New York

Jean-Marc Bustamante

Matthew Marks Gallery

Scheduling Jean-Marc Bustamante’s exhibition to open at almost the precise moment the MOMA Pollock retrospective was closing was good timing. Bustamante, a Frenchman born in 1952, is just old enough to have felt the oppressive weight of postwar, particularly American, abstract painting in Europe, the legacy of which is an apparent subtext of his new “Panorama” series (all works 1999). At first, the title of the show, “A Wall with a View,” seemed ironic. The presentation resembled a conventional exhibition of abstract paintings, in marked contrast to the engagement with the gallery architecture for which the artist is most well known. The shades were drawn, and all the light was focused on the eight works on view. Six of these consist of sheets of translucent Plexiglas covered with monochromatic gestural strokes (another work is two-tone, and one comprises three panels). Many share certain morphological similarities with canonical abstraction, though perhaps in its later phase. Two seem to reference the post-1950 Jackson Pollock: Panorama (Transfer) is a skein of lines held together by a series of tomahawk-like shapes reminiscent of those in Blue Poles, 1952; and the biomorphic forms in Panorama (Suspension) recall Pollock’s black-and-white ink paintings. Moreover, Bustamante’s decision to render gestural abstraction on clear Plexiglas can’t help but recall Hans Namuth’s 1950 film of Pollock painting on glass—the event that, at least in popular lore, precipitated the end of the drip paintings and of the productive phase of Pollock’s career.

However, it is precisely the relation these transparent sheets develop with the architectural support—the wall—that deepens Bustamante’s connection to the history of abstraction, while differentiating his project. The fact that the panels float several inches off the wall relates to the objecthood that Frank Stella brought into painting, while the thick metal brackets that anchor the Plexiglas sheets mimic one of Robert Ryman’s numerous explorations of a painting’s support. In Bustamante’s works, though, the object quality is less important than the play between the gestural strokes on the translucent surface and the shadows they cast on the wall behind. This dualism sets up a dialectical relation between the work as delimited object and ephemeral mural (the mural being one of the recurring goals of heroic abstraction). The work’s dependence on controlled ambient light to achieve its shadow effects makes manifest the common identification of the gestural picture surface with a screen (in the 1950s, perhaps, the movie screen; today, the large-screen TV), a site for the projection of desire, a projection that in this case is not only doubled but also complicated by the fact that the shadow patterns in many of the pieces are far more beautiful than the strokes themselves.

While Bustamante invokes the specter of fantasy to engage in a critical exchange with the history of abstract painting, the works themselves are by no means paintings. This series originated in several dozen drawings the artist made on a small pad of graph paper. The drawings were then enlarged and silkscreened on the backs of Plexiglas panels. The blowing up of sketches into finished pieces contravenes perhaps the most fundamental lesson of postwar abstraction: the importance of scale. At the same time, Bustamante’s introduction of the mechanical almost inevitably summons Pop’s ironization of the gesture. However, Bustamante does not appear to be aiming in the direction of irony; rather, he seems to be searching for a way to accommodate the possibility of personal expression with the realization that the individual gesture may already be distanced and prefabricated.

Andrew Perchuk