Wednesday, June 1st, 2005

Barbara Grossman: A Survey

New York Studio School
8 West 8 Street
New York NY 10011
212 673 6466

May 12 – June 26 2005

Barbara Grossman Musicale 1989-1992  oil on linen, 72 x 60 inches  Courtesy New York Studio School
Barbara Grossman, Musicale 1989-1992 oil on linen, 72 x 60 inches Courtesy New York Studio School

Barbara Grossman has achieved substantial recognition over the three decades of her exhibiting life. The reasons why are on view at the Studio School, the fourth and final stop of a traveling exhibition of painting, oil pastels, monoprints and drawings. It is accompanied by a well-illustrated brochure with an essay by painter and critic Hearne Pardee.

Calling the work “radiant and expansive,” Pardee gets to the heart of Ms. Grossman’s appeal. Here are color and pattern for their own sakes yet still tethered to the human figure in domestic interiors. Her figures-languid women in variegated dress-are less references to the real world of parlors and dining rooms than pretexts for juxtapositions of pattern and color harmonies. Even skin color surrenders its cue as a racial reference, providing either a contrast against background color or a means of sinking the form into the value range behind it.

I did not know Ms. Grossman’s work in the 1970s. For me, the surprise of this show is the earlier work and what it reveals about the creative decisions she has made.  “Apple Tree,” (1976) is a lovely charcoal that places the rightward droop of a branch in the exact spot the composition requires to fill the page as gladly as possible. The architectural emphasis of the bare tree provides accompaniment to the clear, schematic building lines of “Bassett Road House,” (1976). Her attention to structure is still fully apparent in “Louise in Rocker,” (1976), an oil that presages her chromatic skills but retains the spatial elements of firmly realized planes.

Ms. Grossman’s increased attachment to an overall design–in the abstract expressionist sense–is most apparent in the oil pastels and monotypes. Here, figures melt into their backgrounds; one textile evocation slides into another like the parts of multi-hued batik print. Constituent parts rise to  merge into a single prevailing pattern. This building up of pattern in ever-increasing complexity is attractive on its own terms; but it risks surrendering the psychological overtones that accompany figures in groups-what Graham Nickson called the “conversation” between these women.

Going forward, it would be good to see Ms. Grossman reassert her own linear grace and clarity. By re-establishing structure, attending more closely to it, she would strengthen the coloristic rhythms and harmonies she has chosen to emphasize. More precisely, it would observe the distinction between composition and decoration. The first applies to the establishment of structures, the other to their elaboration and and enrichment. Gombrich reminds us that, in music ornamentation has no effect on harmonics, on the progression of chords. It remains an embellishment, a grace note. In painting, too,  grace notes exist to serve the composition, not to obscure it.