New York

Peter Pinchbeck

Luise Ross Gallery

Constituting the first significant showing of Peter Pinchbeck’s work in New York since the memorial exhibition that followed his passing in 2000, these tandem presentations offered a representative range of his formidable oeuvre, which still awaits critical recognition. Although primarily a painter (AbEx lured him to New York from his native England in 1960), Pinchbeck first became known for his Minimalist constructions, one of which was featured in the watershed “Primary Structures” show at the Jewish Museum in 1966. He would soon shift his full attention back to painting, devoting his efforts to what began as a reimagined Suprematist mode of thoughtful, painterly geometry and then evolved into a fully realized formal language of volumetric abstraction, a protracted metaphysical inquiry that might be viewed in retrospect as a solitary, fin de siècle strain of unfashionable but persistent late modernism.

Luise Ross presented works on paper as well as mixed-media constructions, tracing Pinchbeck’s transition from post-Minimalist compositions in which rectangles hover in color fields to mature investigations of painterly volume. To read the surprisingly Fauvist palette and the combination of brushwork and surface-scoring of Untitled, ca. 1981, an acrylic on paper in which three rectangles float on an orange ground, as simply an expressive response to Minimalism would be to miss the point entirely—his departure was ontological. Pinchbeck’s signature formal groupings emerged here as humble visual koans, formal riddles that invite meditation but withhold easy answers. An investigatory quality activates his mature, comparatively organic compositions, such as Untitled, ca. 1990s, in which a cluster of brightly colored, irregular ovals engage one another even as they recede into a richly worked field. A number of the artist’s jury-rigged but precious mixed-media tableaux were on view as well, complementing his investigations of painterly volume. In Untitled, ca. 1995, an amorphous shape hangs precariously from a wire above a small, brightly painted stage populated by a cone, a rectangle, and other forms—each appears as fully present only in relation to the others and to the space they define. These works exude an offbeat sense of humor, driven as they are by the paradox between the epic nature of the artist’s quest to characterize existence on one hand and his low-key, almost self-mocking, mode of inquiry on the other. Snyder curated a Pinchbeck chapel—a powerfully resonant room filled with eight later, oil-on-canvas masterworks. In Yearning for the Infinite, 1990, a red, top-heavy oblong form dominates the right side of the composition, while a pair of smaller, irregular shapes, one yellowish and one greenish, animate the left. The thrill of this painting is that nothing is hidden—every exploratory brushstroke remains part of the visible record of the work’s development. In contemplating these compositions, viewers will find themselves absorbed in the repeated emergence and dissolution of painted form. This is not to be confused with the familiar now-it’s-a-peach, now-it’s-paint game one participates in while viewing a Cézanne still life. Pinchbeck’s play between constructed form and the ground that inevitably reclaims it remains a focused investigation of painting’s potential to evoke an uncannily visceral but entirely autonomous, nonobjective presence. Although never predictably expressive, his project is exquisitely poetic. This room also revealed him to be an artist who lived for color.

Together these shows provided a rare view into Pinchbeck’s legacy. Largely ignored during his lifetime, he in turn largely ignored his contemporaries to work in self-imposed isolation as a stubborn avant-garde of one at the century’s end. Uninterested in the essentially conceptual, self-conscious historicism he saw in the painting around him, he chose instead to engage art history in an integral, recuperative way, acting on his faith in abstraction’s ability to articulate the mystery of being.

Jenifer P. Borum