Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Color Field, Literally: Ronnie Landfield at Stephen Haller

Ronnie Landfield: Structure and Color at Stephen Haller Gallery

September 8- October 15, 2011
542 West 26th Street
New York City, 212-741-7777

Ronnie Landfield, Clear as Day, 2006.? Acrylic on canvas, ?55-1/4 x 108 inches. Courtesy of Stephen Haller Gallery

Ronnie Landfield, Clear as Day, 2006.? Acrylic on canvas, ?55-1/4 x 108 inches. Courtesy of Stephen Haller Gallery

Paintings as decorous and tasteful as Ronnie Landfield’s demand a critical response equally mindful of its manners.  And yet, if ever an artist called out for a pun on his name, this is he.  For here is a painter who reinvigorates the tradition of post-painterly New York School abstraction by making explicit what were –despite partisanship for non-objectivity, or at least non-representation, at its historical outset – irrepressible references and sly allusions to landscape. Landfield puts the field back into Color Field Painting.

Clear as Day (2006) uses color and stain to denote distance and differentiate the play of light and mist on receding hills with the polite subtly of a watercolor, despite its nine feet width and its being acrylic on canvas.  What Gauguin Said (1998) is a more turbulent, busy, heated composition, less legible as landscape, but it still uses the bold gestures of action painting in ways more akin to paint hatching reminiscent of the Post-Impressionist of its title than the Abstract Expressionists he evokes in his scale and stripping bare of reference.  Franz Kline in Provincetown (2010), a brooding and romantic evocation of a valley with encroaching storm, is similarly more Turner than Kline.

Of course, where pioneers of the first generation like Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko were implicitly landscape-like, denizens of post-painterly abstraction like Helen Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski went on, in their later works, to revel unabashedly in romantic landscape associations.  Landfield is never as sumptuous as Frankenthaler or as fearless as Olitski, but he has a very likeable touch that is restrained even when it is exuberant.  He exudes pictorial intelligence.

His elegantly installed exhibition includes work dating back to 1997 as well as examples from this year.  Several paintings here include what has become his trademark device, a bar of solid color at the base of the canvas.  This gives the works a somewhat incongruously conceptual look.  If they serve as chromatic points of reference for the artist in his working process then they are, I guess, like Alberto Giacometti’s (or Euan Uglow’s) nervous-tic spatial markers, pentimenti that are tolerable if nonetheless somewhat affected.  But if they are intended to ground his images in a contemporary moment, as if to apologize for the otherwise traditional implications of landscape painting, then the strategy is heavy-handed and likely to back fire, as they actually make him look a bit old-fashioned.  He’d be raising the bar if he lost them.

Ronnie Landfield, Franz Kline in Provincetown, 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 88 x 81 inches. Courtesy of Stephen Haller Gallery

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Ronnie Landfield, What Gauguin Said, 1998. Acrylic on canvas, 97 x 78 inches. Courtesy of Stephen Haller Gallery

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  • Scott Bennett

    I agree with you about Ronnie Landfield’s pictorial intelligence,….and that eliminating the bottom bands could raise the bar. They have functioned, over the years, as a foil to the more active color areas, and he’s got that down. “Losing” them, would encourage something new, …and that would be damn interesting.

  • tammy seaman

    The juxtaposition of the painterly portion with a flat graphic field of color is kind of interesting. That said, they do remind me of graphic posters where there would be a title or info in a band at the bottom. Not sure that is a good thing…

  • Scott Bennett

    I’d like to add to my last comment:

    Ronnie Landfield has made many paintings without the bands. Let’s remember that he’s been making paintings for a long time and has been moving through a number of different types of formats, some without bands, so he has been playing with “band-less” formats for decades now, and there are many that I think are terrific. Also, the bands have become, at times, more architectural and literal in pictures like Butterfly ( For Joan Landfield ), and many others like it. They are used for contrast, to give the push/pull that Hans Hoffman talked about, and often, to create a sense of space. These are timeless characteristics in painting and the visual arts in general, and he distills them well.

    When the bands are working, they work beautifully, and as a critic friend of mine once told me: “repeat yourself”. He meant that if you see something good, mine it. Sometimes, I find a picture that doesn’t seem to need the bands, or the bands are holding it back, but in most cases, the long horizontal ones work beautifully. My agreement with David Cohen comes from wanting to see what would happen if Landfield made a concentrated series without the bands, either horizontal or vertical. He can paint, that’s for sure, and those stained and thinly painted lozenge shapes are loaded with painterly virtuosity.

    Like Friedl Dzubas, Jack Bush, Darryl Hughto, Ken Noland and others, Ronnie Landfield’s pictorial intelligence is in his ability to simplify and put color next to color on a large scale.

    As far as I know, Greenberg never proscribed ( as in forbid ). He was always open to looking and liked to be surprised by new solutions to how good art could be made. Certainly, he could be definitive with his taste and “take”on art, and sometimes this was interpreted as some kind of law or dictum he was making for art.

    The most famous example and mis-interpretation of this, is when Greenberg’s writing and thoughts about the flatness of the picture plane, and how it functions in certain types of painting, became translated into a dictum or a prescription of how good non-objective painting had to be made. He was commenting on some very specific types of painting going on at a certain time, that were taking advantage of flat expanses of color, usually stained, but not always, and how this was paving the way for a new kind of painting. He thought some of this type of painting was the best being done at the time – and he put his taste on the line about it.

    Finally, I am not so convinced that looking “old fashioned”, is necessarily a bad thing. I’d much rather make old fashioned looking paintings that are good or great, than make paintings that are trying too hard to look up to date.