Hard-Edge Happiness: The Paintings of Harvey Quaytman
Harvey Quaytman: Hone at Van Doren Waxter
February 22 to April 28, 2017
23 East 73rd Street, between Madison and Fifth avenues
New York City, vandorenwaxter.com
Harvey Quaytman (1937-2002) came of age as a painter when abstract painting was beleaguered. The Pop Artists wanted to depict figurative subjects; the minimalists, to work in three dimensions; and the conceptual artists, to abolish the physical art work entirely. In looking rather to traditions of geometric abstraction, Quaytman employed another starting point, one that had been explored by Mondrian and his many followers and, more recently, by such diverse American figures as Ellsworth Kelly, Peter Halley and Kenneth Noland; and, of course, by Carmen Herrera, who recently had a show at the Whitney. Hard-edge abstraction can be very varied. Some of them project utopian models, but they can also model architecture—as in Kelly’s early paintings or social structures, as Halley claims of his art. Quaytman’s paintings were highly distinctive. There wasn’t any political agenda attached to them. Nor were they accompanied by any theorizing—he didn’t write about his painting. And so the critic who wants to place his work in art’s history must look and speculate. In the 1980s when I met him, I got to know a great many abstract painters. Harvey was the happiest artist I had the pleasure of meeting. I think, even if you never met him, you can see that happiness in these paintings— which are consistently exhilarating and visually buoyant. And in our art world, that is a great achievement.
Alternate histories can be revealing. What if Hitler had been assassinated in 1933, if the Japanese had not attacked Pearl Harbor, or if, as Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union proposes, Israel had not survived, leaving many Jews to take refuge in Alaska? A comparable art historical might-have-been concerns the fate of the Russian avant-garde. If the pioneering abstractionists in the USSR had been allowed to develop, our history would be inconceivably different. Malevich’s Suprematism (Blue Triangle and Black Rectangle) (1915) looks disconcertingly similar to Frank Stella’s physically larger abstract works from the late 1960s. And Vladimir Tatlin’s Counter Relief (1914-15) could have been shown seventy years later in a New York gallery devoted to contemporary sculpture. If abstraction had developed early in the twentieth century, then avant-garde art would legitimately be associated with communist politics. But as it is, Abstract Expressionism was the art of the victors. A passionate belief in the compelling power of personal expression made this art possible. Only a culture with enormous self-confidence could create such art. And so then in the next generation, Quaytman could take up the tradition of geometric abstraction, in a self-confident, but less arrogantly assertive manner.
The nine works in this show, which were made between 1983 and 1990, are very varied. One, Union Square, Tantra (1982-83) is a shaped canvas, with irregular top and bottom blue shaped edges, framing a small black-and-orange plaid in the center. Some of them, Jacob’s Coat (1984); Vital Attractions (1990); and also Marienburg (1985), the strongest work in the exhibition, are built around cruciforms. And Hone (1988) is a blue-black and white trapezoid, pressing towards to the left edge. Quaytman’s basic compositional motif involves recognizable deviations from bilateral symmetry. Thus in Untitled (1983) he in effect twists the left bottom corner of an otherwise symmetrical black frame on gray background; in Jacob’s Coat (1984) behind the symmetrical black cruciform are narrow verticals left of center and on the far right edge. And in Vital Attractions (1990) behind the centered blue cruciform is a blue square displaced left of center. The effect of these departures from symmetry is to give energy to the compositions. Genius, so Immanuel Kant wrote in his Critique of the power of Judgment (1790), is “a talent for producing that for which no determinate rule can be given.” To judge art, he explains, requires adducing rules, which cannot be identified in advance “from the product.” And he then adds: “How this is possible is difficult to explain.” This statement perhaps helps suggest why Quaytman’s art is difficult to explain. Some abstract painters of Quaytman’s generation worked in series. And many of his contemporary peers adopted frankly repetitive modes of composition. Refusing to settle down in these ways, he showed that the resources of geometric abstraction are surprisingly rich. Certainly the effect of this group of pictures is visually self-evident—they convey immediate visual pleasure.