New York

Robert Dash

THROUGHOUT THE '60S AND '70S, Robert Dash was a fixture on the New York gallery scene. His landscapes, like those of Fairfield Porter, managed to wed freely moving paint-as-paint with straightforward description. But his last show in the city was in 1982, and somehow one imagined that he might have stopped painting, seduced by his works and days in Madoo, his garden in Sagaponack, New York (now a public conservancy). Happily, “Florilegium,” an exhibition of eight paintings on canvas and fourteen on paper, showed that Dash has done more than just continue to paint—he's developed his work in unexpected ways.

The new paintings, which recall the balky intensity of early American modernists like Dove and Hartley and hint at the wildness of a German like Nolde, but with a funky touch that's closer to Terry Winters, are close-up views of flowers against nonspecific backgrounds—variations on the theme of a single centered mass more or less filling the square or rectangle. What kind of flowers are they? Beats me. Though each blossom seems specifically characterized and is decked out with the requisite stamens, pistils, and what-have-you, this botanically challenged urbanite has to doubt that they can be found at Madoo—or anywhere else, for that matter. Could there really exist a flower with the lurid blue pistils and bright red eye of Untitled 6, 2000? Are there blooms with the nocturnal glamour of Untitled 4, 2000, or petals the color of sere autumn leaves, as in Untitled 11, 2001? Moreover, the revisions evident in many of the paintings hint at the free play of the imagination rather than fealty to an existing motif; for instance, the pistils in Untitled 1, 2000, seem to do a sort of dance with the smaller ones appearing as ghostly images under the painting's surface.

It might seem that Dash has gotten as close to being an all-out abstractionist as a painter can possibly get while still maintaining something like a recognizable image—a formalist of the floral realm. And yet that's not quite right. The work's emotional focus emerges in the artist's clear preference for a certain awkwardness or difficulty, both in his palette and in his draftsmanship, for the way a “wrong” note can complicate a composition. Dash has a particular eye for odd, subtly off color; in his recent book, Notes from Madoo, he observes that in Pennsylvania salvia the “blues go a bit into wet-litmus-paper violets.”

“Hardly anyone but a botanist knows the true nature of a flower,” Kant observed, “and even he, while recognizing in the flower the reproductive organ of the plant, pays no attention to this natural end when using his taste to judge of its beauty.” I wonder if Dash would agree. Certainly, as a horticulturist, he is as aware as anyone of the flower's functional as well as aesthetic dimension—and it may well be significant that, as Brooks Adams informs us in his catalogue introduction, the works that immediately preceded Dash's flower paintings were of phallus-like forms. A poet of sex and flowers like D.H. Lawrence would have appreciated this “Florilegium.”

Barry Schwabsky