New York

Jonathan Lasker, Lives of Perpetual Wonder, 1997, oil on linen, 90 × 120".

Jonathan Lasker, Lives of Perpetual Wonder, 1997, oil on linen, 90 × 120".

Jonathan Lasker

This past fall, Jonathan Lasker’s “Born Yesterday: Drawing into Painting, 1987–2020” marked the artist’s first solo exhibition in New York in more than five years. It was also his largest in the city, a career survey that included a selection of fifteen paintings, most of them large-scale and all of them rendered in the artist’s signature format of garish artificial color and “frozen” line.

Despite a range of effects achieved in the work, Lasker’s process has remained consistent from the beginning. He starts each canvas by making random scribbles in a four-by-six-inch notebook; he then creates small oil studies on card stock based on those doodles; finally, the artist and his assistants remake the studies by hand, scaling the compositions up and carefully reproducing them in a limited vocabulary of inexpressive brushwork, including flat black lines and puffed-up impasto smears.

Lasker’s process severs the indexical connection between the artist’s hand and the painted mark. What is surprising here is that the effect paradoxically invites, rather than repels, the sense that such painterly marks are extensions of the artist’s subjectivity. This impression is due in part to the linguistic character of his compositions: His doodles frequently suggest letters or graphemes, especially when they are presented in word-like sequences, as we see in Lives of Perpetual Wonder, 1997, which collapses the tropes of landscape into the gridded fields of newsprint. The painting seems to blink with an uninterpretable message. And in 2008, Lasker began incorporating his initials into his work; Annual Identity, 2019, which appeared in this show, features his signature.

But the intimations of interiority in Lasker’s canvases also owes something to the nature of the scribble itself. Aimless, unstudied, but also revealing, the scribble promises a window into the subconscious (à la Surrealist automatism) just as much as it implies a mindless, de-skilled time filling (the tedium of being stuck in a meeting). André Breton proposed that automatic drawing conveyed the “actual functioning of thought,” and Lasker’s thought here appears broken: repetitive, obsessive, desperate for a cigarette. The over-the-top, sometimes psychoanalytically loaded titles of Lasker’s works further emphasize the prospect of hidden, private meaning. In any event, the overwhelming impression is that amid a condition of antitranscendent banality—this seemingly empty repetition of nonsense—something akin to Truth can poke through.

Is this idealistic? Maybe. Lasker believes wholeheartedly in painting, yet he is clear-eyed about what it can mean today. The dense fields of scribbles in some of Lasker’s art nod toward the diaphanous veils of Morris Louis, but rather than elevate or transport us, the expanse of unnatural color invokes the “base” and deadening atmospheres of the capitalist metropolis. In a short 2016 text, Lasker lists four “aesthetic conditions,” such as “the depression accompanying the transition from natural light to artificially lit darkness at twilight in N.Y.C. at 5 p.m. in November” and “sadness when the light of the television goes off.” Shadows haunt his compositions like a bad mood; the candy-colored scribbles and lines and their deadpan execution collide with and mirror a cast of weird dark shapes. His works point inward, yes, but also outward toward a shared experience: the anxious horror of brightness and light.