Thursday, July 1st, 2004

An Exhilarating Tension Between Depiction and Means: Eugène Leroy’s Watercolors

Eugène Leroy: Large Watercolors at Michael Werner Gallery

On view through July 9, 2004
4 East 77th Street, between Madison and Fifth avenues
New York City, 212 988-1623

Eugène Leroy works his magic slowly. The female nude (his usual subject) lurks among shadows-or at least, that’s the way it seems. When the image clicks, there are no shadows, but contradictory as it may sound, deep space and iconic presence. The nude is both made out of and hemmed in by a sumptuous overload of what read, initially, as gratuitous marks-dabs of pigment upon a heavily encrusted paint surface, or in the case of his charcoal drawings, a group of which are now on show at Michael Werner, scratches, rubbings, and scribbles on the large page.

Eugène Leroy, Nu, 1980-1985. Gouache, chalk, charcoal on paper, 42-1/2 x 29-1/2 inches. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery
Eugène Leroy, Nu, 1980-1985. Gouache, chalk, charcoal on paper, 42-1/2 x 29-1/2 inches. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery

But as you dwell upon his pictures, which both compel and reward attention, an unexpected economy emerges. The formal elements define something emotionally credible not despite but because of their nebulous, nervous, tenuous qualities.

Leroy, who died in 2000 at the age of 90, was a modern painter with old-fashioned tastes and preoccupations. He was a kind of latter-day Frenhofer, from Balzac’s romantic tale of painterly hubris, The Unknown Masterpiece. His touchstones were Rembrandt and Russian icons. He had a strong kinship with Giacometti -in his dogged, studio-bound search for authenticity – but in formal terms he found much that needed working out in Monet and Cézanne.

And yet untimeliness served his reputation well. In the 1980s he forged a belated, international repuation, riding the crest of the neo-expressionist wave; now he seems one of the most substantial and enduring of late Twentieth Century painters of the figure, a distinguished older cousin of the School of London painters, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and Lucian Freud.

He often drew a distinction, when talking about his work, between what he termed the painting and the image. This suggests a platonic notion of form – in which image is a priori, its reification inherently compromising – that contradicts the actual experience of his pictures, with their gutsy, expressionistic, tactile application and their fulsome, female presence. His nudes, once they emerge from obscurity and settle into view, actually have a classical roundness that recalls Maillol.

A conceptual separation of vision and execution seems at odds, as I say, with the striving for authenticity and real presence. But actually, a strange, uneasy, yet exhilarating tension between depiction and means makes sense of a dichotomy of seeing and making. He is an artist acutely conscious of boundaries, all the more so when he transgresses them. Often, a richly awkward almost desperate mark making is needed to denote the body in its physicality and otherness. And yet, for all their dualism, these works have no truck with a classic opposition of figure and ground, which would be a quick fix solution to his painterly dilemmas. His work is a constant struggle between the eye and the hand, rather than some effortless, serene accommodation of one to the other.

This comes out more strongly in his graphic works than his canvases. He is best known for oil paintings of unsettling impasto, where surfaces are heavily invested-literally and metaphorically. Color tentatively glows within a murky bog of pigment. Whereas in slowly accreted surfaces there is a harmony between the pace of facture and perception, in the graphic works, fast marks still make for slow reading. The relative clarity and definition to color and mark alike, and a rich sense of the inherent qualities of medium–gouache and chalk, only serve to heighten the conflicts between sensuality and form, touch and sight, real presence and projection or memory.

A version of this review first appeared in The New York Sun, July 1, 2004