diti Almog’s meticulously rendered paintings seemed to want to say, the “it” in question being the painted work, adjacent downsized or oversized “copies” of that work’s component parts, and the gallery space that contains all of the above. The Israeli artist presented near-pristine white wood panels punctuated by horizontal or vertical stripes or boxes of various colors, while also re-presenting details of the same painting in scaled-up or -down versions. This act of repetition and self-appropriation blurred distinctions—between part and whole, inside and outside, original and copy—that help to define the coherence and uniqueness of works of art.

There is a Minimalist sensibility to Almog’s approach, and both her examination of whiteness and her formalist rigor recall the work of Agnes Martin, Barnett Newman, and Robert Ryman. But her project is decidedly less grandiose and more playful—which is not to say unphilosophical. Exploring what repetition might mean for painting, Almog analyzes space and sequence in ways that are often reserved for contemporary sculpture. And that questioning, re-questing and -attacking (which is, at least etymologically, what repetition signifies), opens up avenues of sight and thought that are at once elegant and startling.

Typically, Almog extracted a segment of one painting and placed it, altered in scale, in (or as) an adjacent work. B, 1995, a 10½-by-21-inch white-painted panel, contained two little black-bordered rectangles, which in turn featured thin vertical lines. Next to B appeared BA, 1995, a copy of one box from B, but larger (12-by-24 inches); and then BB, 1996, a re-rendering of the other rectangle, this time in the same dimensions as B.

This play of repetition was not restricted to the group of B paintings; the stripes in B resonated with similarly spaced stripes in a series of AE paintings with off-white backgrounds—AE, 1996, AEA, 1995, and AEB, 1995 (the dating sequence indicating that the apparently “copied” paintings may actually have preceded their “originals”). For Almog, repetition always means repetition with a difference, and her work focuses on exploring nuances of altered scales. AFA, 1996, a white-painted wood panel containing a bold black vertical stripe and a little box made of pencil-thin vertical lines (again similar to those of B), was a 4-by-8-inch near-replica of the much larger AF. The black stripe gave both paintings a flaglike appearance, but the stripe’s altered scale also invoked the black painted frames that surrounded many of the white canvases, just as the seemingly empty whiteness of the paintings invoked both the gallery floor and the surrounding walls.

There is, of course, an “abysmal” quality to Almog’s work—in that it is, quite obviously, a mise en abîme—but Almog’s abyss is more beautiful than sublime, and there is moreover something restrained and lyrical in her paintings. In D, 1996, Almog presented two white-painted rectangular horizontal wood panels with small black rectangular vertical boxes, each containing a pale blue vertical slit; in DA, 1996 (a self-portrait?), D was rendered with the slit moved ever so slightly from left to center. “Why two,”? the viewer might ask, following Baudrillard, for whom repetition signaled the simulacrum, something altogether more sinister than playful. Perhaps Almog’s little boxes are meant not as a self-portrait but as eyes, our eyes. And if DA, for example, were itself “repeated,” would this not produce DADA, arguably the progenitor of an entire discontinuous line of inquiry stretching from Duchamp through Sherrie Levine to Almog’s own fascinating paintings?

Almog’s formal precision and elegance, along with a contemporary theoretical interest in seriality, appropriation, and space, make for work that is at once visually and intellectually challenging. Her unpretentious yet enigmatic titles resonate with the apparent simplicity of her paintings, a simplicity that is, of course, not so simple at all.

Nico Israel