New York

Peter Dreher

Monique Knowlton

Peter Dreher’s second solo show in New York featured three distinct bodies of work, each comprising paintings of a single subject. Twenty-one small images of a drinking glass belong to his series “Tag um Tag ist Guter Tag” (which roughly translates as “Every day is a good day”); seven large nudes came from a series called “The Naked Ones,” which Dreher began in 1990; and a group of medium—scale (each 17 1/2 by 23 inches) works entitled “The Large Poster in Watercolor” depicted rectangular sections of a single image, a bouquet of spotted pink azaleas bearing the slogan “Einfach so” (Simply so). The very simplicity of all three bodies of work suggests that Dreher’s project is less concerned with painting per se than with the idea of creating art.

The works grouped under “Tag um Tag” (all on ten-by-eight-inch canvases) depict an empty drinking glass on a silvery, slightly reflective tabletop, viewed against a white background. Dreher has painted over three thousand such works since 1974. The atmosphere varies considerably from canvas to canvas according to the time of day and type of lighting. In some, natural light from a window reflected in the glass; in others, diverse effects of artificial illumination have been brought to bear as well: incandescent to fluorescent, hot to cool. The only intrusion on the representation is a ghostly series number traced in the blank area above the glass.

Putting these glasses together with the floral compositions and nude studies invited the viewer to reflect, not only on the relative merits of each series, but on the many differences and possible relations between them. A range of sizes is represented (small, medium, and large, respectively); one group depicted a mineral subject, one a vegetable, one an animal; one featured cool colors, another warm, a third hot. We don’t know if such comparisons are deliberate or coincidental, but either way they get at the heart of Dreher’s work, which has more to do with painting as a repetitive practice than as a means of depiction. For this reason, the work is most successful when it takes a neutral subject. The nudes are less compelling than the azaleas and the drinking glasses because their subject inherently contains depths and complexities Dreher does not pursue.

If expressive content is not the point of Dreher’s activity, what is? Metaphor, perhaps; “Tag um Tag” suggests that we understand each painting marking or representing a day in the artist’s life. (In this way, it recalls On Kawara’s date paintings.) Maybe these works arc more internal, existing purely as records of artistic meditation. Contemplation of Dreher’s series on this level—what they are, what they mean, why they were created, why the artist chose this particular subject—is their ultimate reward, for by evoking the doubts, confusion, and satisfaction that come to him from a productive day in the studio, Dreher shares the creative process with viewers, putting us, as it were, in the artist’s place. Here “Every day is a good day,” which is in fact a Zen expression translated from the Chinese, offers more than a diaristic metaphor: it attests to the painter’s philosophical reconciliation, through work, to the troubling task of aesthetic judgment and artistic creation.

Justin Spring