New York

Albert York


As if you care a damn, there is the geranium green of the leaves, the almost cinnamon tint of the flowers, echoed in the small soft bird’s cap, the forlorn dead leaf, the muted cornflower blue of the pot with darker shadows. Geranium in Blue Pot with Fallen Leaf and Bird, 1982, depicts what its title bluntly announces, but with a seemingly unobtrusive difference. The wood panel of the support shows through along the edges, at the leaves’ curving limits, on the “horizon” between what might be earth and sky or table and wall (and is both earth and sky and table and wall—all almost splintering, grained), as if the actions that brought the painting into being were somehow barely enough to keep the work from reverting to its constitutive parts of oil paint and blank wood panel. The indecision—undecidability—of interior or exterior in terms of something that is painted suggests other confrontations that would at first not seem to trouble such a pleasant view.

Albert York paints paintings that attend to the lonely but pleasurable activity of looking. There is the still life, Geranium in Blue Pot with Fallen Leaf and Bird, and there is, I guess, somewhere in life (or in life remembered) an actual geranium and clay pot and tender bird, things that almost anyone has seen at some time or another. But what York questions by looking and looking again and again—a perfectly useless activity—is how the “subject” becomes paint and the surface to which it is applied, with neither taking precedence, so what is seen might be called “Painted Geranium Painted in a Painted Blue Pot Painted with Painted Fallen Leaf and Painted Bird”; or, “Study of the Real in Paint and Wood.”

York’s is an obdurate way of looking—sharp as the green accuracies of a late spring, the blade scent of asparagus in urine. His paintings concentrate on (and are concentrated by) the duration of vision—time, the memory of time, the specific lunar radiance of dreams, all caught in paint. Various beings, dogs and cows, planted amid landscapes that somehow prove them inconsequential, seem to have been waiting so long to be seen that they’ve begun to turn into something else. It’s as if a long time must pass before anyone notices, as if there were no presentness without patience.

Despite more than a dozen solo shows in New York since the early ’60s, an almost cultlike following (devotees have included Lauren Bacall, Edward Gorey, curator Klaus Kertess, collector Werner H. Kramarsky, and Jackie Onassis, who owned Geranium in a Blue Pot, among other paintings by York), and glowing profiles by Calvin Tomkins in The New Yorker and by San Francisco poet and critic Bill Berkson for Art in America, York remains a largely unknown figure. Fairfield Porter once compared York’s small audience to Gertrude Stein’s, but while the painter is certainly an innovator, he is, as John Ashbery wrote (about Porter), “one of those innovators whose originality can come perilously close to seeming old-fashioned” (not exactly what one feels encountering Stein). Fixating on the quotidian subject matter, many mistake York’s paintings for pretty intimist landscapes and still lifes instead of the mute, feral innovations they are. York is questioning, via a chunky, oneiric “realism” (I can think of no more accurate a word), properties of paint, color, and facture as much as, say, Brice Marden is; his compressions are intense temporal and art-historical negotiations similar to Joseph Cornell’s, who also is often made quaint rather than daring.

The real, as if you care a damn, includes everything, conscious life plus what roils in the unconscious. Whatever interest York has in the point-blank actuality of representing the real, he tests the realness of paint, the realness of vision, how the real is or is not distinct from memory or representation through a patient consideration of factuality’s reliance on fiction. In his work, it is as if past, present, and future were all visible, which partly explains the women and men in nineteenth-century garb, Native Americans in full feather or loincloth, a man in armor fighting a crocodile. Often the human figure exists with a treelike solidity or fades to ghostly outlines; both solid and phantasmal, the figure somehow never seems to be as fully present as the flowers, dogs, or cows—perhaps due to some mortal doubt.

In Four Dogs, 1977, three canines attack a fourth. They have a Roman quality; they could be fighting over a bone tossed to them by Caesar. Ferocious relations occur too in the contest between paint and not-paint. For all his passionate use of the tactile surface of paint, York is painfully attuned to everything that can be represented only by its refusal to be painted—the edges where being comes undone. Jean Genet got at a similar representational failure when he wrote that “the space between the words contains more reality than does the time it takes to read them.” One cloud glows in full late afternoon radiance, the other goes flat, almost matte, disappearing. The energy of the dogs’ muscles tensed, attacking, attacked, in dove-gray, cocoa, mud, peaked by one merely in jabbed outline, reduced to nothing but ferocity, its skin that of the paper mounted on a support.

A primer on how to look at things, on how time becomes space compressed on painted board, on how a painting is painted in the midst of the artist discovering each time how to paint, York’s work approaches but has no narrative. Tuliplike roses, cows, moonlight, dogs, trees, the sky above, the running springs near fresh green grass. Rose red, chestnut brown, moon white, dun, verdigris, sky blue, blue-gray, blue-green, green.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.