At the Galleries
The New York art world felt almost normal last season, with gallery openings and post-opening festivities (usually with vaccination status checked). The art fairs and outliers were back, albeit in less extravagant versions. Apart from these crowded festivals of greeting, opining, gossiping, and current aesthetic obsessions—which I was unwilling to brave—there was no lack of engaging art to be seen during the past months. Painting, especially abstract painting—with the meaning of “painting” expanded a little—was particularly visible, even at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s resurrected Biennial, “Quiet as It’s Kept,” originally scheduled for 2021. There was video, photography, and conceptually based work in abundance, on the exhibition’s dark, labyrinthian 6th floor or its light, open 5th floor, disconcertingly like a trade fair.
But the first works we encountered, leaving the elevator on 6, were two monumental, insistent black-and-white paintings by the late Denyse Thomasos (1964–2012), all jagged intersecting lines, harbingers of things to come. Elsewhere we encountered Leidy Churchman’s vast, dreamy triptych Mountains Walking (2022), testimony to how we read anything loosely painted and horizontal as landscape; Matt Connors’ crisp, bright, modest disquisitions on circles, triangles, and strange geometric shapes; and Cy Gavin’s explosive, obsessively stroked Untitled (Snag) (2022), pulsing between all-over gestural abstraction and a portrait of a weathered tree trunk.
Also notable were Ralph Lemon’s cheerful patchworks of bright hues, like homages to Paul Klee with the volume cranked up to maximum. James Little’s accomplished paintings essentially embodied the different moods of the installation. His trio of severe explorations of angled black and deep gray bars tested the limits of visibility on the dark 6th floor, while his pair of seductive white paintings, rhythmically excavated to reveal underlying layers, were high points of the light-filled 5th floor. And of course, there was much more, of many different persuasions.
I’ve been a fan of Claire Seidl’s deceptively forthright paintings and her mysterious photographs for years, so I was delighted that, late winter and spring, a broad view of her achievement was offered by exhibitions of paintings at David Richard Gallery, in Harlem, and paintings, monoprints, and photographs at 1GAP Gallery, in Brooklyn. Seidl’s work is clear, straightforward, and complex. At first, her paintings seem to be declarations of the basic requirements of picture-making—making marks and creating a surface. While loosely restating the vertical and horizontal givens of the canvas, Seidl invents a great range of touches and gestures, never disguising the necessary act of transferring paint to the canvas but instead making the results of that act into distinctive carriers of expression. Variations in the rhythm, scale, speed, and weight of her marks—fluid, abrupt, aggressive—combined with equally rich variations in color—delicate pastels, astringent saturations, moody monochromes—along with the shifting densities of the visual fabric of her pictures, all conspire to suggest not only different kinds of space and light, but also different moods and emotional temperatures. While there’s a strong family resemblance among Seidl’s works in all media, each is a stubborn individual.
Her unequivocally abstract, deliberately uningratiating paintings manage to suggest the instability of the natural world. Perhaps this is because of her parallel practice as a photographer, a relationship underscored by 1GAP Gallery’s showing the full range of her work in different disciplines. Seidl’s photographs, whether of the outdoors or of interiors, seem to question the nature of seeing. She records (with low light and long exposures) unremarkable things that we might otherwise ignore: corners of rooms, recently vacated dining tables, ragged shrubbery, the edges of woods. Her images are so elusive that we question our perceptions, while we enjoy the subtle orchestration of tones and soft-edged shapes; the half-glimpsed, blurred figures and twining branches; the pale silhouettes; and the suggestions of things we can’t quite recognize, both man-made and natural. Something similar obtains in Seidl’s paintings despite their abstractness: a sense of immanence, of the ungraspable, presented in assured, declarative terms. It’s what keeps us looking.
At Bienvenu Steinberg & Partner, in Tribeca, Jill Moser showed recent abstract paintings that must have surprised admirers who hadn’t been paying close attention. The works for which she is best known are drawing-like aggregations of energetic, layered lines, coiled into rounded shapes, in subdued, minimal hues. Last September, at Pamela Salisbury Gallery, in Hudson, New York, Moser showed new works startlingly unlike her linear paintings. The implied shapes of her previous images had become explicit, defined zones of radiant color. We sometimes recognized harmonies and rhythms related to earlier configurations, but it was the orchestration of full throttle hues that held us. Were these changes triggered by the isolation and stress of the previous 18 months or were they an inevitable development of the linear works’ suggestions? Either way, the results were compelling.
Moser’s new paintings develop all the implications of the lively works she showed last fall. Generous, mostly swelling shapes, in unmodulated, unnamable hues levitate, overlap, or delicately touch. Some expand across the field, while others taper, as if unable to escape the pull of the edge of the canvas. Without resembling anything specific, Moser’s shapes have an appealing corporeal quality, definite personalities, and implied mobility. And while she first convinced us that she was a virtuoso of subdued nuance, she turns out to be an exuberant colorist, playing tender greens and bold blues against a spectrum of yellows, punctuated with occasional pinks or purples. Matte surfaces enhance the chromatic drama, with a faint echo of Renaissance fresco. I first preferred the exhibition’s vertical rectangles because of the tension gained by the compression of the configurations, but I kept returning to a squarish horizontal, Hilma (2020), a bulging stack of orange, lemon, and celadon, seasoned with a little salmon pink, teetering on a suggested point. Hilma had been a star at Pamela Salisbury’s but seemed even stronger at second meeting. Like all of Moser’s most memorable works, Hilma was at once playful and profoundly serious. Moser’s new paintings seem to me among her toughest and most personal to date. I look forward eagerly to seeing what happens next.
The seemingly casually assembled, eccentrically shaped accumulations of overlapped, torn canvas by Al Loving (1935–2005) in “Emperor’s Clothing,” at Garth Greenan Gallery, in Chelsea, forced reconsideration of the definition of “painting.” Made between 1972 and 1976, they bear witness to Loving’s deliberate rejection of the hard-edge abstract paintings that won him instant acclaim after he moved to New York in 1968 and made him the first African American to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum the following year. In 1972, unnerved by his success and feeling that his work did not reflect the political and social upheavals of the time, Loving began to cut up his paintings, dying the strips, and using them as his palette. His radical removal of the canvas from the stretcher and refusal to create shapes and color relationships by subdividing a flat surface questioned the very nature of abstract painting at the time and informed the rest of his future efforts. (Loving wasn’t alone in issuing this challenge. The Washington-based artist Sam Gilliam had taken the canvas off the stretcher and draped it around the room even earlier, in 1965.)
The largest of Loving’s soft, eccentrically shaped works at Garth Greenan, an untitled works pair from 1973 and 1975, eight and almost nine feet wide, respectively, were like the gorgeous garments of some exotic, perhaps tribal potentate, hung against the wall, as if waiting to be put on. But they were also about the history of their making and their materials. Layers of elegantly varied, narrow strips, sometimes parallel, sometimes crisscrossed, echoed patchwork traditions but moved them into another realm. Loving’s color, in these works, is rich but dulled: faded oranges and violets, mottled siennas and browns, patchy maroons, veiled yellows, and black made pale, apparently by long use. The canvas strips are crumpled and unevenly dyed, as if made of some imperfect material or transformed by age. Contemplating these ambiguous objects, we began to think about the art and artifacts of non-industrialized societies, especially Africa, about the handmade and the expedient, about the passage of time and the ephemeral. At the same time, these associations with piecing and clothing soon turned into thoughts about Cubism and the history of Modernism. From the Impressionists on, Modernist artists often strove to maintain the appearance of speed and lack of calculation in their paintings, whether they had actually been made quickly or over an extended period. Henri Matisse was so successful at this that people assumed that his works were simply dashed off, effortlessly, prompting him to commission photographs recording the complicated evolution of his paintings, which he exhibited with the finished works. Loving’s mixed-media pieces in “Emperor’s Clothing” had the unstudied freshness we associate with improvisation, but gradually made their real complexity known, asserting a depth and straightforwardness that belied the ironic title’s associations with deception and delusion.
Also in Chelsea, Berry Campbell Gallery showed “Nanette Carter: Shape Shifting,” recent works that, like Loving’s mixed-media collages, ignore the traditional rectangle and traditional materials, while making their physicality and material presence crucial to their meaning. That similarity is not surprising. Loving was the much younger Carter’s close friend and a mentor. Yet despite her clear connection to the vibrant tradition of African American abstract art—she shares with Loving and Gilliam, for example, a faith in the expressive possibilities of process—Carter investigates terrain all her own. Her stubbornly abstract images are highly charged, like metaphors for things we can’t quite grasp. She exploits the way oil paint sits up on Mylar to invent seductive striations and scrapings, creating a distinctive palette of textures that modulates a range of blacks, greys, off-greens and blues, sparked with ochre and occasional hits of ultramarine. The most ambitious, largest works on view, Destabilizing #1 (2021) and Destabilizing #3 (2022), appeared to hover, unconstrained, against the wall, their overlapped shapes and bars seemingly coalescing only momentarily. We saw through parts of their configurations, so that the wall itself became part of the equation. In Destabilizing #1, a stack of emphatic black bars floated free of the piled image to claim new visual and spatial territory and pose interesting questions about illusion and object. Other recent wall-mounted works depended on openwork structures, like constructed sculptures or ritual objects, unhampered by concerns about support. Loving’s and Carter’s exhibitions briefly coincided, offering a fortuitous opportunity to explore the evidence of both resonance and independence in the work of these inventive colleagues and friends.
Despite the wealth of strong abstractions on view, some notable exhibitions of the past season were by artists faithful to the challenges of figuration. Kyle Staver’s “Tout Court,” at Half Gallery, on the Lower East Side, included skewed narrative paintings and, in the gallery’s annex, related reliefs. Staver is a modern-day history painter, fearlessly attacking time-honored, potentially exhausted subjects with abundant wit and gorgeous color. She confronts themes from mythology, the Bible, and fairy tales, or personifies the seasons, in off-kilter ways, staging unlikely moments from well-known stories, seen from surprising viewpoints, and frequently filtered through memories of her Minnesota childhood. Her dramas are enacted by contemporary characters freely rendered with sensuous shapes. Occasionally, she moves relatively normal scenarios into the otherworldly by playing havoc with scale. In Dolphins (2021), a pod of dramatically oversized smiling creatures, leaping in unison, all but overwhelm a small boat with two unconcerned women in bathing suits; the frothy white wake of an outboard motor, front and center, punctuates the painting, contrasting elegantly with the suave arcs of the dolphins.
If the generous forms, saturated color, and glowing light of Dolphins are characteristic of Staver’s work, the more or less plausible scenario is atypical. Most paintings in “Tout Court” dealt with concepts familiar from traditional narrative paintings, translated into Staver’s disconcerting language. In Spring (2020), a nude couple embraces under a canopy of a shorthand version of blooming wisteria, dwarfed by enormous red birds tending a nest. In Artemis (2022), the goddess, nude except for an open cloak and a crown, kneels by a fire, under a starry sky. We’re not in ancient Greece. Artemis is flanked by a portly, smiling bear and a confrontational moose; luna moths hover. In Boar Hunt (2022), the goddess rides a luminous blue horse and shoots arrows at a sounder (that’s the official collective noun) of long-snouted, improbably charming wild boars the color of old copper roofs. Elsewhere, a woman dances with a long-legged satyr and giant ducks make an autumn migration past a nude blond who reclines, only slightly more securely than Titian’s Europa, on the back of a flying deer, a blue scarf fluttering and matching nifty shoes on her tiny feet.
The reliefs, as intimate and pale as the paintings are demonstrative, large, and sumptuously hued, occupied the gallery’s annex, around the corner. Staver begins them when a painting is well underway, to work out lighting effects. (Nicolas Poussin did something similar.) There’s no one-on-one relationship between the two bodies of work, since the paintings evolve dramatically after the reliefs are completed, giving the studies independent life. Installed on facing walls of a narrow space, they were as engaging as the paintings were alluring. Staver charms us with her imagery and impresses us with the intelligence and accomplishment of how she puts images together. And that’s not to mention the fine paint handling and the delicious details that make us smile.
At Betty Cuningham Gallery, in another part of the Lower East Side, “Stanley Lewis: Paintings and Works on Paper” allowed us to savor some of this marvelously obsessive artist’s efforts to translate his hypersensitive scrutiny of his surroundings into marks on a surface. Many of the works, made between 2018 and 2022, were of the immediate surroundings of Lewis’ Massachusetts home, painted or drawn on the spot, usually over a long time. The subject matter seems straightforward, often things Lewis sees when he steps out of the house and has seen consistently over the years, at different times of day, in different seasons and weather. (The show also included works made in places where Lewis has spent extended periods, such as Lake Chatauqua, where he has often taught.) I’m stressing the artist’s close connection with his subjects because the duration of his observation informs his work. He often repeats motifs, returning to the same seemingly happenstance gathering of utilitarian objects on his property—a weathered table, a folding chair, a cinderblock, a length of snow fence—things not placed, but simply there. Lewis strives to be absolutely faithful to perception, trying to find painterly equivalents for all the incidents in his yard or the incredible multiplicity of midsummer New England vegetation, while also acknowledging the moments before burgeoning leaves blocked what he saw, and, at the same time, accounting for the alterations in his observations caused by turning his head, his small movements, or wind.
Lewis’ best paintings, like the exhibition’s View of the Garden with Orange Fence II (2020) and Backyard with a Wagon, Table and Chair (2022) bear witness to endless campaigns of work, with loaded surfaces and the traces of countless shifts and adjustments, some as radical as adding to the canvas or layering on patches to allow for modifications. Lewis’ color, while never literal, is intensely evocative. Somehow, he conjures up a palpable sense of place or cool spring light or summer afternoon sunshine with his crusty accumulations of paint. The tension between the paintings’ brute physicality, and their seemingly effortlessly discovered subject matter, keeps us closely engaged, even when we’ve recently seen other versions of the same motif. (The same is true of his similarly labor-intensive drawings.) It’s as if Lewis were rehearsing the entire history of perceptual painting and embodying the passage of time, while we watch. But we have to look long and hard. When we do, those apparently unpretentious views of his back yard, his garden, or the side of his house prove to be uncompromising and deeply mysterious. The mystery never fully disappears, but we can sense both Lewis’ pleasure in putting paint on canvas and the ferocity of his gaze.
A special pleasure, on this side of the Atlantic, was “Vincent Barré: Maisons/Ateliers,” at Corkin Gallery, in Toronto, a group of small bronze sculptures that were the internationally known French artist’s response to the restrictions of the past two years. Barré divides his time between Paris, a large studio south of Paris, and a smaller one in Normandy. He spent the lockdown in Normandy, sitting, as he described it “on a little chair before a pot of boiling wax, molding objects from thin slabs of wax, which I bend, shape, and curve,” a near-meditative process that resulted in a series of potent volumetric forms, later cast in bronze, the Retrait series. Barré, who often makes monumental cast iron works and has large public commissions to his credit, had made small bronzes before, but the pieces shown at Corkin, most about 18” high, were his largest to date. Elegantly displayed on minimalist tables and brackets designed by the artist, who was trained as an architect and studied with Louis Kahn, they evoked such disparate sources as primitive kitchen pots and Bronze Age armor, archaic sculpture, ancient tools, and domestic utensils, among many other objects from different cultures and periods, all scaled to the body and made to be handled and used. Barré is a widely traveled connoisseur of such diverse precedents, who has filled countless notebooks with exquisite drawings of kouroi, ancient artifacts, and vernacular and devotional objects from Asia. Even more powerfully, the Retrait sculptures’ blunt, sensual volumes also recalled the body, as if haunted by memories of the human figure.
As we moved around the works, some delicately balanced on slender “necks,” others with the overtones of sturdy limbs or voluptuous torsos, our associations were disrupted by volumes that revealed themselves as open “hulls”—Barré’s term—making us aware of the thinness of the bronze shell, of the relationship of interior to exterior, heightening our curiosity about the hidden parts of the inner space. We were shifted into the realm of abstraction, adding unequivocally Modernist associations to the echoes of the ancient past. Subtle patination, flushing into dull red or subsiding into near-black matteness, enhanced this sense of multivalence.
This kind of suggestive ambiguity is characteristic of Barré’s work and obtained, as well, in his crisp black-and-white monotypes, displayed in a separate space. Bold, graphic shapes, some like florid vegetation, others singular and expansive, were like flattened versions of the sculptures, their clean contours slightly softened by Barré’s process of repetitive stamping of the ink. Barré is well-known in France and elsewhere in Europe, but has shown very little in North America. The Corkin Gallery exhibition was a welcome antidote to that deficiency. Let’s hope there are more such occasions, perhaps even closer to home.