New York

Roy Newell, Lifelines, 1995, oil on board, 10 1⁄4 × 9 3⁄8".

Roy Newell, Lifelines, 1995, oil on board, 10 1⁄4 × 9 3⁄8".

Roy Newell

Simon Lee | New York

Roy Newell taught himself how to paint at the New York Public Library on Forty-Second Street in Manhattan, working day after day for ten years in the 1930s and ’40s. During this period, he met Willem de Kooning by chance in the library’s art reference room—a popular haunt for many artists at the time. Not long after, Newell was swept into the orbit of soon-to-be AbEx stars including Franz Kline and Arshile Gorky. When they scaled up their canvases and gestures, so did he. Then, in what would remain his most dramatic creative act, Newell destroyed everything he had ever made. Afterward, he tasked himself with mastering a quieter form of picture making: tight diminutive geometries, each with blocks and stripes of singing, mismatched color. He would revise these works again and again, encrusting the surfaces, turning ostensibly finished passages of paint into underpainting, building up histories. A perfectly fulfilling life could have been lived between the earliest and latest attributed dates of a Newell piece, including Untitled, 1962, 1989, 1998, 1999, 2000, or Untitled, 1970, 1984, 1998, 1999, 2000. He cathected onto his palimpsests, was loath to hawk them, and seldom exhibited. Here one might mention his lack of conventional productivity, though an oft-touted claim that Newell produced fewer than one hundred works during his own long years (1914–2006)—reiterated in the promotional material for this show of seventeen works at Simon Lee—appears to have promulgated a little white, mythologizing lie; his estate tallies at least two hundred, and that’s leaving out works on paper. But who’s keeping track? Newell’s paintings don’t earn their meaning through their scarcity, through the forces of supply and demand. They flaunt an indifference to the whims of the market, and their preciousness resides elsewhere.

Several of the pieces in Simon Lee’s exhibition, many of which came from the artist’s estate, had never been seen before in New York. In addition to exemplifying Newell’s Sisyphean perfectionism, the small boards and canvases possessed a shyness belied by their brazen colors: safety oranges, baize greens, bilious yellows and limes, smoldering maroons, and alarming reds calmed by chalky blues. Many of the overworked surfaces—grooved, bubbly, craquelured—retained the homely lumpiness of a popcorn ceiling. While they show obvious affinities with the work of Josef Albers, Newell’s pictures are not chromatic exercises. They are tender, introspective; emotional puzzles yearning for resolution. Indeed, their associations drift toward domestic things—backyards, corridors, or, as in Lifelines, 1995, a landline telephone. Horizontal boards such as Winged, 1980, 1987, 1997, and Eden, 1986, read as fortresses secured by moats of navy and gold. Newell made paintings that, songlike, get lodged in your head. Works such as Untitled, 1960s, in which a crimson column abuts a smooth plane of the palest mauve wedged between two obsidian slabs, reveal the jarring harmonist he could be.

What else about Newell? One might as well dredge up the facts and obscure legends on which his splenetic legacy seems to be premised: barroom frays with Jackson Pollock, alcoholism, critical kudos and simultaneous oblivion, and his studio/squat in Chelsea, which previously belonged to another offbeat painter, the American Romanticist Albert Pinkham Ryder. (Newell worshiped Ryder, and once claimed, enigmatically, that they both occupied the same “watery realm” as artists.) An outsider concerned with the innermost, he rarely attended openings, shunned self-promotion, and eschewed the bravado that was so often a badge of the Abstract Expressionists. Consistency of vision shouldn’t always be invoked as a virtue, as it can signal a form of blindness. Was there, underneath Newell’s custodial impulse to paint each painting anew, a belief in the incremental gains of time? Or did every brushstroke count a defeat, a failure of acceptance and of moving forward? Mark Rothko and Ellsworth Kelly both have chapels highlighting their devotion to color. Maybe Newell deserves something similar. Nothing extravagant—just a modest room to contemplate his work and life while escaping our own. It would give us what he treasured most: something to return to.