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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

"Shake and Bake" aesthetics in contemporary abstraction

When I first stumbled into the "Revivalism" of Abstract painting in NY via an article by Alan Pocaro on Provisional painting on the British art blog “Abstract Critical”, I must admit it was a breath of fresh air to see that installation and conceptual art were not the only art being produced in the City. It led to my writing about provisional painting and becoming embroiled in the labeling of Zombie Formalism. Since the early 2000’s I have been laboring on my non-representational painting in New England and found few fellow travelers in this cultural backwater with whom to share my ideas. Last year I gathered together two former students, who work abstractly, Paul Pollaro and Jason Travers, a friend Addison Parks, whose work I had followed since we first showed together at Creiger -Dane in Boston and Susan Carr, who once showed with me and Addison in group show at Creiger-Dane. I had hoped I would succeed in drawing some attention to our work as a sort of Northern outpost of what was happening in NY. Addison had attempted something similar but more comprehensive in Boston in the late 90’s with a group show at Joyce Creiger’s gallery in which he included his work, the work of Susan Carr and myself among other contemporary painters, side by side with the an earlier generation of artists including the work of Richard Tuttle, Porfirio DiDonna, Louise Fishman, Leon Polk Smith and Milton Resnick. The show called “Severed Ear” attempted to define a trail of abstraction that was deconstructive of the authoritative work of the modernist ethos in the same way as provisional painting but with less focus on irony and more of a focus on the lived life of emotions.

Notions of authority keep cropping up in regards to the evolution or devolution of abstraction. Where did this sense of High Modernism being incontrovertible come from, so as to become a lodestone that would define an unassailable high point in American art. In a slugfest with the English sculptor Robin Greenwood on Mark Stone’s Henri Art magazine, we both agreed that there was something lacking in the contemporary iterations of modernism. He thought Matisse was hard to surpass and I was more sympathetic to the work of the Minimalists. The discussion revolved around notions of spatiality and its lack in Provisionalism and Zombie art. Robin seemed to think that spatiality was crucial to great painting. In my attempts to grapple with these issues I recalled a notion of eidetic reduction from my readings of Husserl. In this philosophers attempt to ground our perceptual world in something solid he focused on the apprehension of the outside world in our mind. It was very Cartesian and is something that comes to mind when I get my hearing tested and I am asked to distinguish pure sounds. In a hearing test we scientifically break the web of hearing and cognition into its separate parts and define its ranges in order to evaluate the condition of the auditory organ. It is similar to the way that abstraction breaks down the visual world into pure colors with ranges from warm to cool, grounded in our retinal view of seeing. The world is captured and analyzed in our reduced apperceptions of it. I think it was this connection between science as the only true knowledge and art at mid-century that hoisted abstraction to its centrality. To paraphrase Hegel’s words: abstract art was the century captured in thought.

If the hold on art by science is so total then we have to see any attempt to break that hold as being dialectically related to it. It is this dialectical relation, which allows critics to talk about Zombie formalism for example. There is no inherent value in zombie art except as an attempt to excise from itself any authoritative metaphysical grounding in knowing and science. Without science it becomes a pure commodity retaining however its commercial exchange value. By the same token “Provisionalism”” as defined by Rubinstein or “Casualism” as Sharon Butler defines the same body of work, have value as attempts to break the bonds of aesthetic purity and ironically refer back to the laid back devalued creator as incapable of any authoritative statements.


Abstract art that falls outside of the parameters of provisional and zombie art I think is often hard to talk about in so far as it lacks the dialectical relation to classical abstraction. This was the problem with a show I recently came across on Painters Table of abstract art, entitled "If Color Could Kill” that is currently hanging at Long Island University. By insisting in the title on the aesthetics of color it places itself outside of the commodification of zombie art and the irony of provisional abstraction. Especially in the work of Paul Behnke there is, in his play of pure color and abstract patterns, an attempt to move back into the language of Matisse where color relations create aesthetics moods of pleasure. Few of the other artists are as rigorous in the analysis of color except for Gary Peterson, who brings an Al Held notion of compressed space without the ambiguity of flat vs deep space. They are both artists who don’t mind not obscuring their roots. Their influences are obvious as is the case for the rest of the artists in the show, where for example you see Elizabeth Murray all over Benson and Moyse. It is good to be influenced and to live with those influences and see where they take you. How these influences pan out over time will be interesting to see. But at this point there is none of the anxiety of influence typical of the struggling young artist and only from what I can see on line a kind of “shake and bake” aesthetic.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

David Row at Loretta Howard (Feb18-April 2)

The opening of a show in New York of David Row’s work at Loretta Howard concurrently with the Cheim and Read show of his mentor Al Held’s painting from the late 60’s, along with many superficial resemblances between the two, made it hard for me at first to shake Held’s hold on my interpretation of Row’s painting. But Row’s intent and intelligence only become clear when you understand their dissimilarity. 
Yield 1976

The show of Row’s painting  represents 40 years of work. The first painting in the show was done around 1976 or just about the time he graduated from the Yale MFA program. It is a small work of four panels, none the same size and each allotted a different color or value. One can imagine they were part of a series where he followed rules that dictated various permutations in the rule based world of Minimalism. A world of rectangles vs. squares, of whites vs. yellow. It is a working space that acknowledges how we use cognitive labels to order our world. This strategy of objects sharing some characteristics but not others continues throughout his career. I suspect that this early body of work was an apprenticeship that allowed him to separate his identity from that of his teachers at Yale, none of whom were Minimalists.
Nine below Zero 1993
His interest in painting not as perception but as cognition lifts him out of the visual language of Held, that functions in the early Sixties on the push/pull of figure/ground or in the late Sixties on the conflict of orthographic vs. perspectival vision. All of the above constructs are cognitive in the sense that they shape our visual world, but the perceptual always precedes in our understanding of things the higher level of semiotic signs and symbols, that seems to be the world that Row prefers to express himself in. Hence, the difficulty of interpreting a painting such as “Nine Below Zero”: At first glance it is reminiscent of the “Big N” of Held, with its figure/ground ambiguity but like Row’s earlier minimalism it is a “compare and contrast” of how the Zeros add up cognitively. One is black on white, the other white on black and create as byproducts in one panel a white lozenge in the other a black lozenge. The nine from the title I think refers to the nine squares created by a grid that underly each zero. Probably, more than any other work in the show it straddles the two realms of knowing; the realm of signs and symbols and the underpinnings of figure/ground where Held functions.

The introduction of the curvilinear into his work appears to be lifted from the late paintings of de Kooning.  To achieve an understanding of the Abstract Expressionist De Kooning, a notion of real physical gesture, which he uses to create time and space, is crucial. Interestingly, Row reduces this to a semiotic sign. Granted they are hand painted but he domesticates the heroism of de Kooning into a sign that is often contrasted with another sign such as the stable grid pattern in “Point of View.” However, when you realize that those swirling patterns represent a kind of irreducible signifier for movement, like the convoluted twists and turns of Chinese dragon painting, then, Row’s lifework becomes clearer and very interesting. He is really involved in the language of painting or better yet painting as language. 
Point of View 2001

The terrain was set for Row by Held, who always grounded his work in real visual constructs.With a similar imperative Row transformed the raw visual language of Held into semiotic constructs to keep his work intellectually grounded.  It is always the sign of genius that one can acknowledge the greatness of ones predecessors without imitating them. That sort of leap from the perceptual to the semiotic gives his work a dialectic rigor so as to avoid either the trap of Zombie Formalism, which tries to erase Modernism with commodification or the weak gestures held together by some sort of irony of Provisional painting. In our conversation about his work Row said he was always the serious student and implied that maybe he was too much so. Knowing the value of things takes a serious turn of mind. It allowed him to appreciate semiotically his progenitors, a word Beckett, a tradition obsessed writer loved to use, so as to take Modernism to another level of self-understanding.

Catskill 2014

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Beckett's Endgame , Addison Park's and Robert Storr's recollection of Larry's unique character and achievements

Addison Parks wrote an exquisite remembrance of Larry Deyab.

The essence of the painting by Larry Deyab is captured in this excerpt from Beckett’s “Endgame”.  Few artists can express the grimness of human existence. Goya is alone except for Deyab.

I once knew a madman who thought the end of the world had come. He was a painter—and engraver. I had a great fondness for him. I used to go and see him, in the asylum. I'd take him by the hand and drag him to the window. Look! There! All that rising corn! And there! Look! The sails of the herring fleet! All that loveliness!
He'd snatch away his hand and go back into his corner. Appalled. All he had seen was ashes.
He alone had been spared.
It appears the case is... was not so... so unusual.

Or Robert Storr's essay on his work is eloquent:
Larry Deyab’s paintings come from a dark place. If you have not already seen it for yourself they will take you there. If you have you’ll immediately recognize where you are but see it as if for the first time through new eyes. That place has many names and its primary characteristics are also many as are the reasons for the differences among them. Those differences matter and we look to painting to help to distinguish them. For lack of a better word, though, and out of respect for tradition, let’s call this continent of disquiet Melancholia, though Baudelaire its greatest poet, preferred a term referring to the source of the humor – black bile – classically understood to be its cause; Spleen. As in the late works of Francisco Goya y Lucientes – “luciente” means bright, shining but the light in Goya is defined by contrast with its absence - blackness suffuses the atmosphere of Deyab’s imagery like toxic squid ink sprayed or spit out on the canvas. Frequently, though, that blackness fades to a heavy metallic grisaille that appears suffused with unspecified toxicities like the atmosphere of an all but barren planet, a planet that might well be our own a hundred years hence – or as things are now tending, much sooner. Deyab’s landscapes – virtually empty horizons, carbon trees against asphyxiating skies – reimagine the conventions of the Romantic sublime for use at the end of the world, recast the pathetic fallacy that nature bespeaks human emotions for that moment when humans have vanished from the face of the earth.
That noted History has already met Larry Deyab half way. More than half way! It is crowding him at very turn. And he is pushing back. Because he has a stake in how history turns out and how its tragedies are misunderstood in their unfolding. Of course we all do, but Deyab, who is of Syrian extraction, reads the daily headlines from the Middle East from a different perspective than the majority of native-born Americans. When we talk about “difference and diversity” in this country the dialogue tends to channel into well worn grooves cut by the ongoing catastrophe bequeathed to us all by slavery. But many waves of immigration followed that of the “founding fathers” who landed at Plymouth Rock, just as they followed those of slave ships docking in Atlantic and Pacific ports of call to supply labor to the Southern colonies and later the Southern states. Deyab’s family of these later transplantations, and it is with more recent and correspondingly vivid collective memory that he watches in horror at his adopted country blunders through the fog of war in Syria, Iraq, and beyond even as new refugees who might be part of his extended clan – the Family of Man – flee or attempt to flee from wars they did not want and from which they suffer more grievously than those who started them. Place names from that part of the world – Fallujah, for example, where mercenaries from the aptly branded Dark Ops squads of Blackwater were burned and then lynched on a bridge for crimes they did commit – is one of those places. Other pictures commemorate monsters from the region – for instance Sadam Hussein’s sadistic sons Uday and Qusay – or thugs from various other post-colonial zones of armed conflict in Asia (specifically Cambodia) and Africa (specifically Liberia), and spill over terrorism in Europe (in particular Munich and the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.) Thus Deyab enters the ranks of contemporary history painters like Gerhard Richter, Leon Golub, Luc Tuymans who have updated Goya’s Disasters of War by showing the Disasters of Peace - or what goes by that designation in an era when “lesser” blood-letting is trumped by the prospect of nuclear annihilation – while eschewing all the tropes of valiant heroism and idealistic common cause characteristic of history painting prior to Goya.
Meanwhile some of Deyab’s emblems of horror are purely mythical – the vampire Nosferatu being one – or archetypal – demonic clowns, side show freaks fleshing out the roster. And some are Biblical, notably from the stations of the Cross a subject rare in contemporary art but a staple of painting in the pre-modern period and to that extent a symbol of Deyab’s challenge to the conventional post-modernist wisdom about what can and should be painted. It would seem that that in a world of daily martyrdoms on the evening news the flagellation of Christ, his crown of thorns, his struggle to carry his own Cross to Calvary are again relevant to some artists who are wholly of their time in every other respect, arguing that as metaphor these stories have yet to be exhausted. In Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood her central character Hazel Motes is caught by his landlady mortifying his flesh with barbed wire around his ribs and pebbles in his shoes. When she admonishes him to stop stating that “People don’t do things like that anymore” he calmly answers her saying words to the effect “So long as I do, they do.” Deyab is such a painter.
It is ironic that many of these dark images are realized “en pleine aire,” specifically on the back porch of a triple decker house in Cambridge Massachusetts where Deyab grew up and to which he has returned to make his own after a long period in the rough and tumble of the New York art world where his circle mixed contemporaries and near contemporaries and cherished elders. In the latter category Milton Resnick, Pat Pasloff, and Ronald Bladen; in the former rising talents of his own generations or of those just slightly older than his, Julian Schnabel for one. Accordingly Deyab’s sense of artistic tradition is first rather than second hand or academic, and never a matter of nostalgia for a Golden Era he missed, but of a living connection to artists he admires.
Yet like any “son” of imposing fathers and mothers Deyab learned early that he did them no honor by trying to mimic the look of their work, which inevitably means doing the heroes work over again but less well and for the wrong reasons - or for no reason at all other that excessively deferential admiration and want of an independent identity and raison d’etre. Making one’s own way as an artist necessarily requires making it – the thing, the work - one’s own way. The first step in that direction is choosing one’s own tools and formats. This Deyab did by setting aside the tools of the past - tools he had mastered and effects he loved and thoroughly understood - and picking up others in tune with his times albeit visually dissonant in the context of the full-bodied painterly painting to which he was initially drawn and at which he excelled early in his career. Chief among them are commercial enamels and spray paint, which account for the unwelcoming, unyielding surfaces of his panels. Speaking of Van Eyck Willem de Kooning famously said “ flesh was the reason oil paint was invented.” Foreswearing the hedonistic pleasures of that medium Deyab has opted for a raw, deliberately limited but for all that no less expressive choice of tools and materials, essentially those of taggers who inscribe their names and thoughts and fantasies on unprotected walls in public situations. Addressing the private anguish that public events inspire and showing viewers those things in a state of nakedness from which they would prefer to turn away, Deyab has chosen to be a painter entirely in and of the world – while it lasts. His pictures are hard to look at and harder still to ‘like” in a period when “liking” has become a finger tip reflex response to canned and spoon-fed feel good imagery of every description. I don’t like Deyab’s pictures but I take them seriously as they insist that I do and once seen I can’t forget them.
Robert Storr – 2015

Monday, February 8, 2016

"The Glory of the World" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and "Coney Island" at The Brooklyn Museum


When I first read in the “New York Times Magazine” that BAM was producing “The Glory of the World”, a play celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of Thomas Merton’s birth, I thought it might revive my early and now somewhat lapsed interest in his work, which had  spun its magic on me when I first read “The Seven Storey Mountain”.  That narration of his inner and outer journey toward a conversion to Catholicism while a student at Columbia contained a yearning for truth that was reminiscent of my youthful desire to be an artist. His description of life in New York City evoked a mix of anxiety and hope typical of the difficult start of any journey that knows what it wants to leave behind but is not exactly sure of where it wants to go. His later works written after years as a Trappist monk attempt a fusion of Christian and Buddhist monasticism. He had observed that the meditation exercises in the Buddhist tradition in many ways were more refined and subtle than those of Christianity and sought to integrate them into the monastic tradition of the Church without changing the importance of  Christian notions of salvation. At a moment when his drift toward Eastern thought was picking up speed he died accidentally from electrocution due to bad wiring in a Thai hotel.

The play's story line, according to the “New York Times Magazine”s article, is a centennial birthday party with seventeen celebrants, who toast him and I imagined would try to reveal something about his inner life and contribution to many facets of his intellectual and spiritual life: Catholic, Buddhist, Communist and Taoist.

 I got my first warning that the play would be antithetical to my expectations prior to seeing the play from my daughter Eve , who is an actress in NY. A friend told her that her movement coach encouraged her to see it as  some of the scenes were wild and wonderfully choreographed. Originally performed in Louisville Kentucky, not far from the monastery where Merton lived as a Trappist monk, it was funded by a local philanthropist, who won millions of dollars in Power Ball and written by Charles Mee collaboratively with the director Les Waters of the Actors Theatre of Louisville. It starts out well enough with the director playing Merton in silence with his back to the audience framed with Merton’s sayings projected repeatedly on the walls to either side of him.
Actors in their Lazy Boys quoting Merton

Suddenly, the all male crew of actors breaks the silence when they burst onto the stage ready to celebrate. They are raucous and seem to function more as a group of bros than as individuals. As the celebration moves from scene to scene, it becomes clear that little wisdom will escape from their lips. In several scenes they quote famous mystics but before long find themselves spouting banalities about solitude originating from such pop icons as Lady Gaga and Christina Applegate. Some of the sayings seem not to mean anything at all, starting out with some weight but slipping quickly into absurdity. At times some of the men seem to distinguish themselves as older and wiser and I  anxiously waited to hear something of depth coming from their mouths but all ends up platitudinous. 

At one point a conflict erupts from the frustration between two characters about some unrequited love, although we never get a clear sense of the origins of this misunderstanding. The couple resolves the conflict by dancing romantically to “The Street Where You Live” as the rest of the cast joins in  dancing in pairs cheek to cheek.

One critic of the play has asked why the playwright decided on an all male cast and suggests it may reference the all male life of the monastery that Merton lived in. Homoeroticism is not veiled in any way, especially in the aforementioned dance scene but also in the wild fight scene at the end of the play where one character threatens to insert a plunger in the buttocks of a naked man scurrying wildly around the stage.
Reginald Marsh

A major dichotomy in the play exists structurally between the solitary Merton and the undifferentiated mass of revelers. This dichotomy becomes heightened in the fight scene that meanders between food fight, orgy and prison riot until it reaches a crescendo of outright mayhem ending the play with the stage strewn with trash. It is said that Mee, a student of mythology, often uses Greek myth as the conceptual underpinning for his plays. In “The Glory of the World”, the actors start out playing shallow frat boys but devolve into Dionysian revelers. Although no murder is committed the energy generated by the fight scene, which lasts fourteen minutes, gets close to it. This fight scene raises a question: Do these seventeen characters represent the limited emotional and intellectual capacity of the world that Merton wished to escape by entering the orders? Their thoughts, as manifest by their shallow questioning and understanding of Merton, are a thin facade hiding their attachment to the world in its lowest common denominator of physicality. At one point the crowd breaks out into a body building show, where, except for the few actors who were probably not buff enough to participate, they try to out-flex each other and flaunt their muscularity. 
Image salvaged from Coney Island

I got some hunches about the play’s meaning, as I thought retrospectively on a visit to the Brooklyn Museum that afternoon prior to the play, where I saw a totally engaging exposition of the history of Coney Island. It started with paintings of the beach from the early 19th c, when it resembled Cape Cod, continuing to its heyday as the world capitol of mass entertainment in the Thirties, when there were three competing amusement parks, to its demise in the Sixties and Seventies and up to the present. Its climax as the epicenter of mass hedonism seems embodied in the photo by Weegee of an overview of a massive horde of bathers in 1940 that was used as the basis of a funky collage by Red Grooms done in the 90’s. Another hunch came when I recalled a book of poems that I bought in college by Lawrence Ferlinghetti called “The Coney Island of the Mind”. A little research led me to Henry Miller who coined the phrase in order to capture imagistically Coney Island as the epitome of the superficiality and crassness of mass capitalist culture. Of Coney Island he said:

 “Everything is sordid, shoddy, thin as pasteboard. A Coney Island of the mind. . . . In the oceanic night Steeplechase looks like a wintry beard. Everything is sliding and crumbling, everything glitters, totters, teeters, titters.”

Upon reading this, I intuited that there might be a parallel between Miller, who left America behind to pursue an almost spiritual life of erotic exploits in France and Merton, who as a child followed his artist father and his father’s mistress to France, where he first encountered the glory of  French Catholicism. In so doing, intentionally or unintentionally as in Merton's case, they turned their back on the erotic identification of the individual with mass culture that was so poignantly evoked in the poetry of Walt Whitman and was a touchstone for so many artists such as Reginald Marsh, who is well represented in the Coney Island exhibit. For Miller sex was pursued with a religious fervor as a sort of vehicle for personal transcendence. For Merton it was religion in its concentrated monastic form that offered him a transcendence from the modern mass culture and also the personal suffering he experienced when his emotional life fell apart after World War Two, with the deaths of all his family members in particular his brother who was killed in the war.

Maybe it is the fault of the play’s structure that the transcendent God that Merton encountered in his solitude as a monk is conveyed abstractly and weakly by the periods of silence that frame the play and in no way can function as a potent anti-dote to the shallow antics of the revelers. Even the quotes of Merton that are projected on the walls of the stage express his own doubts about knowing the sacred. In the end the exuberance of the birthday celebrants is such ecstatic good theatre (one critic imagines that future generations of theatre goers will see the fight scene as one of the great fight scenes of all time) one gets the impression that the playwright comes down on the side of the  boisterous physicality of the masses. Maybe that is the meaning of the play’s title. In writing this article I kept typing “The Glory of the Word”. No! This play is about the overwhelming glory of the world. If you came to learn more about the sounds of silence and transcendence in Merton’s life as a monastic you will be sorely disappointed.