New York

Keith Milow

What’s in a name?, Keith Milow asks in a series of intensely painted abstractions. Incorporating the names of living and dead artists—brand-name artists, mostly—his paintings address not only art and language but memory; borrowing art-historical fame, they probe the nature of immortality and destiny.

An assortment of notable artists has entered a starry seventh heaven in Etre, 1997. Their names—“De Kooning,” “Bonnard,” “Gilbert & George,” for example—are interspersed in a cosmic circle of Morse Code-like dashes, yet are themselves no more than lines of quixotically varying length. The suggestion is that in the future the appellations alone will survive them, just as today we have forgotten the works of many ancient artists whose names still act as potent signifiers. In these works names stand as a synecdoche for existence—an ironic and poignant fate for an artist, who desires immortality for his or her vision. While Milow makes the names visible, the real substance comes in the realm of language. Milow sees art sub specie aeternitatis: it is supposed to be eternal, but to be eternal, he implies, means simply that one’s name will endure in memory. Yet memory, too, voids itself in time. The artists in Milow’s work are transcendent ash, corpses in the form of names.

Thus, the names—abstractions in themselves—become part of the abstract “Ether,” or form the eponymous “White Noise,” or enter the flow of a cosmic “River” (all 1997), as Milow has titled some of the works. There is a sense in Milow’s paintings of working with minutia within the context of a grid structure, implicit or explicit, and sharply contrasting colors usually of a smooth, uniform texture. The tiny, linear names can be discerned as legible beats in the vast, throbbing space, but they are thrown together indiscriminately. There is no reason why “De Kooning,” “Bonnard,” and “Gilbert & George” should align—they certainly don’t rhyme, nor have much to share in the way of common history. Nor is there any reason why, in White Noise, certain names are suspended in two narrow bands of faded blue, while the rest float in a broad expanse of true blue sky. They are merely random placeholders for absent persons and, more tellingly, for their absent art.

Milow seems to mock the very idea of immortality, even as he renders its medium—language. The names of the artists shine like stars in the surrounding void; yet however memorable they seem to us now, they will eventually become no more than abstract streaks of light, slowly but surely becoming smaller and smaller, until they disappear altogether. In the end, it is entropy that is Milow’s subject matter. His ingenious works are visionary examples of concrete poetry—brilliant conceptual poems full of wonder at the “abstractness” of it all.

Donald Kuspit