New York

Richmond Burton

Painting hasn’t come naturally to Richmond Burton. Though he’s had an impressive following from the beginning (his second catalogue essay, in 1990, was written by Robert Rosenblum), his progress has not been without impediments. His reliance on existing models (Frank Stella for his “Thought Plane Assembly” paintings of 1990–91, Lee Krasner for his works of a couple of years ago) seems, in retrospect, to have had little to do with the canny, mannerist revisionism of more facile painters like Philip Taaffe or, in a different way, George Condo. Likewise, the partial mechanization of the painting process in Burton’s earlier paintings was probably not inspired by the passion for self-removal evident in the work of Gerhard Richter. Instead, Burton’s work over the past decade or so seems more the willful, autodidactic apprenticeship to recent history that an obsessive like Arshile Gorky put himself through in the ’30s (Cézanne phase, Picasso phase, Miró phase).

What’s significant, of course, is that Burton’s trek has been more or less backward through history. Whereas the young Stella wanted to find a rigid formal container for the unruly energies of Abstract Expressionism—essentially the attitude of the Pointillists toward Impressionism—Burton has sought a way out of the restrictions of the ’60s back to the fluidity of postwar painting. (Tellingly, he’s long had a fatal attraction to Pollockesque titles—as if one could appropriate a phrase like “Eyes in the Heat,” refusing to accept that that number’s been retired.) And yet the results, for now at least, look less like anything so familiar as Abstract Expressionism than like an intoxicatedly abstracted form of Art Nouveau.

In these works (all from 1999), masses of small color daubs—more or less circular, triangular, or kidney-shaped—are orchestrated in pulsing profusion. There’s still the trace of a gridded substructure, but one that is constantly morphing, subject to processes of organic growth and diminution. The grid is usually thought of as static, but these paintings are rife with surging movement. And despite their small internal scale, they never give a feeling of bittiness or craftsmanly meticulousness. The particles of color are swept up in strong underlying currents. Furthermore, the lavish employment of metallic gold, copper, and silver paint in decorative patterns reminiscent of peacock feathers and butterfly wings evokes the luxuriant yet neurasthenic vitalism of Klimt—that seductive combination of imagistic succulence and spatial brittleness that gave the Viennese master’s work both fascination and creepiness. Though there is no warmth to their surface quality, Burton’s paintings generate light and heat. In the end, what is most impressive is the infectious sense of liberty and idiosyncrasy with which he places the individual unit within the overall flow, most notably in Cabinessence, where a few unpredictably placed egg-shaped blobs of blue, red, and black steal the show from a vast expanse of pale metallic hues. Burton has rigorously and systematically worked his way toward being a loose, intuitive painter; all contradictions aside, it seems to suit him just fine.

Barry Schwabsky