New York

Frank Nitsche

Leo Koenig Inc. | 541 West 23rd

Savvy, sleek, crisp, and flat, Frank Nitsche’s paintings make an honorable, middle-of-the-road style—gestural geometric abstraction—look suddenly like the fast lane. Lately that kind of regenerative feat seems to be a particularly German talent, so it’s no surprise to find that Nitsche was reared in the former GDR and studied at the Dresden Academy alongside painters like Thomas Scheibitz and Eberhard Havekost. Like theirs, Nitsche’s art wears both earnestness and calculation on its sleeve. Everything about the seven big canvases on view in this belated New York debut seemed shrewdly considered: the alternately drab and sweet palette, the uniform liquidity of the paint, the strangely tidy drizzle of drips left behind by Nitsche’s veering linear vectors. One felt at once seduced and a little wary: Is Nitsche offering us a fresh take on action painting or just a graphic makeover?

Intimations of this anxiety crop up in the writing of Nitsche’s advocates. There’s a repeated insistence on the works’ photographic basis (Nitsche paints, we're told, from his own “Atlas”: a vast archive of heterogeneous imagery stored in ring binders). Supporters likewise rush to characterize the paintings’ good looks in terms of aggression. The press release, for instance, likens Nitsche’s “catastrophes” and “violated” forms to John Chamberlain sculptures and J.G. Ballard’s Crash.

The Chamberlain comparison is fair enough—the distinctive angular rigidity of Nitsche’s line calls to mind car contours—but the suggestion of violence feels misleading. There’s nothing impulsive or reckless about Nitsche’s compositions. The long sweeping trails that dominate them have a routed steadiness, a nearly prefabricated precision. In their measured curves and turns one recognizes echoes of highway, circuitry, and sports equipment design, not to mention the futuristic architectures of Lebbeus Woods, Frank Gehry, and Jack Kirby. What do these idioms have in common? Neither biomorphic nor modular, they belong to a shape syntax that implies mobility, fluidity, velocity.

Of course, the recent ascendance of this syntax owes a lot to computer software, and one might expect Nitsche’s work to be born or refined onscreen. But in fact the drips are authentic: The paintings are improvised. The long, unerring straightaways that dominate Nitsche’s compositions gradually reveal themselves as feats of physical virtuosity, like a kind of manual sostenuto: Only up close can one detect (and then only just barely) their faint wobbles of freehandedness. These really are action paintings, albeit of an utterly unromantic, willfully restrained, and deliberative kind.

That’s what makes them feel so distinctive, so unlike their American precedents. Perhaps in Diebenkorn you get something like Nitsche’s draftsmanly austerity (there is a risk that Nitsche could create an elegant, “Ocean Park”–like dead end for himself). But the comparison one would have thought most pertinent—to the sleek and mobile late paintings of de Kooning—only highlights a temperamental chasm. Whereas de Kooning delights in pictorial freedom, Nitsche’s pleasure takes the form of an ever-attentive control, a restraint equal to that of a tai chi practitioner. To Nitsche, evidently, improvisation is most beautiful when it looks constrained, channeled, covert. To the viewer used to thinking of pleasure in more unruly terms, Nitsche’s methodical hedonism feels compelling precisely for being counterintuitive.

Alexi Worth