Friday, April 9th, 2010

John Griefen: Recent Paintings at Gary Snyder Project Space

March 4 – May 1, 2010
250 West 26th Street
New York City (212) 929-1351

installation shot of the exhbition under review
installation shot of the exhbition under review

For the last century and a half, modern painters have striven (through instinct rather than conviction) to create works with rewards for the eye which a camera cannot convey or match. John Griefen carries the process to a new extreme with monochromatic paintings whose rich, subtly textured surfaces are fiendishly difficult to reproduce.  To get their full impact, with their many voluptuous colors, sizes, shapes and distinctive surface, one really needs to see the original works.

Gary Snyder, who is displaying them, perceives analogies between these paintings and the nearly monochromatic black paintings of Ad Reinhardt from the 1950s.  Other observers may be reminded of reductive painters of the 1960s, like Jo Baer or Darby Bannard, but Griefen’s art is conceived differently and has arrived more recently at a uniquely twenty-first century image.  Reinhardt’s monochromes, with their latent checkerboard patterns, were developed through simplifying the geometric abstractions that he was painting in the 1940s and exhibiting with the American Abstract Artists. The “post-painterly” generation who came of age in the19‘60s were rebelling against the loose, expressionist brushwork of Willem de Kooning, and second-generation Abstract Expressionists like Michael Goldberg and Alfred Leslie. Griefen’s art has gone through a more complex evolution than Reinhardt’s without resorting to the revolutionof minimal art. The painter who stands closest to Griefen on his artistic family tree is Jules Olitski.  Some of Olitski’s admirers are taken aback by Griefen’s painstakingly-achieved ultra-simplicity, but in truth these new paintings incorporate Olitski’s concern with surface, gently but firmly structured into a new synthesis.

In 1998 I  included a painting by Griefen in a group show I curated for the Tribes Gallery.  That painting, while lovely, was still in Olitski’s orbit, with subdued colors and loose, free sweeps of paint. In the next six years, Griefen gradually evolved into his current idiom. It was first displayed at the Salander-O’Reilly gallery in 2004, though only in a somewhat limited range of pictures, similarly shaped and much the same size.  More recently, Griefen’s way of making such paintings has become increasingly sophisticated. Though none of them bear any titles, each picture must be different, and each color that he chooses must be matched to its own individual shape, color and size.  In the current show, one wall pairs a large, muscular deep purple vertical composition with a gracefully long, narrow, horizontal canvas of palest mauve. Another wall combines one bold orange canvas with two smaller, more modest green ones (one light, one dark). A third wall contrasts one black canvas with a lemon yellow one.  In Snyder’s office hang a smallish, medium green, diamond-shaped painting, a handsome royal blue vertical one and a long, narrow, horizontal cream-colored one.

John Griefen, Untitled (lavender), 2008. Acrylic on canvas, 32 x 103 inches. Courtesy, Gary Snyder/ Project Space
John Griefen, Untitled (lavender), 2008. Acrylic on canvas, 32 x 103 inches. Courtesy, Gary Snyder/ Project Space

Brilliantly assembled this way by Mr. Snyder, the ensemble represents a series of very carefully thought-out painting decisions — yet never do the results look cold or calculated. Instead, they’re characterized by warmth and a feeling of personal involvement.  Each painting has been built up individually from at least two layers of paint, enriched by interference and gel.  Griefen works on the floor, spreading first a layer of under-painting, then going on to the topmost layer. He uses a push broom for mixing and spreading the paint that leaves the many narrow, horizontal ridges in the paint that are his leitmotif.  And he stays with each painting until – as he says –  it “knocks me out,” and “has a softness I really love.”