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.
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.
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.