New York

R. H. Quaytman

Most twentieth-century art dismissed by modernist gatekeepers—late Picabia, the most flagrantly commercial of Picasso’s and Warhol’s works, even Pattern and Decoration—has proven assimilable by now. Op, not so much. The movement made iconic by Bridget Riley’s trippily pulsating paintings was vilified in the Swinging ’60s as capricious flower-child art lite. The swirls and whorls of Op were not only suspected drug references, they ended up emblazoning miniskirts too; in the end, Pop posed the more formidable challenge to the presumption that art should be indifferent to pop culture. Despite intermittent rehabilitations, including a cover feature in this magazine a couple years ago, Op remains fringy stuff, having never totally recovered from pans like Max Kozloff’s, in a 1965 issue of The Nation, in which he claimed Op reduced viewers to “a helpless scoreboard of sensations.”

R. H. Quaytman’s coyly theatrical show at Miguel Abreu was a proposition on the contemporary significance of optical effects. Quaytman makes work in “chapters” (the majority here were from Chapter 12), encouraging a linear, narrative interpretation of her career, which, like those of many current painters (and, increasingly, non-painters), concerns the discourse around and the social significance of the medium. The rub is that hers aren’t exactly paintings; they are gessoed wood panels screenprinted with patterns or, in some instances, with photographs. Quaytman appears to have been contending with the fraught history of optical art and its range of connotations, from Riley to psychedelic novelty to psychological experiment.

The game in this exhibition was to discover what the press material calls the “blind spot” in each work, whether optical effect or rendering of a patch of bright light. In most cases, this wasn’t difficult. Two versions, one vertical, one horizontal, both 2008, of Chapter 12: iamb (lateral inhibitions in the perceptual field) initially resemble static grates—the ubiquitous modernist grid—but pop with movement and color when looked at long enough. Each is made of gray lines within a black field; eventually, white dots jitter into peripheral view. Actually attempting to focus on these elusive sprites makes them disappear into the void of the scintillating grid. Three pieces made last year are freckled with tiny multicolored rectangles. From a safe distance, these are dull color gradients; close up, the eye fails to register depth. Looking hard feels like looking through the silk screen, producing the same kind of dimension-tripping effects that gave Op wide appeal. There is gratification in instantly “getting it,” in feeling a piece work its magic—something Dan Graham must have felt in the photograph screenprinted on Chapter 12: iamb (blind smile), 2008, in which the blissed-out artist bathes in a cone of light.

Emphasizing the metanarrative quality of her practice, Quaytman has recently begun displaying work like books on shelves; in a recent exhibition at Vilma Gold in London, visitors could leaf through paintings and even hang them on the wall. Within her own narrative, Quaytman seems comfortable in the role of un-author, the creator of a “choose your own adventure.” Chapter 12 could have used more of this sense of play. By trumpeting the blind-spot theme so insistently, Quaytman drained some attention from the crucial idea of duration in her exhibition. These works have a spectacular quality that becomes apparent only with some patience, and yet they test whether the twenty-first-century viewer can muster that patience when presented with something initially so neutral. These are decoys of dullness. They require slowing down, and reward it with an unmediated, subjective experience. Quaytman’s exhibition was less about light than vision, an essay about looking not harder, but slower.

Nick Stillman