Thursday, September 23rd, 2004

Pat Lipsky at Elizabeth Harris, Richard Deacon at Marian Goodman, Richard Long at Sperone Westwater

Pat Lipsky at Elizabeth Harris through October 9 (529 West 20 Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212 463 9666)

Richard Deacon at Marian Goodman through October 7 (24 West 57 Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues, 212 977 7160)

Richard Long at Sperone Westwater through October 23 (415 West 13 Street, between 9th Avenue and Washington Street 212 999 7337)

Pat Lipsky Red River Valley #8 2004 oil on canvas, 81-7/8 x 62-1/2 inches Courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery
Pat Lipsky, Red River Valley #8 2004 oil on canvas, 81-7/8 x 62-1/2 inches Courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

Pat Lipsky is not merely the dean of current, hard-edged formal abstraction but its dominatrix. She offers color and shape relationships within structures of unrelenting rigidity. It’s ambiguous whether the disciplines to which she subjects the eye are for her own satisfaction or the viewer’s. And like a classic “dom,” a steely, seemingly dispassionate composure fronts seething reserves of aesthetic emotion.

It would be fanciful, however, to detect a range of emotion in her work: shifts in mood from canvas to canvas are as nuanced as the differences in hue between closely related colors within a single composition. The nine paintings in this, her fourth solo exhibition with Elizabeth Harris, adhere to a strict serial pattern: a pair of thicker columns flank and sandwich three thinner ones, with each column comprising unequal horizontal halves.

Color-wise there are subtly differentiated blacks and reds-the blacks restricted to the thinner columns, the reds free to wander-and more pronouncedly contrastive shades of blue and gray. The designs are almost, but significantly not quite, symmetrical. Reductive as her mode may appear, however, Ms. Lipsky-who began her career in the late 1960s-is no minimalist: More significant than its strictures and exclusions is her painting’s overt, if hard edged sensuality. Despite the egg-shell, matted finish with her affectless paint delivery, each bar within the grid pulsates with its obsessively sought color and context.

The compositions are set on a ground that forms a framing border: some are white, others gray. This device inevitably brings Josef Albers to mind, with his prim “Homage to the Square” sereis. As with Albers-and for that matter Mondrian, as ever the touchstone for serious abstract painters-Ms. Lipsky’s work demands a leap of faith on the viewer’s part. Her formally austere means aim to give the viewer a pure color experience . But the actual sensations engendered are divorced from the habitual life of the eye, taking the viewer to a conceptual place that’s *about* color rather than of it.

Even within Ms. Lipsky’s stringent limitiations, the recalcitrant eye can never dispel the possibilities of representation. The columns with their pulsating reds pushing perceptually backwards and forwards, beg also to be read, schematically, in terms of up and down, like pistons or syringes filling with liquid. Or else the blues, spied around corners in A-B-A sequences of up-down-up or down-up-down, try to insinuate themselves into sea and sky. Or allowing a musical analogy to take hold, they read like organ pipes filling with sound, or digital equalizers recording its fluctuations.

The more the eye is beaten into form for form’s sake, the more it wanders along extraneous paths of association, fantasy, analogy.

Richard Deacon Red Sea Crossing 2003 oak and stainless steel, sculpture in two parts: 64 x 136 x 126 inches,  80-1/4 x 204-3/4 x 153-1/2 inches Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery
Richard Deacon, Red Sea Crossing 2003 oak and stainless steel, sculpture in two parts: 64 x 136 x 126 inches, 80-1/4 x 204-3/4 x 153-1/2 inches Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery

The form vocabulary of Richard Deacon is in equal measure austere and exuberant. The attitude that comes across in his handling of materials similarly diverges between nonchalence and finesse: a maverick found object sensibility cohabits with a virtuoso celebration of craft. He is at once a maker and a finder.

He is part of a generation of British sculptors, including his friends Tony Cragg and Bill Woodrow, who rose to prominence in the early 1980s. This group was at pains to distance itself from formalism, seeking its antidote in humor, appropriation, and an English spin on the Italian minimal art movement, arte povera. And yet, among his peers Mr. Deacon could rarely supress a formalist bent. A body of work that remains almost his trademark despite the diversity of his output utilized sandwiched strips of ply laminate, the glue almost insolently oozing from its layers, to play out in whimsical, open, linear structures. They almost read like sculptural realisations of Brice Marden’s loops the way Calders can sometimes look like Miros in 3-D. Another American he often resembles, incidentally, is Martin Puryear, like whom he creates enigmatic forms out of studiedly non-art materials and processes.

Sometimes the collision of found and made is a little too causal for the artist’s own good. “Display Table,” (2001) places five readymade sculptural objects, rather like the pebbles and twigs Henry Moore liked to pick up on his rambles, on the prinstine, Donald Judd-like display table of the title. This is a forced culture clash which plays rather too hard for the wry smile it at best deserves. Usually, Mr. Deacon is more sophisticated in his style games.

The key to his aesthetic is the way he folds the values of the technologies he appropriates into the sculptural meaning of his best work. This doesn’t happen in a banal, symbolic way but subtly-more metaphor than simile. He is equally open to traditional and industrial age crafts. The latest works at Marian Goodman take his loop forms to a new pitch of baroque complexity without losing, indeed further reveling, in a nuts and bolts sense of facture.

The two part structure, “Red Sea Crossing,” (2003) entails multiple twists and convolutions, with steel-joined oak strips arching and doubling back on themselves. Forms oscillate between the distressed and the fluent, with a sense of commonplace stuff put to exotic ends. A great deal of the energy of the work has to do with bringing together the humble and the high, the honest and virtuoso. In this gorgeous and intriguing sculpture it is as if Bernini is being helped out by a crew of coopers and wheelwrights.

* * *

To view Richard Deacon and fellow Brit Richard Long on the same Chelsea morning is to savor the distinction between a career that balances radicalism and craft and one that sacrificed the former to the latter. Mr. Long is a conceptualist turned would-be shaman. He staked his claim in the 1970s to very considerable international attention with a set of iconoclastic gestures that entailled long walks, minimal landscape interventions, precisionist documentation, and rather prissy arrangements of rocks in circles.

At his best he taps into forms sublty suggestive of the primordial and the prehistoric, but the ease and elegance with which he can now fill gallery upon gallery with his trite decorations-paintings on plywood with rings of slick hand prints and artful dribbles of mud-is a sad object lesson in what happens if the kind of tension between facture and thought that animates the work of artists like Mr. Deacon and Ms. Lipsky is absent. The thinker for whom making was beneath him has become a fabricator for whom thinking is beyond him.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, September 23, 2004