New York

Elizabeth Neel

Deitch Projects

Elizabeth Neel is an accomplished painter, though it’s not clear what, specifically, her accomplishment is. Her paintings are fourth-, fifth-, sixth- (I’ve lost count) generation samples of Abstract Expressionist painting. She is struggling hard to renew the meaningfulness of passionate gesture, but her gestures, while passionate, do not themselves seem to have much meaning. If, as Harold Rosenberg wrote, “the test of [the] seriousness [of action painting] is the degree to which the act on the canvas is an extension of the artist’s effort to make over his [or her] experience,” then Neel doesn’t so much take the test as sidestep its challenge.

To her credit, she lives the experience of painting, which is not to say she has transformed the experience of living into her painting. Instead of being made over, bits and pieces of her experience float like debris in a Sargasso Sea of painterliness. But hers seems to be an experience of the history of gestural painting; we don’t see the residue—memory traces—of her own life story. In Humpndump, 2008, a schematic fragment of a female body rises from a gestural swamp, holding our attention because some of its details seem de Kooning–esque. Neel’s paintings, in the gestures and shapes they contain, seem haunted by ghosts of past accomplishments, a quality that suggests they are reprises—remembrances of past art that do it some justice, but that don’t share its presence. Reworking Abstract Expressionism doesn’t necessarily make it work again but does remind us that it once worked well, as its evocative power indicates. Neel’s version, however, is not emotionally provocative or aesthetically innovative: It’s all surface excitement.

Both the first- and second-generation Abstract Expressionists had not only energy but also structure in their paintings; most of Neel’s works, though, seem to have more energy than structure, particularly the small acrylic paintings on paper—hasty puddings indeed, to refer to one of their titles. Perhaps the irony is lost on me, but the thrown paint seems thrown any which way, which suggests Neel doesn’t know the way. Shits and Giggles, 2008, another small acrylic, is a clever mess, symptomatic of the scatological (and frivolous) turn some art has taken, perhaps because of the artists’ inability to achieve the heights of the sublime, heights that are achieved in the works of Pollock, Newman, Rothko, and the naturalistic abstractions of Frankenthaler, Mitchell, and de Kooning.

Neel is at her best—half-serious, aesthetically interesting, in the sense in which Hans Sedlmayr says that the interesting has become the substitute for the beautiful—in three big works: Yankee Doodle, 2007, and Sideshow and Count to Ten, both 2008. All these works have structure as well as force, particularly Sideshow, where the powerful grand gesture circles back on itself to form an interior frame. One has to give Neel credit for trying hard, even if here it seems she has not tried hard enough.

Donald Kuspit