Sunday, February 4th, 2007

Andrew Forge at Betty Cuningham Gallery

Until February 17
541 W. 25th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-242-2772

Andrew Forge Fall (For P,M.) 2000  oil on canvas, 44 x 36 inches Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery
Andrew Forge, Fall (For P,M.) 2000 oil on canvas, 44 x 36 inches Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery

Andrew Forge (1923–2002) was the author of shimmering abstract paintings of intense chromatic lyricism. His canvases are constructed from an even layer of closely woven, abutting colored dots, a kind of modernist update of Georges Seurat’s pointillism. His second notational device, a line about the size of a matchstick is an occasional usurper amid the dots, a queen bee among the workers.

Betty Cuningham has assembled 14 of his canvases and a selection of works on paper from the mid-1980s through 2001, shortly before his death from cancer. It is a joy to see the works under natural light. While there is a rigor and consistency to his technique, there is also significant variety in tenor and mood between different works, and varying degrees of elusiveness or legibility. His art has a quiet, intriguing beauty that rewards long, slow looking. But there is no getting away from the fact of hard work — they are (and were) a long haul for painter and viewer alike.

The works are as challenging to write about as they are to read. “Fall (For P.M.)” (2000) assembles green and yellow dots across its 3 foot width. Bands of alternating light and shade, forming an irregular wave pattern, are built up from an ebb and flow between the lighter and darker dots. There are intimations of geometric forms — a triangle, a parallelepiped — and while the boundaries are too vague and elusive for these to assert themselves, they intimate pockets of deeper space and varying qualities of light. Towards the bottom of the composition, blues of varying strength suggest a foreground, encouraging the rest of the painting to recede.

The paintings are arcane alike in what is depicted and the aesthetic intentions behind them, but Forge is hermetic, not systemic. He stands apart from the conceptual and minimal art of the 1970s, when his mature style formed, because however involved he was with his own language, his vision is rooted in perception, a desire to grasp reality. The general feel is of forms trying to emerge than of forms being submerged — as if the artist is genuinely doing his best to reveal structures rather than obtusely to conceal them.

Forge was a charismatic teacher, critic, and scholar. Among many artists about whom he wrote persuasively, Monet and Bonnard are most instructive in relation to his own work. The catalog is especially rewarding in its use of quotes from the artist about his artistic journey: It almost reads like an illustrated novel. The reception for the opening of his show was a gathering of several generations of alumni and faculty from institutions that revere him as a kind of artist-saint: Yale University, where he was a professor and dean from 1975 until his retirement in 1994, plus the New York Studio School, Cooper Union, Dartmouth College and others.

It was only after his retirement from Yale, however, that Forge really hit his stride as a painter. In his early career, in England, he enjoyed success as a figurative realist in the tradition of his teacher, William Coldstream. His embrace of abstraction in the 1960s came as a shock. But it is possible in retrospect to join the dots — no pun intended — between these disparate styles. What his fastidiously observed realism and intuitive abstraction have in common are the painterly virtues of slowness, fidelity, and thought. He was a friend and devotee of Alberto Giacometti and clearly shared his almost masochistic sense that truth is mortgaged to effort. There is a cult of the “hard won image” among School of London realists like Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud — artists, incidentally, for whom Forge curated an important group exhibition at Yale in the 1981 — which he clearly is part of.

Forge was strongly influenced by the art theorist Adrian Stokes, who made much of Michelangelo’s distinction between the carver and the modeler. Cearly, with his slow, deliberate method, Forge himself was a carver. Slowly, and without correction, each mark that went down had to really matter.  Even as vast numbers of dots and sticks accumulated, each mark had to pull its weight. Despite their weird craft, nothing is gratuitous in these highly wrought compositions.

If this all makes Forge sound dry, academic, and anally retentive, the experience of his paintings belies such an impression. However elusive the work is, looking at it is a joy. The colors are organic, mostly sunny or autumnal. The chromatic relationships are the kind observed in nature. Titles often indicate landscape as the motif. But the motif seems subsidiary to subject, which is more about the experience of looking than what is actually being looked at. Without being in any way illustrative of a scientific theory about seeing, the work seems to be about constructing a meaningful, truthful visual reality. The canvases deny the easy privileges of cognition, the imposition of meaning and order upon the mass of visual sensation—awakening us, in their strange, unfamiliar process, to deeper experiences of vision.