New York

Jonathan Lasker, Pre-Fab View, 1981, oil on canvas, 30 x 40".

Jonathan Lasker, Pre-Fab View, 1981, oil on canvas, 30 x 40".

Jonathan Lasker

Cheim & Read

Jonathan Lasker, Pre-Fab View, 1981, oil on canvas, 30 x 40".

Beleaguered in the last decades of the twentieth century, painting nonetheless was granted provisional life, even by an intellectual elite determined to undermine its centuries-honored prestige. This eleventh-hour reprieve was achieved by attributing to painting’s few tolerated exemplars a significant trope—the monochrome, say, or the grid, or the simulacrum, or a methodology that paralleled photographic practice (other than that of verisimilitude, to be sure). Jonathan Lasker survived these decades of Inquisition by fetishizing an unexpected element, that of “midcentury moderne” (let’s call it that for want of a better designation). If we allow that an entire style can itself be viewed as a fundamental visual episteme or archetype, Lasker presents the curious problem of a painter whose work may be of significantly greater import than revealed by its patent ingratiations alone.

Recall, for a moment, the acres of printed fabric typical of the 1950s, which often featured patterns generated from an automatic doodle, sometimes an amoebic motif of crisscrossing lines that, when allied to a fruity palette (chartreuse or papaya), evoked bright, semitropical horizons (Los Angeles, Miami) as well as a sunny suburban postwar future. To be sure, such decorative arrangements were open to easy derision, superior taste snubbing middlebrow tropicana.

Yet Lasker succeeded in telescoping these decorative cells, be they large or small, into a convincing and personal abstract imagery of loosely gridded or checkerboard patterns, or as large single units. Hence, within the context of decorative abstract painting, Lasker is the preeminent recycler of an imagery reminiscent of the recently second hand, of the flea market or the garage sale—a “Eureka!” aesthetic that lay in desuetude awaiting reignition.

The current exhibition of sixteen early paintings made between 1977 and 1985 focuses on the years in which Lasker began his resurrection of this midcentury archetype. The show starts with a rather bland easel-scale style of abstraction: Illinois, 1977, and Mohawkian, 1980, are typical efforts, with their powdery matte grounds intruded upon by muscular shapes. Quickly enough, however, Lasker discovered a dragged, brushy, chisel-shaped motif, allowing for the move toward a quasi allover that more frankly manifested printed fabric–like associations. Paintings fom 1981 such as Pre-Fab View or Romantic Gulf float these shapes in vaguely acid-colored grounds, their hues resistant to easy appreciation. One senses Lasker’s growing if paradoxical desire for a decorative painting wherein the work asserts itself in an “undecorative” way.

Soon, Lasker’s painting achieved a certain authority, a freedom of touch and variation of surface wherein torn or turgid weblike structures—in Nature Study, 1983, for example—reveal a distant Abstract Expressionism worn thin by Lasker’s drift toward an approximate grid of midcentury schema. To be sure, much of Lasker’s unfastened repetitions conjure the Pattern and Decoration movement of the ’70s and ’80s, a mode that sought a theoretical if colorful Op art expression or a ditzy, exhibitionist provocation. (Robert Hobbs, the distinguished historian of Abstract Expressionism, clarifies Lasker’s connection to this development in a ranging catalogue essay that sees the artist’s painting as a kind of “Figurative Abstraction.”) By the early ’80s, Lasker’s work had become unfailingly resolute, occasionally glum despite its playful associations and expert hand: admirable if not amiable. It is here, when Lasker comes into his own, that the exhibition abruptly stops. Regrettably, there are no examples of Lasker’s signature mode in the show.

If anything, Lasker’s work obliges one to reassess the underknown Roman abstractionist Giuseppe Capogrossi (1900–1972), to whose incisive meanderings Lasker’s often bear inescapable resemblance. The Italian artist’s decorative abstractions embody a deep antagonism to the socialist realism sponsored by the postwar Italian Communist Party. Such political coding is quite foreign to Lasker’s midcentury optimism, a utopianism also revealed (broadly speaking) in the painting of a notable American generation that includes, among others, Ross Bleckner, Mary Heilmann, and David Reed, in whose midst Lasker sits comfortably indeed.

Robert Pincus-Witten