New York

Rodrigo Moynihan

Robert Miller Gallery

For much of his career, Rodrigo Moynihan was as likely to produce abstract as figurative painting, never feeling completely at home in either mode. During his last twenty years, however, the artist shifted away from abstraction, explaining that it “cut [me] off from . . . that union with something that made painting easier to do.” It seemed to Moynihan that if an object were “looked at in a dispassionate way . . . the results would be almost as unconscious . . . as in abstract painting.” What he found to look at, however, was not so much objects as light. Among the late paintings recently on view (most of them completed in the fifteen years before his death, in 1990, at age eighty) are still lifes that trace the effects of light—in many cases over the course of years—on the banalities of the studio: pieces of sculpture, tubes of paint, some bottles, newspaper, a bowl, a bolt of fabric, brushes, shelves. The extraordinary result of this prolonged, almost clinical attention is a meticulous notation of the complex way light affects everything it touches.

Omnipresent as it is, light is also various and mercurial. Moynihan seems untroubled by this. His reliance on occasional draftsmanly gestures—such as tracing the edge of a shelf with a rule—articulates his subjects even as they are transfigured by light. Many of the paintings made when the artist returned to London from France distill an alkaline incandescence. Their arid surfaces (taupe, light gray and brown, chalk, and ice blue) are charged with combinations of brighter colors (maroon, orange, yellow, and turquoise) that are only subtly disclosed. The effect is airy and spacious, even in the darker works—made when the artist was living in France—whose backgrounds are by turns drab, loam-colored, and ashen.

Walls occupy much of the surface of a number of the larger paintings. They are infused throughout their mass with radiance so that their very solidity can seem in passages permeable and sheer, their density the result of evanescence. This sheen of insubstantiality seems in Moynihan’s work to be the very source of being, the trait that allows us to see anything in the first place.

A number of Moynihan’s paintings include his own image. His face is usually blurred, often just suggested by quick strokes and smears; some of his features in Figure in Interior: Summer, 1980, look as though he drew them using the butt-end of his brush. In A Painter Choosing a Canvas, 1983, we see his reflection in a mirror at the far end of his studio as he looks past an easel hung with a blank canvas into his own image. The artist appears at the very center of the painting, slumped and weary, resting a hand on one of the canvases he is considering, his face a harsh fuss of red and gray. The geometrical framing elements funnel our attention to his dwarfed figure. In A Painter Holding a Canvas, 1981, he looks directly at us over a work he holds. His expression at first seems shy and stern, but at length one senses the depth and variety of the regard the painting reflects. This sense of a watching presence, common to Moynihan’s work, emerges as a patient, vastly attentive knowing that veils itself just enough to change with our contemplating it.

Tom Breidenbach