New York

Ruth Root, Untitled, 2014–15, fabric, Plexiglas, enamel paint, spray paint, 84 1/2 × 67".

Ruth Root, Untitled, 2014–15, fabric, Plexiglas, enamel paint, spray paint, 84 1/2 × 67".

Ruth Root

Ruth Root, Untitled, 2014–15, fabric, Plexiglas, enamel paint, spray paint, 84 1/2 × 67".

What makes an abstract painting interesting today? Ruth Root’s series of seven works, each Untitled and dated 2014–15, each unique and yet sharing vivid formal correspondences with its neighbors on the wall, provided an exhilarating answer. For starters, an interesting painting often has an eccentric shape. Root’s Plexiglas shapes are not symmetrical and are far from the golden mean. They are wonky, sometimes lean, and include bulges and unexpected curves, like maps of contested statehoods. (Not until I drew the outline of each work in my notebook did I notice the points of some corners and the softness of others.) Each was the size of something a human might sleep on. Each hung low to the ground, just a foot off the floor.

An interesting contemporary abstract painting, Root’s work argues, will probably not be a monochrome, but it might slyly incorporate broad fields of pure, glossy color abutting early Frank Stella–esque painted stripes or spray-painted clustered orbs; it might feature digitally printed fabric in patterns that both reflect the forms or puzzles of its interlocking elements, and wrap around and hold the composition together. It will not look exactly like anything else. Sure, there’s the outrageousness of Jennifer Bartlett’s dot-and-dashed panels and Luc Tuymans’s wrapping-paper-patterned canvases, the textiles and minimal line of Richard Tuttle, the distant nod to Edouard Vuillard’s colliding wallpaper interiors. Root, who was born in 1967 and has been making paintings since the mid-1990s, has surely absorbed these precedents. But the heraldry of her works sets them apart, making a bold claim for contemporary painting’s territory.

An interesting painting today will probably not be a uniform field. In fact, its surface might be in constant material and perspectival flux: snaking through its support, folding in just at the moment when you might expect it to continue on. It will involve stuff other than just paint: metal grommets around punched holes, which allow the whole work hang on nails like a banner, and swatches of bright fabric with repeated designs capping scalloped and oblong abutments. And because of this, it will probably mix textures: the soft matte of cotton next to the sheen of enamel, so that the work appears to be perpetually posing, turning toward and then away from the light, oscillating between its flat, regulated prints and its overlapping, hand-rendered illusion of dimensional space.

A compelling painting today will say something about what it means to be a painting today. The clusters of intersecting decisions in each piece, the planes that rise and fall and disappear behind the support like so many joints, suggest a dynamism that the ubiquitous screens of our lives, despite being filled with moving images, cannot begin to contain. (The powerful moiré effect in one work hurt my eyes more than any LCD.) Root’s work argues that to be a painting in a world supplied by the Internet of Things is to be deliberately a little clumsy, to refuse the efficiency and ease of streamlined precision—a spirit reminiscent of the awkward cuts and jarring patterns of Brooklyn clothing designer Rachel Comey, or the joyful suturing of color and hinged materiality in Chris Johanson’s installations. In a single work, Root gathers the utopian backdrops of one of the first abstractionists in modern art, Sonia Delaunay, and the abstract expressions of our current postmodern visual communication. (Several of her fabric patterns look like emojis for shock and surprise.)

What makes an abstract painting interesting today is the feeling that it might become something other than a painting at any minute. Root’s jangled protuberances and mix of colors and finishes nod to the vibrant return of ceramics in contemporary practice; her textiles are equally on point with current trends embracing a ’60s California craftiness. But Root’s works are also like giant sheets of origami paper waiting to turn into sculpture. I’d like to imagine they could fold into small boats or planes or animals. But I’m glad they are paintings today.

Prudence Peiffer