New York

Judy Glantzman

Judy Glantzman, a mainstay of the East Village art scene of the early to mid ’80s, resurfaced about three years ago from the limbo that swallowed so many artists of that moment. Her recent paintings continue her pursuit of figurative expressionism, though now in a climate of opinion notably hostile to anything of the sort. But working against the grain seems to have been a salutary experience for this artist: her paintings are tougher and more compelling than they used to be.

This artistic isolation is perhaps reflected in Glantzman’s subject matter. The boho crowd she used to paint is gone, replaced by a single female figure (the artist herself, we are told). The figure is detached from any identifiable context, other than that of pure color (which is to say, of painting as technique and tradition); she is alone except for the sporadic accompaniment of an infant daughter. Often the proportions of her body are reduced, a diminution that seems to suggest she is becoming her own child. A recurrent gesture is the offering of the breast, which is here more an organ of nourishment than of sexual attraction. The woman’s expression in these pieces is one of weary surrender, as if she were resigned to serving as a milk machine.

Rather monotonously, despite a healthy diversity of color and facture, each painting confronts us with another version of this figure. She may be clothed or nude, but there is otherwise little variation in her full frontal presentation; the same face and eyes always stare out from the canvas. For company she has only the memory of other figures in this tradition: Spero’s women are recalled, and so, at times too clearly, are de Kooning’s; echoes of Bacon and Baselitz abound. With their insistence on this invariable motif, the paintings claim to confront the viewer directly and from a space of concentrated intimacy—a place free of distraction and beyond the resistances of the medium itself.

That claim is hardly fulfilled. The feeling conveyed by these paintings (all works, 1997) is atmospheric rather than totemic; they are stronger, in the end, as evocations than as direct statements. The figure, far from emerging as a substantial presence, is descried as a succession of ghostly impressions, a congeries of fragmentary lineaments. It’s as though the canvas were conceived less as an interface between artist and viewer, and more as a mirror in which these fleeting reflections might be sighted and, somehow, focused. But if the canvas can mirror the painter, here the identity of the artist seems—paradoxically—to be on the point of vanishing. This is perhaps only as it should be: eventually somebody else always faces the work.

Such are the ironies generated by an expressionist project. Artists who fail to work with them tend to become involuntary self-parodists; those who manipulate them self-consciously may succeed, but perhaps are no longer expressionists. It’s not yet clear which way Glantzman will go. If the melodrama of her warping of the figure is sometimes hoary, it is often offset by a saving dose of wicked humor. This more nuanced stance toward her own overriding preoccupation with self is apparent in the unexpected details that occasionally emerge with dispassionate clarity: a foot here, a gauzy skirt there. Philip Guston’s poetics of banality may be the overlooked clue to how Glantzman might proceed.

Barry Schwabsky