New York

Alan Gussow

Babcock Galleries

In 1953, a twenty-two-year-old Alan Gussow arrived at the American Academy in Rome, thanks to a Prix de Rome fellowship he had received while a student of painting at the Cooper Union—as, at the time, the youngest American to date. He had impressed Stuart Davis and others with his work, especially with Untitled, 1953, an abstract painting he called, simply, “The Big Yellow Thing.” Already the following year, however, he wrote: “I am shaking off a dependence on popular abstract idioms. . . . I have begun a great deal of drawing from life and landscape, making a strong and valid response to the local environment.” This marks the birth of Gussow’s “sense of place,” to refer to the title of a 1971 book about his work—subtitled “The Artist and the American Land”—but not the end of Gussow as an abstractionist. Work after work of the forty-odd pieces in this recent exhibition is subtly—fundamentally—abstract, with scenes of nature emerging from the matrix of gestural marks with hallucinatory tentativeness, as though nature were a mirage overlaid on an abstract scaffolding that is the true artistic building, affording more aesthetic sensations than nature itself. Abstraction is not used to heighten the sense of natural place and object in Rime Time, 1975, and The Winter Cloud, 1979, among many other works, but has pride of place and is the enigmatic object of Gussow’s paintings.

I don’t see Gussow’s Steps in Snow, 1975, and Frost Brittled Branches, 1976, as particularly American—snow falls everywhere in cold climates, not only in Rockland County, New York, where Gussow lived and worked—but rather as eloquently abstract: epigrammatically abstract, if with a generalized sense of intimately experienced place, a sort of distilled nature. His experience of the landscape is dialectically informed by an idiosyncratically spiritual abstraction, to cast it in Wassily Kandinsky’s terms. Indeed, Gussow’s paintings ingeniously reconcile “great abstraction” (the purely artistic) and “great realism” (the objective). The eccentric repetition of gesturalized shapes in Interrupted Spring, 1975, and the repetitive succinctness of the lines in Rain on a Summer Night, 1976, are among the strongest evidence of Gussow’s abstract daring, in the way they both turn seasonal scenes into uncannily Minimalist allover abstractions. Here, the artist is trying not only to articulate the abstract shapes inherent in nature or to mediate seasonal moods—now joyous, now somber—aesthetically and ecstatically, but also to restore vitality to abstraction that had become too pure for its own good, and lost its “experiential basis,” as the artist George Segal put it in the 1960s. Gussow shows that it can be as fertile and dramatic as nature, innate to it yet doing its peculiarly independent dance of life.

Donald Kuspit