New York

Joseph Marioni

Peter Blum Gallery

In a statement prepared for this exhibition, Joseph Marioni declared that “we are about 80% through this transition [from pictorial representation to concrete actualization] in a period known as abstraction.” If this argument about the historical necessity of what Marioni calls “concrete painting”—painting “determined by the perceptual structure of its materials” rather than the “compositional hierarchy of narrative picture-language”—is true, then he is only 80 percent a concrete painter, for the drips in some of these dense monochromes, while certainly neither compositional nor pictorial, convey a sense of the “narrative” of painting. In the terms Marioni sets forth, the most successful paintings in the exhibition—and there are many—are those without such distracting “incidents,” no matter how enticing: regardless of paint’s inherent property to flow, such flowing reminds us of the painter painting, thereby leading us away from a purely perceptual concentration on the work. But for Marioni to avoid a painterly deadend, I think he must find another way to make the fluidity of paint perceptually manifest, in order to undermine the work’s smoothness and flatness—as he discreetly does by allowing his carefully modulated strokes to visibly separate and differentiate, even as they form a uniform, vigorously flat plane. In doing so, he subtly manages to avoid the ultrafinish found in, say, Ellsworth Kelly’s similarly uniform, flat surfaces.

Marioni’s little manifesto offers another idea by which we can test his paintings. “The new painting,” he writes, “must find the depth of human feeling within the concrete reality of the painting. If we do not find the humanistic identity within the object itself, this form of painting will be understood historically only as a late industrial product—a non-utilitarian object devoid of the pathos of human desire.” Do I find this pathos—this depth of feeling—within the concreteness of Marioni’s very particular paintings, each titled by its color (the primaries red, yellow, and blue, the secondary green, and the noncolor white)? I can’t say I do. I find beauty—pure, unadulterated beauty—in the placement of color, in the way the size of the canvas creates scale for it, and in the colors themselves; but beauty, as I experience and understand it, is the absence of pathos, the miraculous transcendence of desire. In short, it is sublimation. In fact, I find beauty reified by Marioni’s “actualizations” or “concretions,” or, more banally, abstractions. I’m desperate for beauty, I miss its presence in so much contemporary art, but it is subtly inhuman, the last bit of sacredness allowed us in our secular society (which has almost forgotten what beauty is and tolerates it only in such things as Marioni’s “obscure” paintings). Thus, as much as I admire Marioni’s concrete paintings, for me they evidence only a divine insolence and insouciance, the ultimate, reckless jouissance.

Donald Kuspit