Andrew Masullo, 5264, 2010–11, oil on canvas, 16 x 20".

Andrew Masullo, 5264, 2010–11, oil on canvas, 16 x 20".

Andrew Masullo

Steven Zevitas Gallery

Andrew Masullo, 5264, 2010–11, oil on canvas, 16 x 20".

Andrew Masullo’s abstract paintings pose formal dilemmas, linguistic slippages, and categorical paradoxes that turn formal analysis into a game—and perhaps that’s the point. To attempt to describe these pieces is to willingly abandon the possibility of fixity, as his work has an uncanny way of being perpetually in advance of its pursuer. Stated another way, Masullo’s work, which grew out of the 1980s East Village scene in New York, performs a set of operations that unmoor the term “abstract painting,” leading viewers in unexpected directions—obliging us to begin the game again.

This process of repetition, by carving out a new point of arrival and departure with each of the twenty-five canvases presented in this exhibition, produces variations that are best considered comparatively. For instance, if in 5342, 2011, sinuous surfaces of different colors meander around the painting’s edges to create a glaring “lacuna” of white in the center of the composition, then in 5001, 2008–2009, a likewise “empty” space is framed by an equally vivacious band of hard-edge facets and curvilinear perturbations. Both works activate the modernist tension between figure and ground and the problem of the framing edge, evoking Morris Louis’s evanescent “veils” and Kenneth Noland’s taut “stripes.” Yet Masullo’s biomorphic and phallic bulges insinuate the presence of the pleasure principle as an irrepressible formal substance. Similarly, if in 5157, 2009–10, monochromatic rectangles of diverse colors and dimensions hover above and below a pink-and-white ground, then in 5234, 2009–11, reductive abstraction has been sliced and diced into smaller units, proverbially woven into a multihued tapestry separated from a broad yellow surface by a thin red band. For a viewer confronted with these paradigms of twentieth-century avant-garde aesthetics, simultaneously seeing the likes of Kasimir Malevich and Yves Klein in the work is inevitable. But Masullo transposes modernism’s heroic self-presentation into a minor key: The diminutive size of his monochromes and their decorative leanings allow them to read also as objects of play, craft, and design. However charged this territory may be, to identify merely the historic references in Masullo’s work is to tumble into a well-laid trap—one set to reveal the beholder’s own belatedness in understanding that, foremost, these paintings are producing new conditions of possibility.

Despite this exhibition’s constellation of filiations, Masullo is no run-of-the-mill third- or fourth-generation modernist. If anything, what his work suggests—for example, 5266, 2010–11, with its heaping of colored planes pressed against a stark white surface—is that contemporary abstraction cannot be determined or defined by any single identity or index, but rather that it ceaselessly fosters new connections. The off-tilt 5264, 2010–11, and the dizzying 5113, 2008, belong to a world of experiences associated with commercial color samples, wallpapers, notepad doodles, and low-fidelity video games. Yet Masullo’s handwork, veering from nonchalant to brazen and obsessive, never allows these references to settle into facile codification. And here I do not mean into a literal signification, but rather into a comfortable and consistent notion of what abstract painting is. Only adding to this ambivalence are Masullo’s titles, which are assigned chronologically, but not until a work has been completed. The numerical logic of each title may seem at odds with the relative date of a given work’s inception, which the artist also always includes. In Masullo’s hands, “painting” and “abstraction” not only are susceptible to constant modification but are always revitalizing themselves by dismantling their own authority.

Nuit Banai