Bottrop, Germany

Michael Venezia

Josef Albers Museum Quadrat

In a career spanning more than half a century, Michael Venezia has pursued a mode of painting based on drastic forms of reduction developed under strict constraints. This exhibition, “Nacht wird Tag” (Night Becomes Day), gave an overview of his oeuvre since 1969 but with special emphasis on works of the past two years. From the first, the Brooklyn-born artist was influenced above all by his encounters with what would soon be known as Minimalism: After dropping out of college in 1958, he returned to New York, where he found a job at the Museum of Modern Art; his coworkers there were Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Ryman. Venezia’s earliest pieces in this show—large-format works, both Untitled, from 1969 and 1971—use spray paint to illustrate the dynamics and nuances of a single color: Traces of the aerosol mist of paint flicker across the canvas like silver flames. While in the first case the mist is consolidated at the center to form a cloud of color, the fourteen pools of color in the second painting are organized in absolute symmetry, giving the picture a technoid look.

In the early 1970s, Venezia developed a new format: paintings shaped like long, narrow bars—a shape he continues to use today. Some of them are up to three yards long. While painting a block of wood with oil paint in the Umbrian city of Trevi, Italy, in 1986, he began using a spatula. Because he was storing the brightly painted blocks in his studio, after a few years he was able to stack them like building blocks on the wall: Untitled, 1992, consists of nine such blocks. Hung in three rows without intervening spaces, these long, drawn-out monochrome rectangles produce a composition of astonishing density: On the left-hand side, pink, turquoise, and light blue barely touch, while the contrasts between deep blue and purple hues blur together at the right-hand edge of the work, which was hung in Bottrop on the outer wall. Different types of brushstrokes—implying horizontal or vertical movement—divide the color field, with the application of various hues lending rhythm to the severe underlying form. Since the turn of the millennium, Venezia has also been making narrow-bar paintings primed in several different colors whose structure is supplemented by gestural sweeps and dabs of the brush.

What began as a study in reduction eventually swelled into a full musical score: Works from recent years (such as MSO, Untitled, 2005) are colorful, lively, and full of motion, with varied textures and sharp contrasts, although in the end they are simply composed of three bars joined together (in some cases covered with metallic acrylic paint). In Bottrop, Venezia’s works were directly confronted with the abstractions of Josef Albers, who was born here and who influenced more than one generation of American painters. This historical context allowed the quality of Venezia’s painting to stand out for its richness and not just its reduction.

Catrin Lorch

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.