New York

Joseph Marioni

At Peter Blum’s new gallery in Chelsea, Joseph Marioni recently showed six paintings made earlier this year in his newly renovated studio, a former meeting hall in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania. This studio has, for the first time, given Marioni the space to take his art up to what may well prove to be its maximum size—and the results are dramatic. The artist paints on stretched canvases hanging on a wall, using a long-handled roller. There is a limit to his (two-handed) reach with such an implement, and in several of the paintings on view here, that limit seems to have been attained.

What is immediately striking, at first almost jolting, about the new work is that with two exceptions—a smaller, exquisite white painting on the street wall and a gorgeous “black” picture, lush as a poppy, in the back room—it departs from the delicately layered and amazingly sensuous coloristic and factural register of his most characteristic pictures of the previous ten or more years. Not that multiple layers of transparent and translucent acrylic are not everywhere in evidence; but the overall effect of the layering, at the new scale, is less overtly sensuous than it is revealing of the internal structure, or rather the constructedness, of the individual paintings. So, for example, in a magnificent large dark canvas (gray-blue over orange over white over ocher) just slightly more vertical than square, jagged, flamelike internal figuration unexpectedly recalls the forms in certain of Morris Louis’s dark veils, though with an altogether more material resonance. (Even more veil-like in its figuration and proportions is an incandescent green canvas that strikes a coloristic note unlike anything in Marioni’s work to date.) Moreover, the picture’s sheer size (eleven by ten feet), in combination with the perceptual difficulty posed by its extreme darkness, has the effect of calling into question the apparent seamlessness one associated with Marioni’s previous work, only to arrive at a different sort of pictorial integration that stands at the very limit of viable relations of internal scale.

In two other paintings, both horizontal rectangles, the image-gestalt changes, with the layers of paint (after the first violet one, itself modified by a final all-embracing layer of transparent green) dramatically drawing in from the sides of the canvas to force the issue of a Newman-like confrontation with the viewer. In these paintings, also, the central downward-flowing “sheets” of paint—milky green in one, milky blue in the other—reveal just a hint of upper-right to lower-left bias that I see as expressing the artist’s right-handedness, more broadly his embodiedness, as he wielded his long-handled roller, to transport waves of liquid pigment to the canvas and to influence the pigment in subtle ways so as to produce the final result. All the canvases are unframed, as their heroic physicality requires them to be.

These are by no means comfortable paintings, but they express in every square inch of their redoubtable surfaces a pictorial conviction that has all but vanished from the contemporary scene. Put differently, they are truly challenging works, and the challenge they extend is not just to their viewers but also to their creator: to withstand their impact, to learn to move freely around them, to explore their implications for his paintings to come.

Michael Fried