After the Fall:
Aspects of Abstract Painting Since 1970
Snug Harbor Cultural Center through June 29

by Jeanne C. Wilkinson

If this collection of diverse paintings can be said to exemplify trends, abstract painting has gained, rather than lost, force in the last thirty years. In spite of numerous (and continuing) declarations about the death of painting, abstraction has thrived in spite of the denials. Or maybe, to some degree, because of the denials. Recently I read something about the deliciousness of poetry how the less favored it is by the public, the more erotically charged it becomes. Could painting also be an aphrodisiac of covert pleasure, a secret vice, an esoteric obsession?

Certainly since the seventies, many artists have worked hard to deny art's physical nature, as if any positive visceral experience or enjoyment to be had while regarding an object somehow demeaned serious thought. Artists made efforts to bypass the eye with its penchant for pleasure an iconoclastic urge, contradictory and difficult to pull off. Question: how can art be done and denied at the same time? Answer: with sleight-of-hand maneuvers like inserting irony, incoherence, political content, anger, or all of the above into art, and by aiming for verbal synapses less swayed by sensual input than the eye. The idea, if it can be called an idea, was that harsh art might raise a spark, a shock to jolt the mind into thinking instead of just seeing, or at least into thinking that it was thinking, and not about pleasantries like color and form, but deep thoughts, hard thoughts that had to be faced up to. Add pain to this mix and the viewer might begin to believe that the whole thing was a truly memorable experience of great import.

Abstract painting, of course, did and does not fit well into this trend of trompe l'esprit art. The internal meanderings and struggles in abstract painting are subtle, immediate and ineffable; the intensity of the engagement limits the artist's concern with viewer reaction. Relationships formed between artist and art are too vital and personal to be diluted by the half-life issues of irony and the politics of anger. And here is the true irony. The issues of color, form, space and movement are deep, complex and time-consuming, making them more easily avoided than understood. It is simpler to declare abstract painting dead (or worse, irrelevant) than to face the difficulties, regardless of reward.

But here is this exhibition, including over 120 abstract paintings, lurking like Postmodernism's dirty, delicious little secret across the bay in Snug Harbor, within the former home for "aged and decrepit" men of the sea, behind vast Greek columns, inside Classical Revival architecture decorated with anchors and waves and knotted ropes.

The curator, Lilly Wei, a friend of mine, has gathered together the work of about 80 painters, and arranged them by decade (70's, 80's and 90's) and, to a degree, by motif. The extent and range of imagery and techniques within abstract painting is given full play. There is less difference than one might suppose between the decades an immediacy or fundamentality inhabits these paintings both old and new. To look at them is to sense being outside of history, even outside of time, connected less to an era than to a continuity within the permutations of matter. This exhibit illuminates the constancy and inconstancy of form.

Many paintings from the seventies Al Held's skeletal linearites, Frances Barth's velvety colors, Bill Jensen's intuitive shapes seem like old friends. In their imagery lies comfort and pleasure stemming from a sense of resolution; their earlier struggles with form and structure have borne fruit. But complacency also appears in some earlier work as here and there stylization swallows up experimentation.

But in the 80's, satisfaction disappears as painting goes on the defensive, becoming strident and stressed in efforts to prove not only its validity but its continuing existence. Painting's inner spirit gives way to an outer hysteria, relying on those trompe l'esprit techniques, and closing ranks in formations of stylized sterility. "Bad" is at its peak and irony invades like a debilitating disease. David Diao's work exemplifies this phenomenon. In Wealth of Nations, 1972, he employs rich, deKooning-ish mayonaisey paint, layer after layer, in a composition both lush and subtle. Yet in 1989, his work sheds texture and sensuality and gains a message of ironic intent about the nature of "Push- Pull" dogma. The word "Greenberg" is included in the dry composition in case we don't get it. Some of the eighties paintings are worth considering (Sean Scully is always reliable) but much of the work, like Peter Halley's, withholds some vital element that might make it come alive.

It is in the paintings of the nineties that this exhibition truly comes into its own. The bulk of the exhibition is from this period, and it appears as if a breath of fresh air has entered the arena. Painting expands during the same time that critics busily declare installations to be the cat's pajamas and art magazines focus in on scatter art. Painting has redefined the terms of the battle and has, from the look of this show, come out stronger by going inward to the real struggle.

In certain rooms a consistency of style between works creates a presence, a kind of visual music that is a synthesis of complementary forms. These environments highlight not only the similarities within a style, but also subtle differences which become vivid and profound in such close proximity. In one room, minimalistic painting changes vastly as it moves from Marcia Hafif's, French Painting: Barabon, 1990, field of dry pink to Clytie Alexander's subtle gray-green stripes and curves, Study for Chitrartham, 1995/96 and Study for Vidura, 1996, to Winston Roeth's shimmery perfect-edged Light Body, 1995.

Other rooms hold less stylistically cohesive groupings, yet in general there is a sense of coherence and communication as paintings change shape, motif, color, content. They speak to each other in their ineffable language, and also to us. Excuse my anthropomorphism, but these paintings seem pleased with each other's company.

It is impossible to mention more than just a few of the works and of course easy to quibble about who was left out, but overall the exuberance and vitality of latter-day painting is well marked in this exhibition. It is more than worth a trip on the ever- romantic Staten Island Ferry (and the less charming but expeditious S-40 bus) to revel in the setting and art at Snug Harbor.

Editor's Note: The Gallery is open Wed.-Thurs., Sat.-Sun. noon to five, Fri. noon-8.

Copyright ©1997 Jeanne C. Wilkinson & REVIEW All Rights Reserved