New York Sun, March 1, 2007                                                   Back to Bibliography

Abstract Poetry on 25th Street
Three Chelsea Exhibits
Offer Best Abstract Art in New York City

Lance Esplund

Within the same block on 25th Street, three compelling exhibits—Joan Snyder at Betty Cuningham, Bill Jensen at Cheim & Read, and Deborah
Abstract painting is not beholden to the world—the space—
in which we live.
Rosenthal at Bowery—currently offer a sampling by some' of the strongest abstract painters in New York today. Like the best representational artists, these three painters immerse themselves in their themes. Yet, working metaphorically and purely abstractly, their art is not as well understood as it could be.
      Throughout history the best painters have always been poets. Titian, Rubens, and Renoir—three masters of the nude—did not paint their subjects. They explored them. They let their imaginations unfurl around the theme of the nude—around the mysterious qualities of flesh and desire, nature and eroticism, the sacred and the profane. These artists do not give us the appearance of flesh. They give us the feelings that flesh inspires.
      As with poetry, paintings are constructed out of metaphors. A painting's content ultimately is conveyed not through the recognition of objects but through the experience of form. If the painter is good, he has set the emotional stage. He has created a world—be it abstract or representational —where the full range of his theme is made available to viewers.
      Yet, as much as abstract painting and representational painting have in common, they speak different languages and have different structures. Representational painting grounds us in the continuity of our three-dimensional world. Abstract painting is not beholden to the world—the space—in which we live. Abstraction can move fluidly between numerous realms simultaneously within a single picture. It can explore past and future, inner and outer—its images registering like flashes of memory.
      Unfortunately, many celebrated contemporary painters confuse or try to ground their abstractions in representational frameworks. In the end, these paintings, neither abstract nor representational, leave viewers stranded in a never-never-land that neuters both representational and abstract painting.
Last fall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted a large show devoted to Sean Scully, whose abstract paintings, titled "Walls of Light," are made up of stacked vertical and horizontal rectangles. Mr. Scully's pictures can be luminous, but, without formidable frontal pressure, they behave chiefly as stacked blocks in a wall. Mimicking forms in our three-dimensional world, their movement is primarily vertical and lateral. The rectangles never free themselves from the forces of gravity or from their post-and-lintel trappings. Nor do the forms fully pulse forward or back, to create rhythm and tension in the plane. Compare his paintings to the elastic space of Paul Klee's magic square pictures (also made up of rectangles), in which the plane is reminiscent of a wall but also of a membrane, a night sky, a weaving, a checkerboard, a children's drawing, stained glass, and a city seen from above—to name just a few.
      Brice Marden is another abstract painter whose most recent work is wedded more to figuration than to abstraction. In his MoMA retrospective, which closed in January, Mr. Marden's colorfully tangled ribbons spread across mural-size canvases. His gestural noodles on colored grounds amount to little more than decorative flourishes on ornamental wallpaper.
      At Bowery, a very different kind of poetic exploration is on view in an unusual, collaborative show between an artist and a writer, "About Borromini." Abstract painter Deborah Rosenthal, inspired by the Baroque
ABOUT BORROMINI: Prints and Drawings by Deborah Rosenthal; Texts by Jed Perl.
Bowery Gallery
architect Francesco Borromini, has returned to printmaking. The results are breathtaking and illuminating—an inward journey of an artist riffing and meditating on another artist. Her mostly black-and-white prints and drawings are interspersed with text written by her husband Jed Perl, who is the art critic for the New Republic (and, as with the artist, a personal friend.)
      Mr. Perl's text does not explain the artworks. It is poetic prose in its own right, and it opens up another window into the architecture and the art. Image and text exist on their own, but they dance and intermingle. Obviously, the show was conceived as a book, and what a great book it would make. Like Ms. Rosenthal's images, the words are playful explorations and reflections that juggle the impressions Borromini's architecture had on the couple during their walks together when they were staying, in 2003, at the American Academy in Rome.
      In her current work, Ms. Rosenthal has taken apart and reassembled energies and forms, as if they were collected and reinterpreted on her own internal blackboard. The prints are not studies after the architecture, but, rather, the "Baroque spirit," as Mr. Perl writes, "stripped to the bone."
      This is a show about impressions and gestations. In the 19 images and as many sheets of text, an abstract universe is created in which image and word fly freely. In the prints and drawings, skeletal emblems leap off the page; dense crosshatchings rustle and turn against the paper's flatness. I could sense a kind of scramble for form, as if the artist were catching architectural elements—flutings, columns, domes, portals, shells, concavities, corners, bays, and vertical thrusts—in her own imaginative net.
      In the drawing "Standing Angles/Study," angles open and expand across the plane as if they were arabesques shifting into birds. In "Twisted Column" a shimmering of ghosted lines, vertical and horizontal, vibrate like plucked strings. In a whole series of "Domes," the artist perceives the dome as heaven's mouth, bursting open. Yet, the dome is also portal, womb, emblem, nut, and shell. Its Baroque scallops are comforting and threatening, and, like almost all of the forms in the show, the dome is geometry in transition, as if it were gestating, coming into being.
      The linocut "Frontis/Façade" (2006) offers a frontal black ground that shifts from side to side and from top to bottom, as if all its forms were vying for frontality. The white impressions stand out against the blackness like glistening reflections under a full moon.
      In this exhibit, Ms. Rosenthal and Mr. Perl take us into the world of influence, where art is always expansive and is broken down, remixed, and reinterpreted—where art, inspired by art, moves forward. The show is elastic. Lines become shapes become façades. And Baroque windows—transformed—open mysteriously into our present.

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