Something about abstract painting attracts dogmatic criticism. Figurative painting is understood to belong to millenia-long traditions in which so much is possible that a degree of pluralism is inevitable. And yet, despite abstract painting’s rich 100-year history, with roots deep into visual culture beyond that brisk century, its champions still fall for the habit of issuing damning strictures as to what abstract painting is, should be, and ought not to be.
So, if you happen to support artists who make romantic, swirling, spatially ambiguous paintings, just let it be known in no uncertain terms that an opposite mode, such as diagrammatic flatness for instance, is anathema. The blame for this mode of criticism, by the way, lies with abstract painting itself. With so much emphasis on starkly specific formal means, abstract painting often feels didactic — as if its line of inquiry is a program or an agenda — in a way that is less likely to apply to painting with pictorial subject matter.
Two abstract painters of the diagrammatic tendency have strong shows up right now that mix this sense of intellectual mission with an idiosyncratic, whimsical personal touch that any romantic lyricist would be proud to possess. The two, Eve Aschheim (whose show closes this weekend) and Paul Pagk, tie in nicely with the current Robert Mangold exhibition at PaceWildenstein, reviewed some weeks ago: Like the veteran postminimalist with his serenely hand-crafted geometric abstraction, these younger artists revel in the tensions between line and color, flatness and texture. At once coolly schematic and expressive in the way materials are put down, all three make work that teeters between aloofness and investedness.
Ms. Aschheim, who is head of the Visual Arts Program at Princeton University, has a suite of drawings at Lori Bookstein in a two-person show shared with the sculptor Karlis Rekevics. Bothartists are at once hard-edged and robust, abstract and architectural. Mr. Rekevics uses cast plaster and electric lights to produce sensations that are at once ubiquitous and otherwordly (common-seeming street furniture rendered in aloof textures). Ms. Aschheim uses a similarly restrained palette, working in black-and-white gesso, ink and graphite on Duralene Mylar paper, giving her work an initial impact akin to architectural plans. As such, they are more like rough sketches than presentation drawings — offering a sense of spaces taking shape, of possibilities and eventualities being worked out.
Her marks have the quality of handwriting — as much as they take on the appearance of plans and diagrams, they can come across like elaborate geometric calculations, or scores for experimental music. But again, the score or the code is ever in transition. Her mark-making hovers between tentativeness and authority. The semi-transparent nature of her plastic-coated paper support is brought into play—working both sides, and sometimes it would seem inverting a page worked one way recto to complete it the other, verso, gives the impression of receding space, of layers, of and corrections.
Ms. Aschheim favors poetic titles like “The Summer Caesura,” “Industrial Strength,” “Guess Back It,” and “Plural Blur,” which a note explains were provided after the event by the poet David Shapiro. The fact of wanting poignant titles but not providing them oneself is of a piece with the strange mix of warm and cool, of purposive and nonchalant that permeates these enigmatic drawings.
In comparison with Ms. Aschheim, Mr. Pagk opts for forms that are solid, relatively contained, and emphatic about where they belong in relation to the surface and the frame. But this leaves plenty of space for an enriching sense of local decisions, of intuitive play.
Each canvas is painted predominantly in one strident color that forms its ground. The paint is oil tempera, a medium that, at least in Mr. Pagk’s handling of it, seems at once succulent and desiccated, and is laid down thickly, but without expressive impasto. A motif is then imposed upon the ground (it reads as if carved out of the impasto) — a shape that implies either a three-dimensional object or phenomenon, or a plan. Often the line is haloed by a third color, or blank canvas, or white underground. Each canvas is almost exactly square — off by 1 inch. This is typical of the kind of rule Mr. Pagk likes to set for himself, which could account for the way he comes off as both funky and programmatic.
“Lexicon Series #90” (all 2006–07), for instance, is 25 inches by 24 inches. In the top half of the canvas, a low rectangular box is described by somewhat rough, slightly off-kilter lines, reading like an projection of an architectural space. In the front plane, a suspended white rectangle pairs up with a similar rectangle below the box form. The solid shapes are thus flat against the implied depth of the open, linear structure.
In “#87”a drawn gray shape against a light pink ground is made up of strips of parallel lines that intersect to form an hourglass shape. Like the room in “#90,” the viewer is looking down at the shape at a diagonal of 45 degrees, although the shape is once again place high within the composition, forcing the average viewer to look up at something depicted as if it is being looked down at. Like Ms. Aschheim’s titles, Mr. Pagk’s strategy gives off an attitude that leaves the viewer danglingdangles between involvement and remoteness.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, March 8, 2007 under the title “Gallery Going: Idiosyncratic Intellectualism “