Abstract Critical

Seen In New York, September 2013

Written by Paul Corio

Gene Davis, Yellow Jacket, 1969, acrylic on canvas, 107 1/4 x 220 inches, 272.4 x 558.8 cm, A/Y#19554. Courtesy of Ameringer McHenry Yohe

Gene Davis, Yellow Jacket, 1969, acrylic on canvas, 107 1/4 x 220 inches, 272.4 x 558.8 cm, A/Y#19554. Courtesy of Ameringer McHenry Yohe

The New York art season opened earlier this month with what seems like an impossible number of shows in Chelsea, Bushwick, Dumbo, Midtown, and the Lower East Side, with still more dotting neighbourhoods off the beaten track. Are there really enough rich people to keep all these spaces afloat?

What follows is a round-up of my favourite exhibitions, with an emphasis on painting.

The Gene Davis show at Ameringer McHenry Yohe was a fine way to kick things off – it consisted of six large pictures from a fairly broad range of time, four of which I consider to be genuine masterpieces: Yellow Jacket (1969), Queen’s Gate (1980), Peeping Wall II (1961), and Untitled (1973). Each have all of the Gene Davis hallmarks: bands of colour that vibrate like guitar strings, enveloping scale, and a marvellous tension between the materiality of the raw canvas and hues that seem to float in mid-air, dissolving and unattached to the surface. The colour sequences are always full of surprises, with short repeating sections quickly interrupted by accenting colours, which give way to new rhythms or long rests created by large areas of raw canvas or stained colour. It’s hard to avoid using musical analogies when talking about these pictures – Davis possessed a sense of space and pacing that any jazz drummer would be thrilled to own. Yellow Jacket, with its ballsy bubble-gum pink section on the left side, was my hands-down favourite.

Frederick Hammersley, Sea Saw, #3, 1966, oil on linen, framed: 44 3/4 x 44 3/4 inches, 113.7 x 113.7 cm, A/Y#20740. Courtesy of Ameringer McHenry Yohe

Frederick Hammersley, Sea Saw, #3, 1966, oil on linen, framed: 44 3/4 x 44 3/4 inches, 113.7 x 113.7 cm, A/Y#20740. Courtesy of Ameringer McHenry Yohe

Another surprising quality in Davis is that the pictures look like they could have been made last week. This dawned on me not while looking at the paintings, but while at two other shows I saw immediately afterward – the Frederick Hammersley exhibition in the project space at Ameringer McHenry Yohe and the Paul Feeley show at Garth Greenan. Both had some fine pictures, but I never lost sight of the period in which they were made. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the two latter shows, it just highlights yet another somewhat miraculous and difficult to quantify aspect of the Davis canvases. All that said, Hammersley’s See Saw #3 from 1966 was particularly nice, with bold simple geometric shapes in stark black and white balanced and pinched as delicately as can be – like a strange mix of heavy industry and ballet. Paul Feeley’s Petono from 1962 pleasingly pulsed in a particular 1960’s way; not exactly psychedelic but unmistakably a product of that moment.

Webster, Chuck, Block, 2013, oil and spray paint on panel, 12 x 12 inches, 30.48 x 30.48 cm, CHW14077. Courtesy of the artist, Betty Cuningham Gallery and ZieherSmith

Webster, Chuck, Block, 2013, oil and spray paint on panel, 12 x 12 inches, 30.48 x 30.48 cm, CHW14077. Courtesy of the artist, Betty Cuningham Gallery and ZieherSmith

The Chuck Webster show at Betty Cunningham required a little while to seep in (at least for me). At first the paintings seemed like large-scale Guston-esque abstractions; not bad at all, but hardly a rare commodity. But a little time spent in the room slowly revealed a soft glow to the glazed colour, as though the pictures were subtly lit from behind. This luminosity gave a delicacy to the big simple shapes that made them look considerably less cartoony and much less like Guston, whose colour rarely holds any appeal for me. As much as I like big pictures, I responded strongly the diminutive Block from 2013, only 12” square; its soft violet landscape was sweet and sad.

The tradition of Latin American abstraction is hardly a new thing, but it’s finally begun to get its due in the NYC museums and galleries; a trend largely ushered in by the impressive Geometry of Hope exhibition at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery in 2007. Brazilian painter Caetano de Almeida has filled both of Eleven Rivington’s Galleries (one at 11 Rivington, the other around the corner on Christie St.) with large-scale paintings and works on paper. The loosely woven stripes of Foi, Goldeneye, For Your Eyes Only, and 3170 (all from 2013) could have been images derived from Adobe Illustrator studies or from extreme close-ups of threadbare fabric – the squishy grids they articulated had rigor but also just a little touch of humour, underscored by the neon/candy colour palette.

Cynthia Daignault, Light into twilight, emptiness into waiting presence, 2013, oil on linen, 96 x 84 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley, New York

Cynthia Daignault, Light into twilight, emptiness into waiting presence, 2013, oil on linen, 96 x 84 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Lisa Cooley, New York

Cynthia Daignault’s solo show at Lisa Cooley Gallery is called Which is the Sun and Which is the Shadow? and featured some very good paintings with equally awful titles. The 8’ tall Light into twilight, emptiness into waiting presence (2013) was a really nice take on the all-over composition – as you might expect from the name it looked something like a cloud, but one made of sinewy, fluid sluices of oil paint, all pale greys and pinks. It was delicious. In other paintings from the series Daignault superimposed representational motifs (light bulbs, windows, figures, cracks in the wall) across a similarly painted ground, but I would have preferred to see a series in which the integrity of the field was left intact and the colour varied (maybe next time?). In the small project room behind the main gallery were 365 10” x 15” paintings of the sky, presumably one for each day of the year. It sounds corny (like the titles) but it was wonderful – if you had this installation in your home it would make your life noticeably better.

Charlene von Heyl’s show at Petzel was like a trip through the whole history of 20th century abstraction – elements of Picasso, colour-field, Miro, modernism, pop, and op were all seamlessly woven together with real panache – the painter’s strong personality was the glue that made the disparate elements cohesive and original. I thought each canvas in the larger gallery space (there were two contiguous rooms) was excellent, and all were very different from one another – a real feat. Jakealoo (2012) had a kind of loosely painted cubist figuration in black over flecked violet, orange and green on a white ground – it felt a lot like the off-register commercial printing that Warhol found so compelling, but it also looked a like 3D glasses would complete the scene. Guitar Gangster (2013) hearkened back to cubism both in figuration and title, but the drop shadow on the right side of the big triangle in the foreground placed it squarely in the realm of the Mac desktop that I’m looking at as I type this.

Doug Ohlson, Lost Twin, 1996, acrylic on canvas, two panels, each 108 x 33 in.

Doug Ohlson, Lost Twin, 1996, acrylic on canvas, two panels, each 108 x 33 in.

For a long time I’ve been of the mind that Doug Ohlson was one of the great under-appreciated masters of the 20th century, and his show at Washburn reinforced that conviction. The dominant theme of the exhibition was orange, which was subtly contrasted with a variety of close-value blues, pinks, siennas, and cranberry reds. The pictures had a misty, ethereal quality akin to Rothko, but the strong vertical thrust simultaneously gave them an architectural solidity and also a sense that they were rising upward in the same manner as Rubens’ angels and cherubs. Lost Twin from 1996 consisted of two 9’ tall panels which were perfectly mirrored in terms of colour and composition, but infinitely varied by the gestural application of paint at the edges of each canvas. The small areas of light blue at the top and bottom of each side sang and glowed.

Li Trincere,  Untitled, 1990, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches. Courtesy of MINUS SPACE

Li Trincere, Untitled, 1990, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches. Courtesy of MINUS SPACE

Minus Space and artist John Zinsser co-curated an ambitious tribute to legendary New York City art dealer and curator Julian Pretto, whose life was cut short by AIDS at the age of 50 in 1995. The 45 works in the show represent very nearly all of the artists associated with Pretto’s various galleries. It was quite difficult to decide which pictures to highlight given the scope and quality of the show, but here are a few I especially enjoyed: Li Trincere’s Untitled from 1990, was spatially quite sly – it only consisted of four elements: a sideways “T” in red, two white shapes that read as a continuous field behind the “T,” and a second white, subtly different than the first, covering the left side of the picture. The resulting layered space is quite complex given the economy of means. It was also a good example of a shaped canvas that still read as a picture and didn’t lapse over into the object/sculpture arena. I’ve always enjoyed Tom Martinelli’s dot pictures – the layers of transparent subtractive primaries form glassy blacks with shifting multi-coloured haloes. The smallish Untitled (Nov. 10, 1994) vibrated with manic energy, as these pictures often did. Daniel Reynolds Untitled from 1999 looked something like a shimmering submerged brain gone out of focus at the edges. It was in reality completely abstract, but at the same time evoked spooky sci-fi films from the 1950’s.

Tom Martinelli, Untitled (Nov.10, 1994), 1994, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24 inches. Courtesy of MINUS SPACE

Tom Martinelli, Untitled (Nov.10, 1994), 1994, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24 inches. Courtesy of MINUS SPACE

I’m about to bump up against 1500 words, so a few quick mentions before closing:

I’ve never been a fan of Josh Smith, but I have to say the room full of monochromes at Luhring Augustine looked great. I’m not sure how they would hold up individually, but so what. In a somewhat surprising move, Edward Thorp left his summer group show up right through to October. I very much enjoyed the small red, white, and pink paintings by Andrew Spence, and the Gary Stephan and Andrea Belag pictures were also quite strong. And finally, Ron Milewicz’ brick paintings at Elizabeth Harris were weightless and lyrical, which are qualities not generally associated with bricks.

Paul Corio

New York City

September, 2013

 

  1. Gianluca Salvati said…

    very good works!

  2. modularmark said…

    Thanks for your excellent article. New York is blessed with galleries showing great painting; I can but dream of being there!

  3. Susan Katz-Whittingham said…

    Great article, Paul!

  4. Jai Llewellyn said…

    Re: Frederick Hammersley’s ‘Sea Saw’#3, which you have given the title, ‘See saw’. I wondered which title was correct as I have just recently titled a piece, ‘See,saw’ and quite liked it.
    The Chuck Webster looks great,hypnotic. Thanks.

  5. Sharon Hall said…

    thank you for that speedy tour, Paul Corio-a giddy pleasure to read. I wish I could have seen the Gene Davis show – fabulous paintings and as you say, they don’t seem to age.