New York

Laura Newman


Despite the best efforts of abstract painters to establish a surface devoid of any reference to the world, most viewers still tend to look for imagery “hidden” in nonrepresentational canvases. Abstract compositions are often treated as Rorschach blots to be deciphered, even “finished,” by the viewer, rather than as something wholly composed by the painter. Laura Newman is willing to split the difference: Her paintings cater to both image-hungry viewers and connoisseurs of pure abstraction.

One of the works in Newman’s recent show is a baby blue field bracketed by yellow trapezoids. The blue is marked now and then by white lines like Lucio Fontana slices through the canvas—or wispy clouds. The yellow forms almost immediately register as doors standing open against the sky, an illusion Newman bolsters by titling the work Yellow Doors, 2002. In a nearby painting two rectangles and a triangle meet below another field of blue, here broken up by a craquelure of black lines and horizontal dashes of white. Again the painting’s title confirms the viewer’s suspicions: Skywriting, 2000, evidently includes clouds and part of a chimneyed roof. A third blue work really does persistently look like an abstract composition until you learn the title, at which point Road Trip, 2001, with its white triangle within a beige rectangle at the bottom, seems to show the quintessential schematic representation of a straightaway leading into the distance, the schoolbook illustration of perspective.

The tug-of-war between abstraction and representation works, however, since Newman’s paintings are filled with art-historical allusions, particularly to late-twentieth-century painting. Her references are playful: Near the center of Green Light, 2001, a lush emerald field cut by yellow and brown spikes, are a couple of blue, Clyfford Still-esque stalagmite forms. Plein Air, 2001, with its rainbow-striped “doors” opening onto a white field (with a little tuft of greenery in the lower right), is like a hard-edge Morris Louis. And in Shutter, 2002, a grayish blue field with streaks of white, a pair of triangles appear, one along each side, that are reminiscent of Kenneth Noland’s chevrons. (These, for a change, really don’t appear to represent an object.)

But the nods to earlier painters aren’t Newman’s paramount project—rather, they seem like unavoidable gestures on her way to getting at what's really important: space. Almost every painting explicitly refers to the workings of perspective, the mechanics of setting up an illusion of reality—or, more generally, the age-old ruling principle of painting as a window to be looked into or through. Filling her canvases with diagonal lines, triangles, or trapezoids that imitate objects receding into space, Newman reminds us how painting worked when it was predicated on the way the eye sees (according to Euclid or Ptolemy or Alberti) and how the practice of painting—and looking at paintings—has evolved. Space, Newman seems to say, is just as important in contemporary painting as it always has been. It’s just traveled a long road, and it doesn’t look quite the way it used to.

Martha Schwendener