New York

View of “Polly Apfelbaum and Betsy Kaufman,” 2019. From left: Polly Apfelbaum, Rose Moon, 2018–19; Betsy Kaufman, untitled (#30), 2015.

View of “Polly Apfelbaum and Betsy Kaufman,” 2019. From left: Polly Apfelbaum, Rose Moon, 2018–19; Betsy Kaufman, untitled (#30), 2015.

Polly Apfelbaum and Betsy Kaufman

Kerry Schuss Gallery

Polly Apfelbaum and Betsy Kaufman’s splendid joint exhibition, “Through Thick & Thin,” foregrounded an almost comical number of oppositions between the artists’ works. Apfelbaum’s eight ceramic disks were glossy, loud, and, yes, thick, while Kaufman’s ten square paintings on paper were light, flat, and precise. Apfelbaum doesn’t just layer clay; she heaps up glob after pigmented glob. Kaufman, by contrast, uses the barest washes of acrylic, her paint so thin that the controlled swipes of her brush often expose the white paper beneath. Even the titles offered a lesson in difference that reveled in metaphoric possibility: Apfelbaum titled her pieces after different names for the full moon (Sap Moon, Mother Moon, Milk Moon, all 2018–19), whereas Kaufman used the astringent, unassuming untitled and a number, the latter enclosed in parentheses. Together the small-scale works mocked the tedious this-versus-that generalizations of two-person shows and demonstrated how quickly the binary is revealed as banality.

One would have expected Apfelbaum to dominate this presentation through color alone. In her textiles, sculptures, and drawings, her hues are cheerful and electric, and her exhibitions tend to surround the viewer with bands of paint filling the walls, vibrant rugs covering the floor, and ceramics hung cheek to cheek. Surprisingly, wide expanses of bare walls were seen here at Kerry Schuss. In a nod to Apfelbaum’s installation methods, eleven vertical stripes rose from floor to ceiling at irregular intervals throughout the gallery. But their muted shades—including periwinkle, apricot, and lavender—distanced these ribbons from Apfelbaum’s exuberant bands and drew attention to the variety in both artists’ palettes, particularly to the subtle undertones in the ceramics. The lines unobtrusively bracketed an Apfelbaum and a Kaufman (with one exception, where two paintings were placed together), creating a series of pairs despite the ample space afforded each artwork.

Apfelbaum’s reliefs clearly benefited from this extra space. (A frieze of 138 disks shown this past spring at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri—from a series called “Sun Targets,” 2017–18—was impressive, but the sheer abundance hindered an appreciation of the way her surfaces alternate between luscious and gleaming, matte and coarse.) Take Sap Moon, a mauve platter coated with mottled blacks and greens. Two uneven lumps, like inverted craters, occupy the left-hand side—one is fluorescent yellow, the other bright pink. A look at this piece in isolation revealed a fine tension between the sculpture’s artificial sheen and its more natural tones and textures, such as the jagged line of unglazed black clay running across its surface.

The simplicity of the installation also veered from Kaufman’s usual displays, in which monumental paintings dwarf smaller pieces, relegating them to the status of sketches. Seen alone, the works on paper appeared quietly astonishing. And they resonated with the sculptures in unforeseen ways: untitled (#30), 2015, for instance, hung next to Apfelbaum’s Rose Moon. In Kaufman’s painting, a poppy-red background contains a circle divided into twenty-two wedges by several intersecting blue and light-gray lines. The delicate, slightly uneven lines have the quality of taut string, as if they were lengths of yarn pulled from edge to edge; they give the work an uncommon sense of depth. Though in no way dependent upon it, the gentle eccentricity of Kaufman’s image was highlighted by its proximity to Rose Moon, and the formal exquisiteness of the ceramic was underscored by its connection to Kaufman’s red confection. Apfelbaum and Kaufman’s playful refusal to give in to the turgid competition of the two-person show enabled “Through Thick & Thin” to become a singular experience, both remarkable and unified.