New York

Richmond Burton

Whither abstract painting? Richmond Burton gives us one convincing answer: toward a richness of surface that is ironic while it is at the same time aggressively, even triumphantly, organic. The richness is ironic in at least two ways. First, for all its sensuous directness and Dionysian fluidity, Burton’s surface is fragmented into forms that brake the painterly flow, forcing on us a certain Apollonian consciousness of “transcendent” shape. Second, his tricky flow is always intricate and never completely what it seems—at times his shapely gestures form a tense, tight weave, at others a more languid, looser one, and they may even verge on spinning utterly out of control. But “the return to the organic”—as idea, method, and source of emblematic forms—is regnant: Burton’s paintings convey a feeling of rapid, forceful metamorphosis, one that is bizarrely natural. It is as though he has dissected the process of metamorphosis, capturing its spontaneity on the wing, and above all conveying the sense of undoing and redoing form that is its essence. Certainly the strange curvilinear shapes of Shivaesque, 1997, each with a kind of dark teardrop at the core, seem to be simultaneously making and unmaking themselves—an altogether appropriate process in a work that alludes to the Hindu deity who in the same breath destroys and restores worlds. Are Burton’s shuddering shapes Shiva’s dancing arms, bringing worlds of life into being even as they announce death to others?

Robert Motherwell once wrote that “abstract art is a form of mysticism.” There is much here to convince us that Burton’s goal is to renew those mystical roots of abstraction. The stars in View Behind the Curtain, 1996, suggest as much, as does the artist’s marvelous integration of the extremes of black and white. The manner in which the pair qualify one another in spiraling gestures that form hermetic patterns is reminiscent of Paul Signac’s Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones and Colors, Portrait of Félix Fénéon in 1890, 1890. Both Burton and Signac attempt to convey the cosmic, and with it the idea of transcending the mundane. And both seem to suggest that the best way of doing so is through abstract gestures that are as organically resonant and uninhibited as possible yet tend toward discrete shapes and elementary, rhythmically recurring geometric forms, however broken the rhythm.

If Burton partakes of Signac’s goals, he has abandoned the latter’s use of the figure (as if to suggest that no individual has privileged access to cosmic mystery), and his gestures are more fluid and fast, tending to integrate with the geometry, each adumbrating and informing and begetting the next. Such integration affords a greater sense of visual complexity and mystery. Indeed, in the densely packed Frequent Flyer, 1997, gesture and geometry are no longer readily distinguishable, and there is a generic sense of organic proliferation. Shape seems infinitely protean and self—regenerating, and painterliness infinitely developing. The effect is one of intimacy with cosmic creativity—the ultimate achievement of the best abstract painting. In other words, it is the symbiosis with the medium that finally matters to the abstract painter: the medium becomes a refuge from the mundane and a source of transcendental shapes. Burton’s brilliance has to do with the fact that he has made the medium once again seem both a revelation and a mystery—the truth, at once transcendental and immanent, of painting, which all too often tends to draw a curtain of images over it.

Donald Kuspit