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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mugar and Pollaro at the Bromfield, Boston Jan 30-Feb 23

Why the pairing of Martin Mugar and Paul Pollaro’s paintings? The obvious difference binds them together as artists in the tradition of Western Painting: Mugar loves color and Pollaro value. Mugar’s color hints at an overall value and Pollaro’s values suggest colors. This focus puts their interest in light as revealed through color and value from the Greeks to its dissolution in Stella, Kelly, Richter and Ryman. These four linger at the endgame of a long tradition of optics and seeing as the ground of painting. One foot in the tradition and the other where? They still tempt you to look with remnants of the language of light but imply that there is nothing to see if not the space between and around the paintings or just the paint as paint, which is not pointing the viewer to anywhere beyond the canvas. In the end Kelly just puts up a plywood board, the substrate and abandons the color, his last link to the tradition of seeing. Richter stays with the paint but it is paint as paint and the human presence still allowed with nothing more than a perfunctory smear. Ryman’s limitation of value to barely perceived shifts lingers longest with the use of  paint in the tradition. Stella is the only one of the group to overcome his minimalism of the late 50’s with his misinterpretation of Caravaggio that results in a garish maximalism. He would have been better off staying put and lingering at the site of paintings demise. In any case the zeitgeist of the last quarter of the 20th century was one of deconstruction of big metaphysical concepts and Stella was too much of a builder. So we will remove him from this group.

 20th c painting owes its trajectory to Mondrian. If any one artist supplied the ground upon which to build a full century of abstract painting it was Piet. It was an intellectual ground of proportions and harmonies. The lines of measurement and pure color spread out into the culture as a whole and defined architecture and interior design for at least 50 years from its inception. A theosophist, he imagined that he was bringing to the surface hidden harmonies. In the end he was a rationalist that establsihed the language for the scientific culture of the 20th century painting, constructed out of distinct parts, sharp edges and organized into clear wholes. Ryman, Kelly, Richter, artists of their time, take apart this language by casting doubt on our belief in the illusion of painting itself. If Mondrian had killed painting as illusion of the real then these artists killed painting as the illusion of a metaphysical reality.Everything in the painting can only point to itself and the message is the self-effacement, the wiping away of a painting that might vibrate with something beyond itself.

Their self-consciousness that keeps referring back to paint’s physical reality on the canvas puts Pollaro and Mugar in the company of these artists that bookend the history of painting. However, both seem to ask: is this ending of painting to be constantly reiterated? Is it the contemporary artist’s only role as spelled out in the academies and the galleries to constantly hammer nail after nail in the coffin of painting? What if painting points to something beyond an artist’s intentions to play their role as stern-eyed dispassionate contemporary painters? What if their notion of a ground and support went beyond the canvas or board supporting the paint and became a metaphysical ground, which is hidden from the visual, but, which a harshly altered notion of the visual could point to? For both these artists their inspiration for ground does not come from some cerebral notion of a higher world but from the world they move around in.

Pollaro’s ground is the underground. There is in his painting a grim stoicism of someone who works on the land, knee deep in the soil. The return on one's labor is slow and the earth unforgiving. Or like some miner he leaves the sunlit surface of the earth to explore the sunless earth for veins of ore that glow of their own accord. His work has its locus it seems in sites of volcanic activity where earth is formed or consumed. His use of tar embodies it.

Mugar has set sail on a sea, whose flickering surface is the interface of the sunlit world and the swelling body of the ocean’s restless flux. This is not a world of people and things, of sunlit porches and verandas looking out on the world. Nor the distinct forms of abstract rationalism. The individual units of the painting are an impulse themselves as though the flat units of Mondrian are questioned as a basis for painting. The very building block of the painting is "physis" itself.

 If Mondrian brought the light that had defined the real for centuries into the flat patterns of modern rationalism, and Ryman, Kelly and Richter deconstruct that notion of painting into its physical parts, Mugar and Pollaro forge a new path for painting if not reinstating its original one, to let painting say something about the seen and the unseen and to marvel at the sheer beauty of our life on this planet!


  1. Another thoughtful and engaging essay, Martin, much appreciated here.

  2. Dear Carl,

    It means a lot to have your supportive comments.


  3. I just posted this on Robert Linsley's blog:

    I was thinking lately about Richter in terms of the timelessness of his work. By that I don’t mean the timelessness that would be used to describe the neoplatonic art of the early Renaissance but rather a lack of time. Haacke’s closed system has a sort of circular time.It is as you say a closed system that keeps repeating two different states of being.Similar to Stella’s “Zambezi” that you commented on in another post that to my eye draws the eye in and out in a constant repetition. Richter’s painting is just one event that cannot circle back like Stella’s and although his works literally hold up, they risk and do at times descend into pure materiality. This embrace of the material results in what I would call art that is “time poor” to transpose a Heideggerian notion of “world poor”. This applies to the work of someone who appears to be a Richter neophyte,Dan Colen at Gagosian. I wrote about Richter and Stella on the occasion of last winter’s show of my work with Pollaro in Boston where I talk about the materiality of Richter but this notion of time is new and I think relevant to the understanding of his work.

    1. Another interesting artist who passed away last year!!

  4. I came across some writing by Boris Groys where he makes a distinction between the abstraction of Mondrian and Malevich. Malevich was seeking a language according to him that would not look back at the metaphysics of the past but would be a perfect vehicle for the future world of technology and the state(communism). Mondrian works from out of the past in his reduction of the perceptual world as in the series of the apple tree and the cathedral. He drags along notions of spatial structure, push and pull and warm and cool. I think what is tricky about these zombie artists is that they look like they have their origins in Mondrian but are really embracing the inert absolutism of Malevich.