Abstract Critical

Seen in New York, September 2014

Written by Paul Corio

Vince Contarino, MIssing Pieces. Photo: Etienne Frossard

Vince Contarino, Missing Pieces. Photo: Etienne Frossard

1,500 words isn’t nearly enough to cover the dizzying number of gallery shows that opened in September in New York City. So with no more preamble than that, here are a few of the things that I thought stood out from the overall din, with an emphasis on abstract painting:

I have a special sympathy for artists who dramatically alter their styles after they’ve become established – there’s much at risk in the practical sense. Douglas Melini went out on a limb in his first solo show at Eleven Rivington; there were elements of his more familiar works, particularly the painted frames and vestiges of his signature gridded grounds, albeit painted with greater transparency. But the addition of thickly impastoed passages was a real surprise. It’s very difficult to employ disparate painting languages without creating pictures that look like post-modern mash-ups, but Melini blends together thick, knifed-on, smeared figuration over a thinly painted, transparent lattice, surrounded by hard-edged, opaque geometric shapes – framing devices in the literal and figurative sense. The thing that holds all of this stuff together within these modest-sized pictures is a highly disciplined approach to color. Each canvas has a dominant color in the figure, ground, and frame, with only the smallest touches of a neutral or a closely related hue used as accents. The favored color in the show is green, and those pictures looked ripe and verdant – they also had a kind of glow I associate with old-style picture tube TV sets. The all-grey Untitled (2014) stood out for its lack of chroma; it looked like a three-dimensional black and white photo of its more lush neighbors.

George Hofmann, Way After 2, 2014, acrylic on board, 48 x 38 in.

George Hofmann, Way After 2, 2014, acrylic on board, 48 x 38 in.

George Hofmann and Ben Dowell at first glance seem like an unlikely pairing in their two-person show at Ventana244. But in much the same way that Douglas Melini was able to bridge highly disparate types of paint application via analogy of color, these two painters’ palettes make the show cohere in spite of their radically different approaches. Hofmann applies high-key color gesturally over exposed plywood supports, then uses several methods of removal to take paint away – the erasure is as important as the application. The result is candy colored ghosts that seems to be disappearing into the surface of the wood. The edges are mainly left untouched, and here the wood becomes hard and corporeal again – that magical change from misty illusionism to obdurate physicality is a real feat. I really liked Way After 2 from 2014; its center was barely defined by the wispiest pale yellow. In contrast to Hofmann’s ethereal gestures, Dowell paints impossibly thick impasto over the entire surface of his symmetrical, geometrically derived compositions. This is dangerous territory, but his use of light color together with the implied transparency (!) he gets from sequential arrangement of hue keeps the pictures from feeling heavy or clotted. Small notes of darker color are used throughout as anchors, nicely exemplified in the zig-zaggy Untitled from 2014 – the darker reds and blues framed the composition without making it feel boxed in.

I can remember being quite excited when I first saw Toma Abts’ paintings online, only to be somewhat let down by their unappealing surfaces when I saw them in person at the New Museum back in 2008. The small scale of her pictures invites close inspection, and at the time, I thought that the intimacy they required repelled rather than invited. At her current show at David Zwirner, the pictures surfaces felt so much more welcoming, which in turn worked hand-in-glove with her gentle, playful abstractions. Motivic references to early abstraction abounded; there were notes of Kandinsky, Picasso’s synthetic Cubism, and Juan Gris, but tromp l’oeil shadows and slots and the vaguely photographic space that suggests kept them from being retro. I’m generally not a huge fan of shaped canvases, but the twisting, folded Fenke (2014) was especially engaging – the figuration and the shape of the support were really in sync with one another.

And while on the subject of tromp l’eoil, Helene Appel makes liberal use of it in her current solo exhibition at James Cohan. It’s a bit of a stretch to refer to these paintings as abstract, but not that much of a stretch. Appel not only chooses subjects that are verging on abstraction (striped fabric, clear plastic, spilled water, swept up piles of whatever) but embraces the concept of the picture plane in a similar manner to the post-war modernist painters. Jasper Johns was perhaps the first to recognize and champion this similarity – he was a fan of John Peto – but it never really gained any traction. My favorite pictures in the show were the tiniest; Black Thread Stitches and Black Thread Stitching, both from 2013. As the titles suggest, both are obsessive paintings of thread made to look like it’s hand-stitched in a loosely grid-based configuration through the linen support. As I was deciding whether or not this was just a gimmick, I tried a thought experiment – I asked myself if these would still be compelling pictures without the tromp l’eoil illusion, if they were actually made with thread. The answer came back emphatically yes.

Ward Jackson, Homage to JFK, 1963, Acrylic on canvas, 34 x 34 inches

Ward Jackson, Homage to JFK, 1963, Acrylic on canvas, 34 x 34 inches

While I’m most interested in tracking the developments in 21st abstract painting, there were some historical shows that were too good to ignore. The exhibition of Morris Louis’ veil paintings from 1958-60 at Mnuchin Gallery is without a doubt one of my favorite shows of the year. There were nine very large canvases on view, and the poured, unitary images were rising, swelling, glowing, and breathing – they felt like nature without representing anything at all, which is really the essence of the sublime as it relates to abstract painting. I’ve always thought that Louis has yet to get his historical due because of his close association with Clement Greenberg, who’s been persona non grata in the academic and curatorial community for so long. But real genius can’t be kept a secret forever, and exhibitions like this can help to right such wrongs. I loved every canvas, but my favorite was definitely Italian Veil from 1960. The large veil was comprised of very nearly all the colors of the spectrum, barely visible at the top where the pouring began. The complements overlap to create darkish earth colors, but a vibrant red borders the veil on the left and blue-green on the right. The overall effect is not dissimilar from looking at a 3D movie without wearing the tinted glasses.

On view at Minus Space is a strong selection of Ward Jackson’s black and white diamond paintings from the 1960’s. Jackson was a devotee of Mondrian, and the connection to the latter’s lozenge format is clear enough. But Jackson’s space is quite different from the Dutchman’s flattened grids, and the small drawings on view in the Jackson show give a clue as to why. Mixed in with the sketches for paintings are drawings of the New York City skyline, which was apparently an endless source of inspiration for the painter. The figure/ground relationships in his paintings, even while tending to reverse designation between foreground and background, seem to suggest the intervals between architectural forums and the attendant fictive space that conjures up, in contrast to the two-dimensional utopia sought by the artists associated with the De Stijl. My favorite picture in the show was the oddball of the group; Homage to JFK from 1963, which was the only one that could properly be referred to as Op. It’s rotating windows flickered and strobed as they receded into space.

"The Space Between", acrylic on Canvas, 44" x 40", 2014

“The Space Between”, acrylic on Canvas, 44″ x 40″, 2014

I’m already running out of space, and there’s a lot more good stuff to talk about. So, as briefly as possible:

Gary Petersen recently added planar shapes to his usual repertory of bands and frames. It doesn’t sound like a big leap but the results are impressive – his aptly title The Space Between at Brian Morris Gallery (in a group show aptly titled Space Matters) is spatially intriguing – it’s a bit like peering through slats in a fence and getting fleeting glimpses of another world. Edward Thorp started the season with a group show as well, entitled Junction. I really enjoyed Jason Stopa’s canvases – he’s coming off a solid solo effort at Novella Gallery, and the big space at Thorp gave him the opportunity to increase the scale. Leopard Skin Rug was my favorite entry of his – it had all the colors one would find in a creamsicle, and used black shark teeth as framing devices. It was playful in the best sense, and that’s Stopa’s greatest asset. Philippe Decrauzat showed some terrific moiré paintings at Elizabeth Dee, which were somewhat marred by silly hanging – there were skinny false walls, and some pictures were at the floor, others at the ceiling. They didn’t need the theatrical flourish. Stephen Maine put up an excellent show of process-driven abstractions earlier this year at 490 Atlantic, with motifs reminiscent of commercial printing gone awry. In his current show at Melville House, he’s added a few new devices (literally and figuratively). I really like the way that he wields a dot screen, especially in close value. The orangey dots over a green ground in the aggressive HP14-0605 buzzed like a swarm of bees. Vince Contarino has shown a string of really good paintings in the last year, first in a three person show at Stephan Stoyanov, and more recently in a solo exhibition at TSA. The big blue Missing Pieces from the latter show got a second airing at the BRIC Biennial; its geometry, gesture, and transparency were all woven together with confidence and maturity.

Paul Corio, New York City


  1. Patrick Jones said…

    Likewise,Paul if you come to the UK.http://patrickjonesabstractartist.co .uk.

  2. Patrick Jones said…

    Paul,Sandy Wurmfeld called in last week on his way to Latvia where he was keynote speaker at the Rothko conference with David Anfam.Im hoping to get a transcript of the presentations.My influence from college at Birmingham was John Walker ,who has a fascinating show at Alexandre gallery at 41 E 57st NYC.A great number of important Abstract Painters from New York dont figure over here.My list would include Poons,Qauytman,Thornton Willis,Dugmore,Ray Parker,Doug Ohlson etc.Nice to compare notes!

  3. Paul Corio said…

    Sandy Wurmfeld was my teacher at Hunter! A huge influence! The current Minus Space show is really great, although it sounds like you might not get here in time for that one. The Matisse cut-outs at MoMa opens next week as well, a must see.

  4. Patrick Jones said…

    Despite misgivings on this site from the editors,I personally feel Morris Louis is something very special and am glad to hear we agree on that.Otherwise its wonderfull to hear of such diversity ,which has always been the case, with radical responses to Abstract Painting in New York . Ill be there next month checking out Minus Space ,Sanford Wurmfeld and Ronnie Landfield .There is always something more open and exciting about New York that still leaves London standing .