New York

Christopher Le Brun, Goldengrove, 2015–16, oil on canvas, 8' 10 1/4“ × 11' 2”.

Christopher Le Brun, Goldengrove, 2015–16, oil on canvas, 8' 10 1/4“ × 11' 2”.

Christopher Le Brun

Albertz Benda

Christopher Le Brun, Goldengrove, 2015–16, oil on canvas, 8' 10 1/4“ × 11' 2”.

In this exhibition, Christopher Le Brun, the president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, offers twelve new compositions, all painted in the past two years—some, such as Vocative, Score, and Symphony, all 2016, alluding explicitly to music, and others, such as Strand (thus the light rains, thus pours), 2016, and Goldengrove, 2015–16, to nature. (The show was presented in conjunction with an exhibition at the Gallery at Windsor, Vero Beach, Florida.) The title of White, Blue, White, 2016, simply names the colors—often richly tonal, sensitively nuanced, and atmospheric—that appear in the painting, and that of The Poet Architect, 2016, suggests that the painting is a poetic structure. All of Le Brun’s paintings are “pure,” in Clement Greenberg’s classical sense—that is, they put a “higher premium on sheer visibility” than “on the tactile and its associations, which include that of weight and impermeability.” Certainly Le Brun’s works are weightless and permeable—thin-skinned to the point of transparency—and appealing to the eye: They afford the viewer a certain pleasure. In some works, such as Vocative and So . . . , both 2016, painterly gestures vigorously mark the edges, adding textural muscle. They seem more incidental than insistent, though, nominally suggesting the paintings’ limits by calling attention to the edges of the canvas.

In 1877, Walter Pater famously wrote: “All art aspires towards the condition of music.” Many examples make this explicitly manifest: The revelation that painting could be a “chorus of colors,” as Wassily Kandinsky called it in 1913, came to the artist when, in 1911, he became aware of the “radical . . . ‘new’ music” of Arnold Schönberg. In 1928, Kandinsky agreed to stage Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) because it “went far beyond the painted ‘content’ and assumed purely musical form.” “The entire staging was ‘abstract,’” Kandinsky wrote, involving only “color and form.” In 1948, Greenberg continued the musical metaphor—the idea that the best painting is abstract music—by borrowing the term “‘polyphonic’ from music . . . with particular reference to Schönberg’s methods of composition.” The critic used it to describe, as he wrote, “the all-over, ‘decentralized,’ ‘polyphonic’ picture that relies on a surface knit together of identical or closely similar elements which repeat themselves without marked variation from one edge of the picture to the other.”

Clearly, Le Brun’s abstract, allover paintings pay homage to a grand tradition. This is nowhere clearer than in Goldengrove, a diaphanous, almost Cy Twombly–esque array of red and orange marks that together distill an experience of natural luminosity, light being one of Le Brun’s particular preoccupations. But does this grand tradition hold up—and, more pointedly, does Le Brun add anything to it, either emotional or aesthetic? Greenberg argued that abstract painting at its best afforded an “exhilarating” aesthetic experience. Le Brun’s paintings, while not particularly exhilarating, are well-executed—dare one say academically successful and convincing. Yet they ultimately serve as reminders that allover musical painting is no longer as radical and antiestablishment as it was for Kandinsky and Greenberg. Le Brun preserves a tradition, but he adds little to it.

Donald Kuspit