Mark Schlesinger

Westfälischer Kunstverein

The straightforward-sounding title of this show, “Paintings 1993–2003 New York—Texas,” turns out to represent a rather surprising journey. Mark Schlesinger was born in New York in 1949, making him part of an age-cohort of painters that includes Ross Bleckner and Jonathan Lasker, and like them he developed a mannerist revision of modernist abstraction. But at the undoubtedly significant age of fifty, Schlesinger left New York for San Antonio. Not so surprisingly, this seems to have caused a profound transformation in his work—or perhaps it was that the urge toward such a transformation prompted the move.

But not necessarily the sort of transformation one would have expected; the city slicker did not become a faux hayseed. Indeed, if urban life is characterized by artifice and rationalization, then the paintings Schlesinger has produced since his move to Texas are considerably more urban in sensibility than those he made while living in New York. If nothing else, the earlier work was executed in oil on canvas with evident artisanal skill, while the new work is wildly experimental in its use of vernacular materials. And where the New York paintings are based on forms whose elegant arabesques inevitably imply a stylization of natural forms, the grid-based structures of the Texas work indicate referents in the realm of culture—notably, architecture and industry.

Some of the new pieces suggest the influence of Donald Judd, whose work Schlesinger has now had considerable opportunity to study in situ at Marfa. Like Judd, Schlesinger is dealing with color that is, as David Batchelor once put it, “sharp, hard and live, in a vulgar kind of way.” Judd got a lot of mileage, for instance, out of what happens to light when you look at a sheet of Plexiglas at its edge; in paintings like Dee Lighted, 2003, Schlesinger elicits the ghostly electric hues that emerge when acrylic paint forms an edge on a Plexiglas surface. Even sharper, harder, and more vulgar is what happens when Schlesinger wraps his painting support, whether wood panel or Styrofoam, in glistening sheets of transparent colored vinyl, as in Cherry Cherry, 2003, and Juicy Jellies, 2003. Here, as in the paintings on Plexiglas, acrylic is applied to both sides of the vinyl surface, giving a very compressed but vividly physical sense of spatial differentiation and above all creating strange and highly specific color effects that could arise only through the conjunction of these particular materials.

There are softer, more traditionally atmospheric kinds of experience on offer in Schlesinger’s recent work as well—particularly in those pieces in which unstretched canvas has been stiffened through being impregnated with acrylic, creating oddly warped surfaces that float freely before the wall (Red Rovin’, 2003, Blue Jean Baby, 2003). And for all the brilliant, almost kitschy cosmopolitan vividness of much of Schlesinger’s new work, a prolonged engagement with it suggests that the Texas landscape may have exerted a deeper influence than was at first apparent. These paintings engage a different sense of space than was available in New York. From nearby they appear as materially present and spatially up-front, but with a certain distance the intense or muted colors float free of their physical support and create an optical space of great breadth: Suddenly you’re out in the desert sunset.

Barry Schwabsky