“A Painted Place”: David Novros at Paula Cooper
David Novros at Paula Cooper Gallery
April 27 to June 30, 2017
534 W 21st Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues
New York City, paulacoopergallery.com
Since 1965, David Novros has been exploring mural-scale and often site-specific painting—including paintings made in traditional buon fresco, directly on a wall. The artist has described multi-panel paintings like those in this selection of works from the 1970s as “portable murals”; like his fresco works, they actively relate to the surrounding architecture. Untitled (1970–71) is the earliest painting here and is closest in composition to Novros’s first commissioned fresco painting, which he made in Donald Judd’s SoHo building in 1970. In a limited palette of browns, grays, and a single pale blue “L” form, the surfaces of his rectangular shapes vary in both close and contrast of tone, and changes of hue. As simple as it may sound, this is stunning. No dramatic effects, only a musically metered variation of the parts—which, at 120 by 90 inches, occupy the viewer’s field of vision when close, and operate on a wall-like scale with more distance.
In 1963, Novros took a formative trip to Europe, visiting Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, the Paleolithic cave paintings of Northern Spain, and the Alhambra in Granada—which, he has said, “taught me that a painting could be something other than a rectangle hanging on a wall in a museum or gallery.” (All quotes from the artist come from the catalogue of his 2014 exhibition at Museum Wiesbaden, Germany.) Another important encounter took place at Henri Matisse’s villa in Nice, where he was particularly impressed by the “Apollo” series of cut-outs, later explaining: “you could use the wall and end up with a mural of some kind. […] That is why I started making shaped canvases in separate pieces that could be hung together.”
Novros was a key artist of 1960s, actively participating in the discussions of the time, though never identifying with the idea of a group or with an art historical movement. In this respect, it is important to dismiss categorization of Novros’s work as Minimalist. A modular system is used in these works—as in those of Donald Judd and Carl Andre—but with no intention of reducing subjectivity or compositional complexity. But, like Judd, Novros is also committed to the possibility of permanent installation of site-specific works, rejecting an assumed circulation of artworks as traded and exchanged commodities.
In its stead is an art that will endure, what Novros calls “a painted place.” Like Mel Bochner and Sol LeWitt, there is often a desire to work directly on the wall, but also for this to be lasting, rather than ephemeral. Other artists of the ’60s, sculptors foremost, included gallery space as a part of the work—for example, Robert Morris’s gray plywood pieces and Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tubes at the Green Gallery in 1964. Though Novros is not a sculptor, but a colorist concerned with the object nature and spatial illusion of painting, he looks beyond the single rectangular form. His interest in color and painted surface is integral. At first, on seeing the current exhibition I also thought of Barnett Newman, but Mark Rothko’s more emotional style soon came to mind, especially the panels of Houston’s Rothko Chapel.
Untitled (1964) is a work on paper in charcoal and red oil paint that recalls the structure and intervals of post and lintel architectural, and both Italian Renaissance interiors and the much earlier Roman interior wall painting of Pompeii. It instills an intensely contemplative feeling, recalling Renaissance alter pieces that the large-scale triptych paintings also evoke. Mounted on Shoji panel, the paper surface is exposed without the containing and distancing effect of being placed under glass. The gray and black rectangular forms repeat and shift subtly. Around the edges, previous workings on the sheet contribute to this sense of movement.
Large Drawing for Lent (1974) and Lent Painting (1975) consist of three parts. Both works are very complete, the surprise being the central part of Lent Painting. The negative space, where the wall intrudes and is incorporated as part of the composition in this central panel echoes the white section in the drawing; otherwise, the color departs from blacks and whites to earth colors. as if to emphasize more gradual transitions between night and day
Untitled (1975), and Untitled (Frog Altar) (1975) use right angles as pivotal compositional elements. Novros’s interest in the “expressiveness”—as he described it—of right angles was well-established, first exhibiting the forms in works at Galerie Müller, Stuttgart in 1966. The two inverted “L” shapes of Untitled (1975) again refer to post and lintel architectural forms, rather than modular forms for the anti-compositional ends of artists like Judd and Andre. The changes in color and proportion are poetic: the result, one presumes, of long deliberation and meditation.
Both the viewer and the painting are animated, provoking an experience like that of passing through a chapel or a cave, rather than analytically viewing small-scale rectangles from a fixed perspective. A desire for the viewer to experience passage is evident in the current exhibition: in the way the light responds to surfaces worked to varying degrees, as in the sequencing of panels and the placement of shapes. Novros has not participated in the typical one- or two-year interval of exhibitions for some time, preferring to more thoroughly consider the relation of his paintings to a specific space. This is a rare chance to see significant works from a decade when Novros innovated his practice, regularly connecting with ancient manifestations and traditions of painting—something the artist continues today.