New York

Armando Reverón

Although influenced by Impressionism and Symbolism, the work of Venezuelan artist Armando Reverón (1889–1954) defies stylistic labeling. It is for this reason that, despite its current MoMA-orchestrated introduction to North American audiences, Reverón’s work speaks only to those capable of looking beyond the modernist canon. That John Elderfield, the exhibition’s curator, was capable of achieving precisely this mode of thinking outside the cube merits much recognition.

The chronologically organized show maps the ways in which Reverón manipulated pigment and support to achieve an aesthetic characterized by minimal inflection and maximum affect. Early, heavily textured nocturnal paintings—that is, depictions of figures in dark surroundings, or plein air scenes washed by moonlight—are made with small, thick brushstrokes and represent the artist’s first attempts to build his subjects using a restricted palette. The same is true of the landscapes that he produced between 1926 and 1934, although here, the dark bluish tones of the previous period are discarded in an effort to represent the blinding Caribbean light. The results are flickering, sun-bleached scenes composed of blurry patches, soft washes, and stains of white, light blue, and sepia, applied with brushes made by the artist from bamboo twigs.

Some of these pictures are painted on burlap, a coarse surface that asserts itself through the vaporous and fractured application of pigment. This use of the support to suggest form recurs in works such as The Tree, 1931, where the shapes of trunks and branches are constructed using passages of blank canvas edged by both vaporous and more substantial applications of paint. The radical tension between the materiality of support and medium, and the evasive presence of these landscapes, delivers an attack on straightforward representation that also finds embodiment in White Landscape, 1940, Reverón’s most abstracted rendering of his beloved country’s coastline.

In his figurative work of the ’30s, Reverón continued to problematize the pictorial solidity of his subjects. This exhibition’s pairing of The White Face, 1932, and Juanita, 1927, is particularly insightful in drawing attention to this emphasis. The former picture is a spectral image achieved through an almost self-obliterating combination of impasto and thickly woven support. The latter, a portrait of the artist’s lifelong companion asleep, is a ghostly image achieved by the opposite means. Here, the image is unified with the canvas thanks to the delicate demarcation of the figure through the softest imaginable brushstrokes. Reverón’s enterprise speaks of a visuality pushed to its limits.

Sometime in the late ’30s, Reverón started painting large dolls. At El Castillete (The Little Castle), his rustic headquarters in the coastal town of Macuto, he posed these alone or next to live models. Some of the dolls, and the objects created for them (a telephone, a bottle, a book of sheet music) are featured in the exhibition, but their role in Reverón’s art remains obscure. The artist’s most forceful statement on the breakdown of boundaries between reality and representation is a series of self-portrait drawings with the dolls in which painter, props, and space become enmeshed through colorful hatching and sketching. The complex dynamics of the gaze staged in these works are deflated by one of the last paintings in the exhibition, a self-portrait of an aging Reverón in whose dissolving contours the melancholic features (an expressive excess rarely seen in his faces) of this painter of phantasmagoria linger on.

Monica Amor