Michelle Grabner


Michelle Grabner’s paintings are so soft and sweet, I just want to pet them.

Another kind of review might have ended rather than begun there—with a sarcastically annihilating judgment. Serious artworks are not supposed to be soft or sweet, and you’re certainly not supposed to want to pet them. Yet Grabner’s paintings are very serious, and very good. They are the work of a thoughtful, cultivated artist who is clearly well aware of the heritage of modern painting, on which she is nonetheless never abjectly dependent. Always based on the grid or some elastic variation thereof, her paintings might be said to follow in the footsteps of Agnes Martin’s luminously meditative minimalism, with its refined interplay between the grid’s blank neutrality and the understated projection of subjective feeling through the inevitable variability of repetitive handmade marks.

Unlike Martin’s, however, Grabner’s grids are not exactly nonrepresentational or without reference. Some of the earlier works among this densely hung, salon-style survey of the Chicago-based painter’s work since 1996 bear titles that make references explicit (e.g., Pink Curtain, 1997; Fuzzy Blanket 3, 1998; Brown Fashion Blanket, 1998; Curtain Sample, 1998), but the same kind of references hold, if not all the way through the present, at least until quite recently: Her paintings refer to the traditionally feminine realm of the domestic by way of the metaphorically loaded imagery of fabrics and textiles—not only blankets and curtains but rugs, clothing, and so on. They might therefore be seen as a Pop rereading of the abstractionists’ grid, in the tradition of the Dutch artist Daan van Golden’s work of the ’60s, or as continuing the recovery and reevaluation, in the feminist-inspired Pattern & Decoration art of the ’70s, of the “secret language” and “covert imagery” (as Miriam Schapiro and Melissa Meyer put it in 1978) of women’s domestic productivity.

Abstract/Minimalist, Pop, feminist—none of these references is irrelevant to Grabner’s project, yet each seems insufficient to account for her work’s full effect. It’s not pure or removed from the everyday as Martin’s work seems to be, nor cool and distanced in the Pop manner, nor yet gaudy and demonstrative, like much of P&D. It’s quiet, warm, and inventive. What’s most striking about the accumulation of work in the gallery’s main room—forty-one paintings dating between 1996 and 2003, made with acrylic, enamel, or flock on either canvas or board, and ranging in size from as small as six inches to almost four feet across—is just how many variations Grabner has played on her theme, and how each painting is so forceful in its radiance and conveys such a sense of formal self-containment despite employing a structure whose logic implies a sort of endlessness. While the light of these paintings can be soft and suffused almost to the point of intangibility—see in particular the fluorescent candy of the 2002–2003 series “Good News”—it is anchored in a material specificity and an intellectual obduracy that’s anything but vacuous.

Grabner’s most recent work, represented by five untitled paintings made between 2004 and 2006, represents a distinct turn. Painted with gesso only on black square grounds—her previous paintings had typically been slightly off-square—they consist of shimmering spirals of dots. It’s as if she had suddenly pulled back her lace curtain to gaze at a night sky densely packed with stars. Yet the paintings remain intimate and humbly, obstinately palpable (if no longer so pettable)—“not a night blown at a glassworks in Vienna / Or Venice,” to quote Wallace Stevens, but simply this material, normally merely preliminary to painting, systematically arrayed, yet not refusing resemblance.

Barry Schwabsky