New York

Ruth Root

Read the critics on Ruth Root, and the names dropped are Philip Guston, Ellsworth Kelly, Piet Mondrian, and Richard Tuttle. The Guston references derive from the waggish strategy by which Root made her earlier color-block abstractions self-conscious: Little pairs of eyes peeped through what one had assumed to be a flat, nonillusionistic span of paint, and lit cigarettes protruded from the seams where colors touched. It was a gimmick, albeit a clever one, and in her recent show Root wisely rested it. Without the sexy, anthropomorphic gestures toward satiety, wariness, and contemplation, her abstractions (still enamel on wafer-thin, shaped aluminum panels) were left to speak for themselves in the old language of grid and hue.

In this realm of “pure” abstraction, the debt to Kelly’s color/form juxtapositions looms especially large. There’s ample urban boogie-woogie in the way the aluminum’s odd curves balance against those sharp-edged, irregularly sized color patches, and Root’s palette—favoring chocolate browns and metal grays enlivened by lemon, lavender, or cherry—exhibits something of Tuttle’s knowing innocence. So are these paintings simply adroit syntheses concocted in the History of Abstraction Lab? Is the nudge-wink of the eyes and cigarettes still what the work is all about?

Fortunately no, or at least not completely. The weight of the father figures remains, but in her cheerful, bollocksy way, Root comes close to Harold Bloom’s discussion of the absorption and reconfiguration of the precursor. It was even possible, at Kelly’s concurrent show nearby, to see his elegant arcs and methodical chromatic juxtapositions as replies to Root’s insouciance rather than the other way around. In other words, Root’s relationship to her lineage goes beyond teasing appropriation to genuine engagement. And even if you didn’t know Kelly existed, you could still enjoy the way Root slips along the left side of one painting from cool sea gray to warm clay gray to strident candy purple to bruised red-brown and back to a different cool gray, the way she makes a brighter passage smaller to punch up its tang or plays a lilac corner against a blip of acid yellow, a prong of dirty tiger-lily orange, and a heavy section of charcoal (all works Untitled, 2002–2003). It’s amusing and obscurely satisfying to perceive Root’s rule that curved or slanted edges appear courtesy of the cut aluminum only, while lines where paint abuts paint are ruled and right-angled—as if the tight interiors were being squashed and molded by a separate kind of physics in the world beyond.

Such viewing games attempt to isolate what make Root’s paintings fresh, when their touchstones are decades old. Partly it’s the plasticky regularity of their surfaces and the muted designer dorkiness of the colors they come in. Inviting Josef Albers–ish reveries about adjacency and complement, they also nod toward commercial-design vocabularies, from the Pantone system to T-shirt choices in a catalogue. There’s a feeling that at any moment the tension among their components could slacken and they’d rearrange, not like headlights on a wet night on Broadway scored by bebop clarinet but like pixels scrambling, accompanied by a menu of beeps, clicks, and whirrs.

This reading may fall into what could be called the digital fallacy. Root’s work glides forward on a purposely deadpan or flattened sprightliness, an energy that’s neither simulated nor ironized but intensely mediated—and it’s tempting to ascribe this to technology’s conceptual and visual influences. She’s in debt not only to venerable painterly tradition but to immaterial, manipulable image units, and it’s this meld that makes Root especially fun to look at now. But what really matters—what empowers her to take on that tradition of hard-edge abstraction and own it in 2003—is the way her colors, laid together, make a synesthetic sound inside one’s eyes.

Frances Richard