New York

Raoul de Keyser

David Zwirner | 519 West 19th Street

Unearthing fragments of a ten-year-old linocut in his studio, septuagenarian Belgian artist Raoul De Keyser decided to use them as a jumping-off point for a series of modest paintings in which he calmly but with insistence reassesses the lingering potential of modernist abstraction. Having employed similar chance beginnings before—basing compositions on scraps of torn-up drawings in the manner of Hans Arp, for example, or veiling them in single colors to create pseudo-monochromes comparable to those of American painter John Zurier—De Keyser displays a quiet but well-founded confidence that his lyrical technique is itself strong enough to form the essential core of each work.

The title of De Keyser’s last show at this gallery, 2001’s “Come on, play it again,” suggested with endearing self-deprecation an awareness that exhibiting domestically scaled abstract canvases in the first year of the new century was likely to elicit a nostalgic sentiment. Yet it also hinted at themes and moods that served to place the work beyond either a naively retrogressive or a constipated endgame/aftermath stance. Evoking musical improvisation and alluding to the quirks of human memory and emotion, these paintings were structured according to what Hans Rudolf Reust describes in the catalogue as “nonfigurative narration,” an interplay between painterly elements—lines and especially surfaces—the evolutionary stages of which also remain visible and dramatic in each completed picture.

The most recent show, “Remnants,” continues in a similar vein. There is action here, but it is staged on an indeterminate scale and unfolds in its own sweet time. De Keyser has often been described as a “painter’s painter,” which might seem like faint praise but is accurate enough: The pleasures offered by his work are distinctly grown-up, unspectacular, refined, and satisfying. The influence of Miró and Klee is undeniable, but De Keyser remains contemporary in his concentration on the fragmentary and the left-behind, in his implicit acknowledgment of the impossibility of permanence or completion. His palette is timely too, often sharing celebrated countryman Luc Tuymans’s dusty greens, pinks, and creams. Look especially at Recover and Starter (both 2003), which also have the younger artist’s knack for making surfaces look bruised, diseased.

Despite the pared-back simplicity of the work and our knowledge of its actual source, figurative associations are unavoidable. Appropriately for such a patient artist, the objects suggested tend to be slow-moving; the angular white shapes scattered across the primary-colored grounds of Resume or Resonant (both 2003), for example, could be drifting icebergs, while the black-on-white silhouettes of Precedent, 2003, seem to attract (in the most unhurried manner imaginable) any number of free-floating descriptors. And yet, again as in Tuymans, there is a violence lurking in these paintings that prevents us from becoming too immersed. The enclosed clusters of red and green squares in Replay, 2002, for instance, suggest the guarded maneuverings of opposing armies, while the suspended kitelike shapes of Presto, 2003, could be debris thrown from an explosion.

Yet ultimately it is De Keyser’s ability to establish tension without fixed points of reference (those titles are as teasingly confounding as Robert Ryman’s) that allows him so successfully undogmatic an approach. That figure and ground in his paintings often shift and change places and that the face of the canvas itself can seem so hauntingly fugitive are qualities as significant as any in lending these eroded abstractions their mute force.

Michael Wilson