Thursday, June 2nd, 2005

Sean Scully at Galerie Lelong, Ron Gorchov at Vito Schnabel

Sean Scully at Galerie Lelong until June 25
528 W 26 Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212 315 0470

Ron Gorchov at Vito Schnabel until June 25
250 Hudson Street, between Broome and Dominic, 212 627 7011

Sean Scully Raphael 2004 oil on linen, 108 x 144 inches Courtesy Galerie Lelong
Sean Scully. Raphael 2004 oil on linen, 108 x 144 inches Courtesy Galerie Lelong

Perhaps it is his name that sets it off, but Sean Scully’s show of new paintings at Lelong inspires an alliteration of adjectives: sumptuous and satisfying (his most to date), the work is strong, sensual, cerebral, simple, subtle. Something in his pared-down formal vocabulary warrants such dumb language play: the hallmark of his style is a kind of mute lyricism. Think of him as a tabla player, extracting unexpected reserves of melody and variety from a percussive instrument.

There is something very remarkable in an artist who develops a form without becoming formulaic. Mr. Scully pairs and arranges rectangles of contrasting and closely hued color in vertical and horizontal patterns to form organic grids. His paintings are a kind of Rubik’s Cube, only the aim is the opposite of resolution. He has been pursuing this idiom for years yet, however trademarked the Scully look has become, there is always a sense of fresh discovery in each work. Mr. Scully’s form is a vehicle, not a destination: Patterns, together with color, gesture, and application, are always at the service of painterly emotion.

Since eschewing the somewhat theatrical devices he favored earlier in his career — such as placing one canvas within another or juxtaposing supports of varying size — Mr. Scully has become more aware of the intrinsic value of composition as something within the painting process. He can be credited with saving the grid from Minimalism, for however simplified and single-minded his approach appears to be, his art is anti-serial.

This partly has to do with the built-in ambiguity of his basic unit: Thicker than the brushstrokes from which it is made, the Scully lozenge is too wide to be a stripe, but it doesn’t settle down to being a self-contained field, either. Each shape is invested with a restrained muscularity that gives it internal tension, then is set with subtle, deliberate misregistration that allows glimpses of ground behind, setting the forms alight. Despite their obstinate abstractness, his lozenges tease perception: Two arranged horizontally struggle to avoid connotations of sea and sky; vertically, they inevitably seem figural.

The largest new painting, at 9-feet-by-12, is “Raphael” (2004). Compared with the quilt-like compositions that flank it at Lelong, it is a busy, complex picture. Resolutely asymmetrical, it keeps the eye guessing with shifts of scale, temperature, tempo. Mr. Scully’s rectangles are generally double-square, doubled or tripled to form sets that are then arranged in relation to other sets. The top of the bottom horizontal line serves as a kind of horizon, grounding the composition.

This bottom line is made up, from the left, of a triple horizontal stack of black sandwiched by fleshtoned pink; a vertical pair in gray and lighter pink; a horizontal pair in black and blue; and a vertical triple, this time in a grays, darker flanked by lighter. The penultimate pair, the black and blue, occupy an entirely separate pictorial register, and lead the eye into a deep space with its implied marine nocturne, making the viewer more aware of the decorative flatness of the other shape relationships. Pictorially, it is a cat among the pigeons, tensing the relations between the various sets, sending the eye into ricochet.

Ron Gorchov Entrance 1972/2005 oil on cotton canvas 15 x 20-1/2 feet Courtesy the artist
Ron Gorchov, Entrance 1972/2005 oil on cotton canvas 15 x 20-1/2 feet Courtesy the artist

Sean Scully’s flaglike arrangements sometimes flirt with heraldry, but Ron Gorchov’s outlandish creations sail off into the sunset with it. His sculptural, walk-through paintings arouse Medieval fantasies, as do the vaguely menacing, totemic, shieldlike supports, with their improvised, brutal-naïve decorative patterns, that loom from the walls.

Mr. Gorchov’s exhibition, his first in over a decade, offers an overview of his work since the 1970s, when he evolved his distinctive style. He enjoyed initial success with Abstract Expressionist-derived work in the late 1950s but dropped out of the scene with the advent of Pop Art, feeling his work to be “retarded” in comparison. For many years he taught at Hunter College, where his mentor was Tony Smith. This show is being presented in a temporary, downtown space — a showroom that’s raw and tall, like the work — by teenage impresario Vito Schnabel, son of painter Julian, an old friend of Mr. Gorchov’s.
With these scraps of biography, it is tempting to view the work as a kind of bridge between the existential Minimalism of Smith and the gutsy, operatic, neo-expressionist bravado of Mr. Schnabel. The comparison is actually not so glib: This work grows out of the pared-down language of high Modernism to forge something personal and emotionally resonant. The quest also bears comparison with Mr. Scully’s: Both men work from basic blocks,and though Mr. Gorchov’s solution is more theatrical than Mr. Scully’s, both are sophisticatedly simple and subtly strong.

“Entrance” (1972), with an upper element reconstructed in 2005, is 15 feet high and, at its top, almost 20 feet wide. Constructed out of curved saddle-like supports painted on its convex front in bright solid colors, it has flanking walls of equal height, one made of four such forms, the other six shorter ones. This creates an entrance you can walk through and supports two mammoth planks in blue and gold. Behind, you are free to view the neat, solid, strident carpentry. The experience combines fairground, stage-set, Stonehenge, and all the theory you have ever read about support and surface, illusion and reality.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, June 2, 2005