Monday, August 1st, 2005

Paint it with Black

Betty Cuningham Gallery
541 West 25th Street

This review first appeared in The New York Sun, July 21, 2005.

Christopher Martin Here (For Wallace Berman and Hilma AF Klint) 2005 oil on canvas, 135 x 114 inches Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery
Christopher Martin, Here (For Wallace Berman and Hilma AF Klint) 2005 oil on canvas, 135 x 114 inches Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery

Black is the primary color of the creative classes; every artling sports it. Now Betty Cuningham Gallery is trying it on the walls in a “search for resonant symbols”. Despite curator Phong Bui’s unsmiling jargon (“centralizing black as a mediating agent”), the search turns up merrier widows than expected.

Dead black barely exists in nature and is often ignored by painters as a palette color. Lustrous blacks can be created from colors that lose their identity mixed at full intensity and, touched with white, create inimitable grays. Everything here looks straight from the tube, surprising for work intended to “broaden the meaning of black.” But not to niggle. Good painting is on view, even some color.

The pictorial language of Forrest Bess and Thomas Nozkowski, a dialogue between abstraction and description, suits this scant palette. An isolated, self-described visionary Modernist, Bess (1911-1977) exhibited with Betty Parsons from 1949 to 1967; his work is rarely seen anymore. This small untitled painting (c. 1952) evokes moonlight over water by adjusting textures heightened by a few well-aimed strokes of white. Simplicity of form, refined edges and command of paint quality combine in Mr. Nozkowski’s untitled oil (1995). Luminous egg shapes play against a series of tenebrous, filamented placentas, each one bounded by subtle threads of near-purple.

One arresting (untitled, undated) painting by Nick Carone, haunted with elusive color, hints at human form emerging—inchoate and with difficulty—from unlit chaos. It makes Terry Winters and Phiilip Guston, nearby, look facile and dull. Joan Waltemath lends optical interest to tube black by manipulating refractive capacity with iron filings, interference pigment and metallic powders. Her “Universe is a Square” (1996-99), rectangles of pure color floating over a beautiful surface, is the single geometric abstraction with emotive power. In Norman Bluhm’s “Silent Vamp” (1980), undulant ebony forms press against each other with volumptuous abandon, squeezing high color through the interstices.

Displayed in its own niche, Bill Jensen’s “Black Madonna” (1978) is a ghostly tar baby surrounded by dripping slashes. It has the necrophiliac charm of an album cover for a death metal band: Our Lady Queen of Demonstealers. What was Jensen listening to in ‘78? Alice Cooper? Black Sabbath? Judging from “Death’s Door” (2003-4), he’s still listening.

Christopher Martin’s prominently positioned “Here (For Wallace Berman and Hilma AF Klimt)”, 2005, is an over-amplified cipher crudely inscribed in white and bisected by a cable-like line with a box in the center—a dumbwaiter to nowhere. The thing reminds us how far art has traveled from obligation to the visual. Art is now the mark of an artist’s presence: something left behind, like paw prints. It also reminds us that the word curator is misleading. Less the disinterested expert of popular piety, a curator is frequently an agent for artists, dealers or collectors.