New York

Sarah Morris

Petzel Gallery | West 18th Street

Sarah Morris’s recent paintings of midtown Manhattan buildings are very New York indeed: stylish, hip, loud, reflexive, and assured. Isolating fragments of the glass-curtain facades, the works are rendered in forceful colors—citron, ocher, electric blue, fuchsia—representing the blazing neon light reflected by neighboring buildings and adjacent advertising signage. The structures Morris focuses on are among the more recognizable in the area, including the Seagram Building, mother ship of International Style, and two Skidmore, Owings & Merrill projects (9 West 57th Street and the Grace Building), both exhibiting the too-showy high-modern hubris characteristic of early ’70s Mies spin-offs.

Morris wants to consider the iconic and the larger-than-life, and Midtown is an ideal site for such an excavation. As home to Times Square and corporate Manhattan, this is what the world envisions as the “real New York” (though many New Yorkers have a different perspective). In MidtownMountain Dew and MidtownSuntory Whiskey (all works 1999), Morris interprets a few of the mammoth electronic billboards that light up Times Square’s topography. The angled gray, black, and bottle-green grid of Mountain Dew signals brand-name colors but subverts the means of this inescapable imagery—logo recognizability—by zeroing in on sections of the giant pixelated signs, abstracting them, and leaving an aftertaste of urban Pop sensibility. Still, that trace is enough to convey the velocity of the urban spectacle.

These considerably optical paintings revel in metropolitan extremes, presenting vertiginous and nearly impossible angles and points of view. MidtownHBO/Grace superimposes two perspectives, and many canvases, like MidtownCrowne Plaza Hotel, simulate the disorienting experience of being at urbanism’s ground zero. But the Op effects are achieved via traditional one-point perspective, and Morris demonstrates an allegiance to the masking-tape imperative and the grammar of Minimalism. In fact, it’s less interesting to think about these works in relation to painting’s sacred grid than it is to see them as investigations of architectural systems. Morris was surely drawn to Midtown because there the city’s grid plan is most strongly expressed and the rectilinearity of the streets and avenues extrudes upward in modernism’s glass-and-steel towers. Her adaptations of that idiom are confident and skillful, and the exuberant compositions reflect the pleasure she takes in finding such facility with her chosen style.

And so subjectivity is not entirely muted by the works’ strong formalism. A residual quality emerges; it’s hard to see where direct observation ends and memory and intuition take over in her, and our, experience of the world. Although Morris’s paintings are translated from photography and make use of its devices, she clearly has spent a lot of time among these buildings, watching who enters and exits and considering the psychological impact of the dizzying light-and-structure show (her studio was near Port Authority, and she recently made a short film titled Midtown). Her project amounts to a study of how collective memory, informed by cinema and photography, is conditioned by urban space—how we see things through “other forms of storytelling,” as she has put it. Morris offers a critique of the social ordering required by corporatism, and yet a work like Crowne Plaza Hotel is not unlike Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942–43, which also makes the structure of the grand plan seem less straitjacketed. Morris’s New York grids are imbued with all the lyricism—and repulsion—attendant on the city itself.

Meghan Dailey