Arts Magazine, February 1986, p. 102                                      Back to Bibliography


Vered Lieb

It becomes increasingly clear that the ideas of Duchamp have always been a part of, not a school separate from, painting. Painting continued on as a powerful vehicle of expression after Duchamp. Some of that impetus must be credited to those painters who understood the Pandora's Box he helped to open, and incorporated the radical politics into a liberating manifesto from which painting might proceed. One must pause and recall that Jackson Pollock was once an avant-gardist and that in a philosophical system in which anything goes, why exclude anything at all, especially painting?
      The comfortable reading of Duchamp as the antithesis of painterly expression was an edict of the 1950s and '60s art market place which chose to align its financial and aesthetic concerns with that economy. We would have, most likely, ignored a Roy Lichtenstein who, in December of 1985, exhibited paintings that can only be described as painterly, and further, as being third generation Abstract Expressionism. Historically, we seem to have come full circle from Dada to Abstract Expressionism, from Minimalism to Pop Art, and back again to the necessity of full expression. Why this should be so is curious but not inexplicable.
      Widespread as painting has become in recent years, there is still a singular reluctance on the part of most artists to acknowledge its source and on the part of critics to admit that they enjoy looking at painting again. Those who may wish to do so falter at the notion of exhibiting a sort of post-modernist nostalgia, a worrisome need to deprecate old-fashioned visceral experience. Deborah Rosenthal is painting out of a tradition that she clearly acknowledges. This in no way dilutes the power of the work, which in Rosenthal's personal language becomes a consecration to the future as well as to the past. At first look, these small-scale oil paintings are reminiscent of Klee, Kandinsky, and the Delaunays.
      The recognition of these influences clears the way for the impact of the differences; indeed, it strengthens Rosenthal's own position by giving us a starting point from which to relate. Once established, this starting point reveals the personal language and painterly choices that distinguish this work as a sincere effort to break new ground. In The Heart Outside the Body, the colors are pale and delicate, yet the glow of the oil and the pulsing rhythm of the composition imply more about the void central to the Zen notion of fullness than the fact that the work is essentially cubistic. There is a mystical feeling in all of these works that ranges alongside the frontalist attack on bold color and bright intuited form. This mystical feeling is not synonymous with any contrived idea of the mythical female; there is more of the universal movement of all life as it tunes itself to a harmony outside of, and yet within, itself.
      In Gestation (1982) and Flora and Fauna (1983), the work essentially holds together as a unified entity, even though within a color-fragmented field we are presented with the anomaly of an "intruder" form. In Flora and Fauna, an ovoid shape drifts within a pale yellow form, which in turn yields up to a gentle pink; this then fades into a light gray, and so on, until an unexpected raggedy edge of bright blood red preludes a quick series of jagged lines, whose resemblance to the internal shape is certainly parental. But beyond this, in shades of orange, is yet another bit of painted sky. There seems no end to the possibility of these encounters within encounters suggested in this painting.
      In Flora and Fauna we are not witnessing an inner feminine birth motif; rather the message seems to be a cosmological inference in which the small, or microscopic, relates to the macroscopic; a Byzantine mosaic of the life cycle in which creation on one level is creation on all levels. However, what makes this painting work so well is not only intellectual: it is concretely manifest in the act of painting.
      Painted in an almost Fauvist palette (as most of Rosenthal's paintings are), Gestation presents us with a hard-edge, leaf-like shape suspended within a field of large forms: blue, white and a slight hint at that special pale yellow and pink at the edges. But can we be sure the fragment is coming out of or off of the main field? Is it not just as likely that the form recedes and the field advances? Again, it is the very act of painting, and in this case, of making one feel the "push-pull" of color as well as of composition, that makes Gestation an important painting.
      In Fairy Tale (1985), there are no literal divisions into foreground, middleground and background, yet sketched in gray-blue tones is a kind of portal through which we glimpse a shimmering reflection of another world.
Deborah Rosenthal, Manuscript Leaf, 1985. Oil on canvas, 24 x 18'. Courtesy Bowery Gallery.

This painting is a fairyland for the eyes, a bouquet of colors (red, yellow, pink, etc.) worthy of Redon. Rosenthal never employs color as an element of irony, partially because irony is a secondary emotion and these works are definitely about primary emotions held in delicate balance or control. In Manuscript Leaf (1985), we have a similar inner structure leading the eye both outward and through, like an exploding stained-glass window. Rosenthal repeatedly reminds us that she is not a storyteller, nor is she interested in making the painting into a literary object with allusions to depth or foreground recession. Where we are standing, as viewers of these events, is definitely in front of an abstract-planar painted object whose sensuality is indeed its content.
      In Study (1985), the resemblance to the Murnau Landscapes that Kandinsky painted between 1909-10 is strong; it is here that I would like to see Rosenthal take the quantum leap into working in a larger scale. Her vision is a true one: the microscopic is a part of the macrocosmic; what is true about the actions of the atom in a grain of sand holds true for the laws that structure galaxies. Rosenthal's ideas are large and adequate; they compactly insist upon the artistic vigilance by which light, color, and surface are made to communicate. Wishing that these canvases were bigger is like saying one is still hungry at a feast, but also that perhaps this single attribute would make it all the more clear that these paintings are more than the sum of the history of art.
      Deborah Rosenthal is painfully braving new ground with each stroke and each decision that she makes. This exquisite show of her recent paintings and drawings is positive proof that certain artistic endeavors can never be truly invalidated when the basis of that research is rooted in integrity. (Bowery, February 7-26)

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