New York

Edward Clark, Untitled, 1988, acrylic on canvas, 56 5/8 × 69 3/4".

Edward Clark, Untitled, 1988, acrylic on canvas, 56 5/8 × 69 3/4".

Edward Clark

Tilton Gallery

Edward Clark, Untitled, 1988, acrylic on canvas, 56 5/8 × 69 3/4".

This show of ten canvases and three works on paper ranging in date from the 1960s through 2012 demonstrated, at minimum, an unusual consistency across decades—a consistency of idea and feeling as well as of quality. One might almost speak of a career without development. With nearly any other artist, such a phrase would carry an implicit reproach: a charge of complacency or monotonousness. In Edward Clark’s case, it’s quite the opposite: One senses that he has never ceased casting a critical eye—what Ernest Hemingway famously called the bullshit detector—on his own work. And far from falling into routine, Clark continually wrests unexpected nuances from his storm clouds of color. That he has persisted for so long without losing heart despite, until quite recently, a woeful lack of response from the mainstream (that is, white) art world only makes his sustained tenacity that much more remarkable.

I would call the paintings that were on view here contrapuntal—three-part inventions in massed, richly amalgamated color. In most of the works, the acrylic hues are disposed in three dominant swaths, more or less horizontal, though there’s plenty of wiggle room inside that “more or less.” In one work from 1988—Untitled, as the majority of them were—the top and bottom are arcs of green blanching toward white that symmetrically mirror each other; they bend toward a more rectilinear bundle of blues in the center. In a painting on paper dated Jan. 1, 1985, the central bluish gray-white band rests on a pillowy cloud of nominally synonymous hue; the two zones should be nearly indistinguishable, yet Clark somehow manages to give each its own particular character—tight, dense, and recessive in one case, puffy and light in the other. Meanwhile, a dusty pink hovers expectantly above, slightly bowed, as if lingering in a quiet place where some drama is being prepared.

Just as one color can play two distinct parts in the same work, a multiplicity of distinct hues can unite to form a single part, as in a painting from 2002 in whose upper reaches a reddish-orange improbably shifts at its lower limit toward a purplish blue. This violet color reveals itself to be a mixture incorporating remnants of an underlying layer of black paint that has been mostly covered over or assimilated, while still wet, into what is clearly only the last visible stratum of a many-layered terrain. The paintings are full of seemingly accidental coloristic grace notes that are similarly outcroppings from otherwise buried layers. What counts as a single part in any of these three-part inventions depends less on color, as it might at first seem, and more on the coordination of color with facture. While Clark’s recurrent use of a schema involving three horizontal strata suggests that his art derives to some degree from that of Mark Rothko, Clark is disinclined to thin his colors to the point where they can infuse themselves into the canvas, as Rothko did; Clark’s color is not “optical” but shamelessly, gloriously tactile—streaky, splattery, and always redolent of the movement and effort involved in putting it on and sweeping it across the canvas. (I use the verb sweeping advisedly, as Clark is known for using a broom for this purpose.) And yet, as bracingly physical as Clark’s paintings always are, they rarely seem heavy. The bent of his color, whether hot or cool, is usually toward a rococo lightness. The words I think of come to me from the poet Gustaf Sobin: The paintings give us “the earth as air.”

Barry Schwabsky