Washington, DC

Moira Dryer, The Signature Painting, 1987, casein on wood; top: 48 × 63", bottom: 10 × 60 × 9 1/2".

Moira Dryer, The Signature Painting, 1987, casein on wood; top: 48 × 63", bottom: 10 × 60 × 9 1/2".

Moira Dryer

The Phillips Collection

Moira Dryer, The Signature Painting, 1987, casein on wood; top: 48 × 63", bottom: 10 × 60 × 9 1/2".

Curated by Lily Siegel

“LIFE IS FRAGILE + TENUOUS / & so is the work / Delicacy + vulnerability are / things I explore.” So reads, in part, an undated handwritten note by Moira Dryer, an elusive and often poignant artist who certainly knew something of life’s frangibility. Born in Toronto in 1957, Dryer studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York and then worked for a time as a freelance theater-set and prop designer before committing fully to her studio practice in 1985. Her first husband, a fellow painter, had died a few years earlier, of a congenital heart condition, at the age of twenty-nine; Dryer herself would succumb to breast cancer in 1992, at thirty-four. Her mature oeuvre barely spans a six-year period, one that was further shadowed by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

The current public-health crisis sharply curtailed access to these exhibitions. Thoughtfully selected by former Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE) curator Lily Siegel, the two concurrent presentations jointly amounted to Dryer’s first comprehensive survey in nearly twenty years, uniting thirty-four artworks in all: twenty-two paintings and sculptures at the Phillips Collection, twelve paintings and works on paper at GRACE. By the time I saw both shows, in late October, their respective titles—“Back in Business” and “Yours for the Asking”—came across as deeply ironic. The Phillips had only recently reopened to the public; the exhibition at GRACE remained accessible solely by appointment. Expertly installed in the nearly empty galleries, many of Dryer’s artworks appeared as she once described them to Phillips curator Klaus Ottmann—as quasi-figural performers on an otherwise unoccupied stage. The theatrical analogy places Dryer’s work firmly in the wake of American Minimalism, an affiliation confirmed by the at times emphatic physicality of her creations. And yet, true to the handwritten note with which I began this review—included, alongside others by the artist, in a vitrine at GRACE—Dryer consistently refuses the projection of impersonal objecthood. Expressive yet restrained, full of feeling yet everywhere conditioned by a profound reserve, her art speaks to the vagaries of embodied being.

Moira Dryer, Fingerprint #2647, 1988, casein on wood, 48 × 63 5/8".

As these shows made clear, Dryer’s work does this in part by renovating the deductive motifs characteristic of Color Field painting. Particularly telling in this regard are three paintings at the Phillips, each of which reveals a notionally impersonal structure that has been deformed by the incursion of “the personal.” In the earliest and best-known instance, The Signature Painting, 1987, a nested structure of orange-brown stripes appears warped by the inclusion of the artist’s outsize initials in the lower right. Fingerprint #2647, 1988, works similarly: The red and green stripes start out more or less parallel to the painting’s left edge, only to become increasingly distended toward the right. E.K.G., 1988, is the most complex case, the cardiogram-inspired motif—a sharp dip underscored by concentric half-rings—combining elements of a Kenneth Noland chevron, a target, and a horizontal-stripe painting all in one. The irregular waves in the upper register nonetheless upset the near symmetry of the whole, introducing a sense of left-to-right motion. As in Fingerprint #2647, the compositional structure mediates between the physicality of the support and the accidents and adventures of human embodiment. That Dryer’s wood grounds are themselves highly differentiated by their inbuilt whorls and irregular grains further suggests an active interchange.

Dryer’s art speaks to the vagaries of embodied being.

A similar anthropomorphism animates the more sculptural art, which Dryer described as most directly indebted to her work for the theater. The relation to the human body is most explicit in the wall-mounted Short Story, 1986, in which a bright-green, headlike circle appears perpendicular to an armlike extension terminating in a rough wooden semicircle. But that relationship can also be felt in the various works, all bilaterally symmetrical or nearly so, involving a rectangular painting with a separate, more sculptural element positioned centrally below it: a letterbox in The Power of Suggestion, 1991; a bit of machinery in an untitled painting, also from 1991, at GRACE; the horizontal structures—somewhere between a Renaissance predella and a museum’s angled information panel—in The Signature Painting and D.D. (Dangerous Days), 1990. In all of these instances, the weighting of the work in its lower register heightens the sense of a body pulled by gravity. Just as important, however, these projecting structures insist on a certain remove, pushing back as if physically against the beholder who would come too close. The uninscribed steel plate of the barrierlike form in D.D. (Dangerous Days) additionally insists on a certain silence, one that is all the more salient in the face of the painting’s shimmering stripes and unconstrained streams of highly liquid medium. 

Moira Dryer, Picture This, 1989, casein on wood, 46 × 48".

Yet for all the ingenuity of her painting-objects, some of Dryer’s most satisfying works remain her “unassisted” abstractions. One in particular, dated 1989 and displayed at the Phillips, fully exemplifies the artist’s distillation of prior artistic languages into her own exquisitely subtle mode of restrained expressivity. At forty-six by forty-eight inches, the work relates to us bodily without overwhelming our visual field, while the near-square format imparts to it an air of neutrality. The surface, meanwhile, has a muffled, almost muted quality: Innumerable washes of white, pink, and blue casein have soaked into the wood support, each veiling the one before. The scalloped tiers of pale color recall the irregular stripes in a slab of agate or a particularly subtle piece of marbleized paper. Picture This, the title whispers. Stepping to one side, Dryer invites the beholder to dream along with her.

Molly Warnock is the author of Simon Hantaï and the Reserves of Painting (Penn State University Press, 2020).