New York

Robert Baribeau

Allan Stone Gallery

What do Robert Baribeau’s paintings show us that we haven’t seen before? They’re full of the painterly Sturm und Drang, the excitement about paint—narcissistic absorption in its fluid pleasures and seductive touch, self-dramatization through dramatizing the medium—that we’ve come to expect from a convincing Abstract Expressionist painting. But aren’t bold brushwork, flamboyant color, and rushing drips—a certain reveling in the medium—old aesthetic and expressive news? Painting may not be dead, even if theorists eager to control the course of art history regularly proclaim its demise, but it certainly seems buried under the avalanche of art in other media. Hasn’t pure painting—painting for the sheer pleasure of painting, painting with no ideological agenda, painting that couldn’t care less whether it improves the world—become politically incorrect, a self-indulgent pastime, a reactionary fiddling while our Rome burns? Does Baribeau (born in 1949) think that burying his head in the ostrich hole of paint will protect him from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (including art-world fortune), to which so many activist artists claim to bear witness? And didn’t Pollock bear better witness to the medium and de Kooning to the hexed self? They were real swashbucklers; Baribeau’s paintings look somewhat laid-back—decadent?—compared to Pollock’s and Koons’s hyperdramatic works. Indeed, it’s not clear to me that they measure up to the less intimidating dynamics of such second-generation Abstract Expressionists as John Mitchell and Michael Goldberg. Embedding pieces of cloth in the surface, as Baribeau does, is an old texture-intensifying trick. Are Baribeau’s paintings, however vivid, more brushfires than conflagrations?

But there’s something in Baribeau that we don’t see in early Abstract Expressionist painting, although we had an inkling of it in Helen Frankenthaler’s early abstract landscapes: a sense of intimacy, a certain tenderness, a peculiar innocence. Baribeau’s paintings are lyric responses to nature—to landscape, seen in all its purity, that is, as a complex of abstract ingredients (texture, color, shape) rather than as a particular scene, however particular to a place they may be. Ever since Cézanne, nature painters have tended toward compositions less representational than abstract, in the hope of creating for the viewer the illusion of seeing nature for the first time, feeling its freshness and vividness, which is the marvel of such work: providing the antidote to everyday perception. There are broad white bands in most of Baribeau’s paintings—the horizon as a sort of stream of epic light—but to me the two small flower paintings in this exhibition (all works Untitled) are much more convincing. They have the same uncanny presence as Mondrian’s flower paintings, but (happily) less melancholy. Baribeau’s blue flower may be morbidly edged in black, suggesting that it is a reminiscence of Symbolism, but the black is auratic rather than corrosive. No decay in his flowers, only the marvel of ecstatic perception, making them more aesthetically glorious and miraculous than they are in nature.

Donald Kuspit