New York

Ricci Albenda

Andrew Kreps Gallery

The loose-knit French literary/mathematical collective OULIPO (l’Ouvroir de la littérature potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature) applied a variety of constraints to the composition of poetry, drama, and fiction in an effort to investigate the outer limits of language. Among the bizarre products of their rigorous approach are cofounder Raymond Queneau’s book Cent mille milliards de poèmes (1961)—which contains ten pages each split into fourteen strips, one for each line of text, that allow the reader (in theory at least) to construct the hundred trillion poems of the title—and Georges Perec’s La disparition (1969), a full-length detective novel written without the use of the letter e.

There’s something of the same amiably nerdish, rule-driven experimental spirit to Ricci Albenda’s COLOR-I-ME-TRY “alphabetic colorization system,” a mapping of the alphabet onto the natural spectrum that he has pursued for going on a decade. In “Cyclidrome” (the title of his recent exhibition of text paintings and a term he coined to identify the circular ordering principle applied to each work, and to the show as a whole), Albenda extended this relatively straightforward system into six self-contained monochromatic palettes. Each painting at Andrew Kreps Gallery followed one of these scales, so that the letters in days old (all works 2004), for example, range from bright orange to a muted yellow-gray, while psycho! is a riot of purple, magenta, and scarlet. Haloed in white on smooth cream grounds, the words seem ready to break away from their panels and drift off into the air of the gallery and the world beyond.

While Albenda initially framed COLOR-I-ME-TRY as a parody of the utopian ideal of universal communication that gave rise to the likes of Esperanto, he is now beginning to believe his own hype and argues with a straight face that the programmatic addition of color to type might constitute a genuine and useful enhancement of its associative power. It sounds like a faintly ludicrous position, but the autumnal ochres of wool hat or the rich purples of vaisya do seem to add something to the words’ meaning, and the very difficulty of defining what this might be is no small part of the works’ lasting appeal. In addition to playing with color, Albenda has also invested some time in a quest for the ideal font, arriving at Albenda Bold, a variation on Times Roman designed for maximum ease of reading and sufficiently flexible to allow for occasional small variations (notice how the tops of the y and r of eyrie, for example, blend into one another, or the ls in yellow bells link up).

Artistic precedents for Albenda’s project are legion: Ed Ruscha and Jasper Johns spring readily to mind, as do Mel Bochner’s recent thesaurus paintings and Bob and Roberta Smith’s waggish placards, both of which use color to slow and problematize the comprehension of words. Albenda’s contribution to this lineage is a modest one but no less worthwhile for that. Painted text is now such a familiar form that to employ it without descending into snarky conceptual witticism or half-baked sociopolitical “statement” is a genuine achievement. Ironically, Albenda’s hyperrationalism succeeds in reminding us of the arbitrary, abstract beauty of words. Like the members of OULIPO, Albenda seems to be engaged in a refinement and concentration of his practice: Where earlier texts painted directly onto gallery walls relied on the use of queasy perspectival distortion for much of their effect, “Cyclidrome” was marked by an absence of such trickery, depending for its subtler appeal on a system followed to the letter.

Michael Wilson