Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          

      A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun,
February 22, 2007 under the title
"Minimalism with Feeling "



Anton Kern

James Graham


installation shot of Robert Mangold: Column Structure Paintings at PaceWildenstein Gallery, New York, February 9 to March 10, 2007, Courtesy PaceWildestein Gallery

Reductive art induces reductive histories of art.  When you think about art in terms of lessness and what is left out it is hard not to historicize, to see individuals in terms of a great march forward—or compromising retreat—towards or away from Minimalism. In this ne plus ultra 1960s movement abstract art achieved its most severe exclusions, beckoning an end of painting, or its least its submission to the object, soon to be followed by the triumph of pure concept.

Individualists frustrate such neat theorizing.  Almost simultaneous with Minimalism was the movement that—logically—ought to have waited patiently in the wings for a few years: Postminimalism.  This word described the gradual reinvestment of personal touch, expressive feeling, rich surface, and human presence in nonetheless still radically pared-down artworks. 

Despite the trumpeted demise of the medium, a new kind of painting emerged that stalked emptiness, as if torn between giving way to historical inevitability and resisting it.  Robert Ryman and Brice Marden fitted that description.  Another of the masters of that moment was Robert Mangold.  His whole career has been, so to speak, danced on a pirouette—his paintings are perpetually on the tipping point between reduction and regeneration. 

Two elements stand out as the hallmarks of his aesthetic: the shaped canvas and the drawn arc.  To these can be added a third—whether stained in a color or rubbed using a drawing medium like graphite, he goes for an achieved (rather than simply given) surface.  While never overtly gestural, his art always recalls a hand that made it.   Cool, but not cold; impersonal, but not person-free.

Mr. Mangold also likes to flutter between the sensual and the cerebral.  His new show, at PaceWildenstein’s cavernous W22nd Street venue, offers a dozen  in a series of “column structures”.  They can all be taken in at the center of this vast space as a single gestalt, becoming highly architectural in the process; or they can demand individual space and time.  The supports are made from various joined canvases to form such shapes as a “T” in “Column Structure I” (2005), a trunk and branch in”IV” (the remainder of the series are 2006), a funnel-like shape in “V”, an anvil in “VI”, or less readily, or quite unnameable, shapes in others.  The ability or not to describe the shapes linguistically seems to determine different formal experiences from one column to the next.

The compositions are further complicted by scored lines that can easily be confused with the actual division between abutting canvases; the lines roughly adhere to some sense of a grid that stretches beyond the actual work, but no strict logic or system is apparent.  Each work is a singular color, stained in acrylic with even modulation but slight fluctuations—again, the hand is present but not insistent. 

The curves, drawn by a superbly controlled hand, are neither mechanical nor organic.  They might be seen as responses to the shaped supports, but equally could be the formal force that determines those shapes. 

The cumulative experience of all this back and forth between possibilities is a subtle, classical, and highly refined.  The Minimalist Sol le Witt, when describing his own return to more lyrical and sensually involved picture making, once spoke of wanting to make art he could show Giotto.  Mr. Mangold might want to show his work to Poussin. 

installation shot of Mark Grotjahn: Blue Paintings Light to Dark One through Ten, 2006 at Anton Kern Gallery, January 19 to February 28, 2007, Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery

Mark Grotjahn is a natural complement to Mr. Mangold—his supremely elegant show offers slight variations on a singular composition and formal idea, and a narrative sense of development as the eye follows this progression the Anton Kern Gallery (another elegantly sparse post-industrial space.)

My first visit induced a negative response.  Unlike this artist’s restrained installation of richly colored pieces at the Whitney Museum recently, the dark, barely scrutable canvases with their repeated compositional formula seemed gratuitous and stingy.  But a second visit on a sunny day revealed their subdued sophistication.

Mr. Grotjahn is fanatically committed to his chosen motif: a central vertical strip from the horizontal center of which emenate spokes of slightly thinner stripes.  Coming with modernist ancestry, this device is familiar from various Futurists and Orphists not to mention Marsden Hartley, and evokes a sense of a lighthouse emitting rays.

In the dingy half-light of my first visit this seemed like a series of black paintings but in fact they eschew black altogether to track a progression from a dark but vibrant ultra marine to an almost pitch black navy blue.  All painting needs light but these are enriched by the dependence, which they dramatize.  The strokes are compulsively even but the brush creates striations that seem to glisten under light, looking a bit like the sheen of black vinyl LPs.  (Jason Martin, the British painter who shows at Robert Miller and LA Louver in Mr. Grotjahn’s city of residence, LA, has made a life’s work from this effect.) 

While the motif and its driving effects are always present and insistent, they eventually take a back seat as the slight and subtle differences between each work assert themselves. 

Joe Fyfe La Gloire 2006. acrylic on terrycloth, felt, linen and burlap, 108 x 70-1/4 inches

Joe Fyfe is a brutalist.  His art is not so much reductive as severely blunt.  Often, the “canvas” is more striking than the paint: in “La Glorie” (2006), for instance, a picture painted in acrylic on terrycloth, felt, linen and burlap.  Colors and textures alike are instrinsic, in other words, rather than applied.  The composition has a central zip of various colors (painted bars or collaged strips of colored material) placed off center on a burlap ground crudely roller-painted in thin, dry white.  The surface submits to the support.

Historically he comes out of art of early 1970s: He was much influenced at the outset of his career by an exhibition of Blinky Palermo, an artist included in the National Academy Museum’s current “High Times, Hard Times” survey of painting in the wake of Minimalism.  He is also one of several Americans (others of his generation being James Hyde and Craig Fisher) who have looked hard at the French Support-Surface movement.  But his new body of work seems much less concerned with the semiotics of painting as earlier efforts.

The exhibition includes things made in the last four years and is more compositionally busy than the previous show at the same gallery.  Titles reflect his travels in Asia (a recent Fulbright took him to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos).  There is still an insistence on texture over shape, however; while “Hoan Kiem” (2006) seems almost pictorial in the way menhir-like shapes populate a white groudn with a gray skyline, the eye is still detained by the rough scrapings away and rude applications of paint accentuating the materials beneath, in this case felt, muslin, burlap and gauze. 

Mangold until March 10 (545 W22nd Street between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 989 4263)

Grotjahn until February 28 (532 W20th Street between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 367 9663)

Fyfe until March 10 (1014 Madison Avenue between 78 and 79 Streets, 212 535 5767)

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