Tuesday, March 1st, 2005

Larry Zox: Five Decades


Stephen Haller Gallery
542 26th Street
New York 10001

February 26 to April 5, 2005

Larry Zox Green Diamond Drill: Keokuk 1968 acrylic on canvas, 80 x 64 inches Courtesy Stephen Haller Gallery

One of the down sides of the Greenbergian formalism in the 1960s was its insufficient appreciation of how the energy and aggression, first of the Civil Rights movement and then the anti-Vietnam War protests, may have infiltrated the art of the period. While this synthesis of reductive art and aggressive energy is perhaps more apparent in non-painterly pursuits such as the complex, geometric sculpture of Barry Le Va (good examples of which can be found in the current survey of his work at the ICA in Philadelphia through April 3. 2005), I would like to argue that a similar, if more low key, synthesis can be found in a range of Larry Zox’s works currently on view at the Stephen Haller Gallery in Chelsea. There is perhaps a rough correspondence between Le Va’s broken plates of glass and Zox’s broken planes of color. Each artist creates a broken geometry that releases an energy that encourages the viewer to do more than meditate as his or her responsive eye becomes embodied. It is this energy that I propose gives the edge to the dynamic, hard-edge paintings of Larry Zox. This edgy energy manifests itself in the way the color field is split into angular color areas separated by canvas channels, the earliest example in this exhibition being the splendid “Diagonal I” (1965). Despite this separation, the colors interact dynamically as they try to complete the broken geometries; triangles and polygons trying to reconstitute themselves create a color field under tension. Further tension is created by Zox’s ability to juggle both sour and sweet colors–orange, red, yellow, green, purple and unnamable blues vie for attention. These spatial and color dynamics are jointly present in “Green Diamond Drill: Keokuk” (1968), perhaps the most realized single work in this survey. And then there are the wonderful blacks. It is black that I propose that enables Zox to orchestrate color combinations that, in the best works, are simultaneously hot and cool as in jazz. Indeed, these interlocking units of color achieve the kind of shared rhythm we experience with a good dance partner. But this is no waltz; it is the era’s twist in all its funky joy.

Larry Zox Scissor Jack for Jean 1965 acrylic on canvas, 90 x 138 inches Courtesy Stephen Haller Gallery

More generally, Zox’s “tough love” color-field formats whether they be in the Diamond Drill, Rotation, Scissors Jack, or Diamond Cut series, more than hold there own with competing color field painters, be they Stella, Olitski, Frankenthaler, Noland or Dzubas. These so-called Post-Painterly Abstraction painters look soft and “pretty” compared to Zox’s best work such as “Green Diamond Drill: Keokuk” (1968), Diamond Cut series (1966) or “Scissor Jack for Jean” (1965). Indeed, looking a fresh at these works and seeing the “Protractor” paintings of Frank Stella from the same general mid-to-late 60’s period (currently at Jacobson-Howard (March/April, 2005) and Kasmin (through March 26, 2005), Zox’s paintings hold up better. They are less decorative and hermetic; they are more dynamic both pictorially and in terms of being better attuned to the energy of the period. As, however, Zox becomes interested in seeing color in more puristic terms, the energy literally flags. First, slowly in the Gemini series, then more quickly in the static but coloristically beautiful color-field works of the early 70s (not included in this show). Zox temporarily appears to lose his color compass in works such as Weshcubb (1993). Here the drawing elements interfere with the color field interactions. The good news, however, is that in the most recent Zox painting in the exhibition, “Algonkin I” (2004), color and line have begun once more to work well together.

Whether the new work can match the best of Zox’s work from the mid-to-late 60s may, however, be besides the point. In the sixties, Zox achieved a brilliant synthesis of form, line and color that transcended the softness of Greenbergian Post-Painterly Abstraction. In effect, Zox reached back to the rhythmic geometrics of Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie”, adding to Mondrian a dazzling array of color pyrotechnics.

  • Scott Bennett

    Sweeping generalizations never work when speaking about art. I have also never understood how political movements and their aggression and energy have ever made art better. Zox is a terrific painter. Period.

    Finally, I don’t see how a great Noland circle painting, or a great mural size, horizontal Dzubas, for instance, looks soft or pretty comparitively. I see the zig zag shapes in a Zox and I like these paintings very much, however, to suggest that there is something better in those more aggressive shapes as compared to more rounded shapes or more painterly edges, makes no sense to me.

    I agree with your comments on his use of black, and the way the canvas breaks work, and with your comparison to Mondrian.

    • Reuben M. Baron

      Whether or not the political milieu affects the nature of art within a given time period is an empirical question. Given that the work of Picasso and Matisse were severely affected by the trauma of World War I—each backed off from his most experimental work, it is certainly possible (I said “may” in my review) that the Viet Nam War and the Civil Rights Movement affected Zox’s paintings. And by affected, I refer to influences which do not necessarily operate at a conscious level. To not allow this as a possibility is to fall into another kind of generalization—Greenbergian Formalism.

  • Divya

    Thanks Matthew. I hope you’re able to make it to the show. It was an interesting show to curtae. I am typically very anal about installing shows (as you know!) and it was weird relinquishing some control. While I do look at some walls and fight the urge to adjust the placement of the work, I think the installation works. It really does feel loose. I wanted something between a rigid install like I normally do and an Art-o-Matic like free for all. You’ll have to let me know what you think when/if you see it in person.As for the show being my last, well, in a way it’s my first. My role as Assistant Director (really Curator of Exhibitions might be more accurtae) came to an end with the Andrew Au and Andrew Krieger solo shows. This show was curtaed as an independent curator. I’ll be curating another show there in late 2009. I will also be having a solo show there in March 2009.I really enjoyed the experience of mounting those shows and learned a ton. I hope to find a similar position down the road.