Calisthenic Abstraction: Four Decades of David Row
David Row: Four Decades of Painting at Loretta Howard Gallery
February 18 to April 2, 2016
525 West 26th Street
New York City, (212) 695-0164
The work of New York painter David Row has been labeled “conceptual abstraction” but the unabashed physicality of his work—of which 15 choice examples are on view at Loretta Howard Gallery—suggests “calisthenic abstraction” as an equally apt designation. This exhibition’s checklist spans the promised 40 years, from 1976 to the present, and every painting is as much a material presence as it is a pictorial conundrum.
Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column” is recognizably the source for the vertical, zigzagging motif in Koloph I (1986), implying that it might imaginatively extend beyond the top and bottom edges of the canvas. A pictorial field that seems too small to accommodate the figure—that is, in which the boundaries of the canvas or panel appear to crop the image—has long been crucial to Row’s compositional strategy. Variously reiterated, it yields all manner of spatial displacement and disjunctions. But this instability is carefully controlled, meticulously planned—another paradox that only deepens the pleasure this stunning show affords.
If the truncated figure/cropped ground is the exhibition’s through-line, the clearest evolution from Row’s early years to the 1990s is coloristic. Whereas Koloph I makes its point with just three hues—a brooding blue; a dense, cold gray; and black—the surface of Split Infinitive (1993) is scraped and repainted and scraped again, producing complex optical blending. Roughly approximating mustard yellow and blue-black from a distance (and in images), the surface is streaked and flecked with pale cadmium green, teal blue and a tamped-down alizarin crimson. The painting features concentric ellipses, a signature device that emerged in Row’s work of the early 1990s. The artist’s take on the ellipse—a foreshortened circle—is described by band of unvarying width, and thus both does and does not occupy illusionistic space.
At 7½ by 12 feet, Wind Cools Itself (1996) is still more chromatically complex, resonating in both major and minor keys. The wind in question is no balmy zephyr, but a gale that howls through the painting, rattling its shutters. Across a black ground smeared with white and green a great coiling band unspools through a scraped and squeegeed zone of underlying Popsicle orange, candy pink and lime green; qualifying its dominance is a vertical panel (more oranges and greens!) in which screened grids of tiny dots buzz. It is the most unhinged painting in the show, teetering on the edge of chaos. Row admires Indian painting; this work’s title might refer to a well-known Basohli gouache-on-paper work from 1730 in which a parti-colored cleft in the rocky Himalayas encloses a swarm of serpents, and trees with dot-filled green blobs for foliage. The deep space beyond—the heavens?
A grid of rather larger screen-printed dots is way up front in Here and There (2003), laid over an interlacing of flat brushstrokes that resembles a nightmare freeway interchange seen from high above. The grid reads as a pixelated scrim, with orange on the left half, green on the right. As in other works, bifurcation suggests two sides of the same coin; “Here” might be the picture plane, “There” the middle ground into which the brushy figure recedes.
The gallery’s walls feel crowded, but it is pointless to quibble over any specific inclusion; Row’s trajectory has been rich and varied, and the gallery is not enormous. Among the surprises is Omega (1991), in which concentric ellipses in charcoal and ink are distributed across the top sheets of three intact, contiguous watercolor blocks—an unconventional use of a traditional material. It echoes the three-canvas structure of the closely related Split Infinitive, which hangs nearby. Row’s work in fresco merits mention also, particularly Dean Street Special (1990), a somber study in brick red and olive green. The eccentrically rectilinear support’s chunky thickness almost—almost—eliminates the window-like illusionism of the picture’s face.
In recent years, the artist has worked on irregular polygons with (usually) six or seven sides, of which none is perpendicular or parallel to the edges of the framing wall. This family of shapes relates to the silhouettes of the artist’s smallish, cast-glass “Lighttraps” sculptures. But an understated horizontal/vertical axis, keyed to the painting’s center, anchors the work’s equilibrium—in Elektor (2013), it provides a spectral, yellow-orange ellipse another compositional structure to confront.
The familiar claustrophobic tension of ellipses expanding outward to press against a polygonal boundary is present also in Joule (2016), but its surface (it is oil on wood panel) feels significantly less worked-over; it is fresh, even lively. A smoldering red-orange peeks out from between the inner, blackish ellipse and its whitish surround; stirred up here and there, turning pink, are traces of this underpainting, which also resides in a diagonal incision slicing across the panel from top to bottom. The humming visual energy of Joule is quite unlike that of the strenuous Wind Cools Itself, or the workmanlike problem solving of Split Infinitive, or the radiance of Elektor. Each is unmistakably Row’s, and each reveals a different side of this artist’s restless intelligence.