New York

Dan Walsh, Cycle VI, 2013, pencil and acrylic on canvas, 70 x 70".

Dan Walsh, Cycle VI, 2013, pencil and acrylic on canvas, 70 x 70".

Dan Walsh

Paula Cooper Gallery | 534 West 21st Street

Dan Walsh, Cycle VI, 2013, pencil and acrylic on canvas, 70 x 70".

“My joke early on about how to describe myself was ‘Philip Guston paints an Agnes Martin,’” Dan Walsh told an interviewer recently, and he is an artist who knows both his art history and himself. The early works he was describing are more spare and less colorful than those he makes now, but his analogy from the interview holds: The paintings, drawings, and books in this show all have an underlying severity—some intimation of Martin-like system and rigor and more broadly of an understanding of the ambitions of modernist abstraction—but Walsh’s subtly humorous designs and color schemes have a wit that recalls Guston, who may also be echoed visually in the occasional distension and slight swollenness of Walsh’s line. The most obvious case is the fun Walsh has with the grid, a paradigmatic compositional structure of modernist art from its early days right through to Martin, who, though, gentled it through the handmade grace of her mark-making. Walsh’s grids are more robust yet at the same time more playful: Who knew, for example, that the introduction of curved and bent shapes—that Guston-like swelling—into the units of a grid would yield something that looks here like an apron frill, there like a string of sausages? Walsh’s palette—oranges, browns, mustards, pinks, pale blues—involves a similar avoidance of declarative purity, a similar seeding of disparate associations. Both knowledgeable and knowing about where his forms and colors come from and what connections come with them, Walsh respects history without being reverential about it.

To accompany the eleven paintings—all part of the series “Cycle,” 2013, and all nearly six feet square—Walsh showed a group of twenty-two drawings apparently preparatory to them. These drawings come in pairs, one pair for each painting, and within each pair, one drawing shows a simple penciled grid, made up of squares of a specific size and number. These first drawings, then—all based on the same structural principle, yet all individually tailored—show the basic plan, the underlying design, of each painting, and show it in the barest possible way, as if Walsh wanted to communicate the strictness of his approach at its bones. The second drawing in each pair shows the same grid as the first, but here Walsh embellishes it in one corner with a color sketch—an idea of the painting to come—and with various other visual and verbal notations, revealing the scope of his sources and references.

In one of the most dramatic paintings of the group, Cycle VI, a red central field is partly surrounded by a dark-turquoise border, whose presence at the top and sides, but not at the bottom, suggests an archway. A series of further frames, mostly in blues and reds and made up respectively of inverted U’s and sequences of gradated circles, heightens this impression of the red field as a door. Its threshold is formed by rows of flattened ovals in colors including salmon pink and lemon yellow, and a row of these shapes reappears in red at the top of the painting, stacked in different sizes so that the overall shape, for me, evokes a stupa—a reading supported by the notes TIBETAN MANDALA, ACHALA, and COSMIC RED FIELD, among others, on one of the two drawings for the work. The whole is surrounded by a final frame, a double row of alternating red and dark-blue dots. The associations with Eastern religion indexed in Walsh’s notes may suggest a mystical aspect to the door and red field, and Walsh, though he denies practicing any particular faith, has clearly paid attention to the genre of the mandala. But notes on other drawings—ZIGGURAT, EARLY MONDRIAN, POP PAINTING—point in other directions entirely, and the paintings generally may evoke printed and patterned fabrics as readily as meditational images. Their color harmonies, too, are visually less calming than abuzz, and the show’s real fascination lay in Walsh’s ingenious production of these varied and lively images by the simple-sounding strategy of fitting repeating shapes into a grid.

David Frankel