New York

Richard Wright

Gagosian Gallery (21)

The wall drawings of British artist Richard Wright have an austere grandeur, even when he bypasses a traditional strength of the mural form—its command of large architectural expanses—in favor of corners and crannies. Most memorably in this show, Wright filled the somewhat cramped, visually unapproachable ceiling recess around a skylight with diverging and converging blue and black lines, here forming dense dark nests, there open, white eye shapes. The black iron crosses configured in one corner lost their sinister connotations through repetition into pattern. The show’s centerpiece was a column of vertical scalloped lines on the back wall that spread at its top into sweeping wings, variations in the width and spacing of the red arcs creating subtle illusions of density and transparency. Finally, a group of works on paper showed that Wright occasionally abandons his apparent sobriety for romantic excursions into color and sensuality.

What are the principles behind this work? In 1970, Wright was ten years old and living in Britain, but at least some of his ideas will be familiar to veterans of the ensuing artistic decade in New York. The chunkiest madeleine crumb is his distrust of painting’s commodity status, which he expresses by working on the wall of the exhibition space and leaving the result to be painted over before the next show. “The problem is the ease with which painting is absorbed into the market, which of course facilitates its easy consumption,” he has said. “There are too many unnecessary objects.” That belief was commonplace in the late ’60s and ’70s, but painting’s reclaimed status as a precious object elbowed it out of the way in the ’80s. How pleasant to meet it again.

A less-well-known antecedent to Wright’s work appears in his desire “to challenge the connection between decoration and triviality,” a link “manifest in the confining ideology of early modernism.” “Obviously,” he goes on, “I reject the idea of pure art.” Reading this line, one wants to say, Oh, that old thing, and one’s thoughts return, again pleasantly, to the Pattern and Decoration movement in ’70s American art. P&D, much condescended to at the time, has been somewhat shuffled aside in contemporary art history, and I can’t say what Wright knows about it; still, he similarly asserts the aesthetic power of decorative motifs. Rejecting arguments—century-old arguments, mind you—that decoration is decadent or “onanistic,” Wright announces: “I would not call the façade of Cologne Cathedral or the ornamental art of Islam decorative, I would call it ecstatic.”

It’s good to see such thoughts revived but dispiriting to find them advanced as if they had news value. Wright seems to be fighting a Greenbergian concept of painting that you’d like to think was a straw man by now. (Respect for the decorative in modern art actually long predates P&D; think Matisse.) Deprived of that straw man to react against, though, Wright’s practice becomes one point in a pluralist field. He has to put a narrowly defined modernism at the center, where it no longer lies, to make himself look radical.

Wright’s reference to ecstasy as found in cathedral architecture and Islamic ornament is noteworthy in that both are associated with religion. Even for nonbelievers, the power of these works is more than formal; we respond to some sense, however vague, of their spiritual ambition and history. Will pursuits like fighting the commodity status of the artwork do as substitute faiths? While Wright is looking for the answer to questions like this, he has an interesting practice to follow.

David Frankel