New York

Mark Strand, Madrid, 2013, paper collage, 4 5/8 x 6 5/8".

Mark Strand, Madrid, 2013, paper collage, 4 5/8 x 6 5/8".

Mark Strand

Lori Bookstein Fine Art

Mark Strand, Madrid, 2013, paper collage, 4 5/8 x 6 5/8".

A onetime poet laureate exhibiting his collages? That sounds like another one of those slightly embarrassing crossover exercises on the order of Bob Dylan showing his paintings or philosophers moonlighting as curators. Mark Strand, however, is no Johnny-come-lately when it comes to pictorial culture; he studied with Josef Albers at Yale, where he earned a BFA in 1959. And the pieces in this exhibition—fifteen small abstract collages made between 2011 and 2013, each titled only with the name of the city where it was made, either New York or Madrid—could never have been the work of a dabbler. They are objects of real power whose coloristic richness and spatial expansiveness belie their modest scale (none of them being more than eight inches in any dimension).

But to call these works collages may be misleading, though technically correct. Better, perhaps, to speak of painting with paper, since they are not made from fragments cut from preexisting printed sources or even from ready-made colored sheets. Instead, Strand prepares pigmented paper pulp himself (in collaboration with Sue Gosin of Dieu Donné). “Working while the paper is still wet,” as the gallery press release explains, “Strand paints with the colored pulp using his hands, paint brushes and squirt bottles” before cutting or, more often, tearing the paper cumuli of color thus produced, then piecing the scraps together to realize these complex little entities.

In manipulating these bits of paper, Strand is also bending and shaping imaginatively massive tracts of pictorial space. It’s probably because each piece of variably colored space has density and weight that these collages have the kind of visual impact one might expect from paintings many times their size. They do breathe something of the atmosphere of the 1950s, when Strand received his artistic education—it is easy to see affinities with the work of such now-underrated artists as James Brooks, Conrad Marca-Relli, or Esteban Vicente, not to mention the premier collagist of that time and place, Anne Ryan. But they’d hang just as comfortably next to the works of midcareer abstractionists of today, such as Amy Sillman or Charline von Heyl (though Strand never flirts with representation the way those artists do), or even of younger contemporaries such as Keltie Ferris. These artists engage with the Abstract Expressionist heritage without being encumbered by it, articulating their revisionism with a light spirit, a patent love of playfulness, caprice, and paradox that is far indeed from the existential melodrama that is such a big part of the stereotype (and not alien to the reality) of Abstract Expressionism. The same can be said of Strand. In his collages, forms turn themselves inside out and colors contaminate one another or leak in from nonexistent distances in ways that constantly keep the eye refreshed. The novelist Francine Prose, in a brief catalogue introduction, speaks of a sense of childlike wonder, but that doesn’t seem quite right to me. Strand handles color and space more like a trickster: The viewer may wonder, but this canny collagist, a sly old devil, always knows just what’s coming.

Barry Schwabsky