Los Angeles

Helène Aylon, Vertical Form Diffused, 1977, linseed oil on paper on Masonite, 68 × 45". From the series “Pouring Formations,” 1977.

Helène Aylon, Vertical Form Diffused, 1977, linseed oil on paper on Masonite, 68 × 45". From the series “Pouring Formations,” 1977.

Helène Aylon

In 2012, Helène Aylon published Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist, which gives some indication of both where her life started (she was born in 1931, raised within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Borough Park in Brooklyn, and later married to and widowed from a rabbi) and where she has ended up. In between, Aylon produced significant series, process-oriented material abstractions that gave way to, among other things, large and fiercely accusatory installations stemming from her antinuclear protests. As was true last year in her presentation at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects in New York, her first show at Marc Selwyn Fine Art featured works from the late 1960s and ’70s. During these years, she used industrial materials such as sheet metal, acrylic plastic, and spray paint, from which she coaxed pieces that flaunt their means but whose aesthetic is drained of ego. Thus, the Aylon who is currently returning to visibility on both coasts is the Ad Reinhardt–trained and Betty Parsons–supported post-Minimalist rather than the activist who followed, even as these endeavors, too, portend more direct commitments to environmental justice.

The tight selection in Los Angeles involved nine works, the earliest of which (made in 1969) demonstrated what Aylon called “painting that revealed itself.” This was not only a rejoinder to the erstwhile heroism of postwar gestural painting but also a more alchemical take on the stains and pours that arrived in its wake. In her 1969–73 “Elusive Silver” series—first shown at Max Hutchinson Gallery in New York’s SoHo in 1970—Aylon fully dedicates herself to this task, conjuring differing effects from the same operations across as well as within each piece. The works range from large to immense. The appearances of their mutable surfaces vary wildly, depending on the ambient light and the motion of the viewer before them, shifting from bright to dim in passages depicting what looked, in First Coral, 1970, like smoke and clouds and nebulas. Another acrylic on Plexiglas and aluminum, The Third Passage, 1971, showed puckering that suggested veins or an aerial view of a landscape.

Following her move to San Francisco in 1973, Aylon took up flux in other ways, experimenting with physical instability as a structuring principle. In the series “Paintings That Change in Time,” 1973–76, the only material is linseed oil, which seeps through paper supports, backed by Masonite, to create blossoming halos. In Vertical Form Diffused, 1977, (part of the related series “Pouring Formations,” 1977), the substance’s traces evoke a swollen river. With a work in the earlier series, Slowly Drawing, 1973, Aylon likewise attempts to let the picture “change like the earth changes,” as she more recently put it: gradually, imperceptibly, and then perhaps suddenly decades hence. We see the image, true to its title, having essentially made itself, transforming over so many years due to the spreading of the oil. Throughout this body of work, parts of the paper remain unaffected, implying compositional control as well as the future spread of the oil after the painting’s “completion.” Writing about “Paintings That Change in Time” in 1975, Lawrence Alloway argued that the “slowness of the paintings’ change rather than the fact of their change, is the crucial factor. They engage us in contemplation not analysis, expectation not description.” His point is that his temporality before the work is out of step with that of the artwork itself, which evolves at a rate too gradual to be observed. Alloway models an art criticism that similarly privileges process, importantly admitting the contingency of response before an ever-changing object. Aylon relished the provisional nature of assessment and addressed herself to the unfolding futures in which her efforts would—recursively and ever differently—be received.