In Touch with Vision

John Haber
in New York City

Actually, my own hope is that a less qualified acceptance of the importance of sheerly abstract or formal factors in pictorial art will open the way to a clearer understand of the value of illustration as such—a value which I, too, am convinced is indisputable.
    — Clement Greenberg

Richard Tsao, Petah Coyne, and Robert Ryman

Tired of theories of abstract art? You know, all that critical agonizing over formalism and mere illusion, the linear and the painterly, or the death of Modernism and the death of irony. Let me offer yet one more suitably magisterial opposition—between the visionary and the sensual, the transcendental and the tactile, space and earth, or maybe just geometry and goo.

Seeing in the material world

Try the game for yourself. It may not prove anything, but it can be fun. Richard Tsao's Sci-Fi (Chambers Fine Art, 2004)

Surely the immaterial includes Abstract Expressionism, with all that talk of pure painting, an arena for action, and "the sublime is now." So what if I must set aside Mark Rothko's love of Giotto and his belief in pictorial space as akin to Renaissance architecture? It might include, too, the open fields of color—or, at times, the very absence of color—in Hilla Rebay, Agnes Martin, Carmen Herrera, Joe Baer, and Ellsworth Kelly. Never mind the association of geometric abstraction with painting as object. It surely has to include Op Arts like Julian Stanczak, even if you feel the dizziness in your stomach before it reaches your eyes.

As for the stuff that gets on your hands, try another token of Abstract Expressionism, the drip painting. Try earthworks, Ana Mendieta with her bodily fluids, and Lee Bontecou with her metal teeth and soot. Compare the elaborate supports for plain white from Robert Ryman on through James Hyde and Leonardo Drew. Take in the imaginary oceans of Pat Steir, Vija Celmins, and later Joseph Stashkevetch or, with Kelley Walker, actual chocolate syrup.

So what if each artist creates memorable illusions? So what if they have elicited enough conceptual arguments to choke a thesis advisor? Even Peter Halley, the arch theorist of geometry as prison cells out of Michel Foucault, gave abstraction the rubbery bumps of Rolotex. Younger artists might call that "organic geometries."

I say all that because painting survives on variety and contradiction, beyond the familiar passions over soft brushes and hard edges. I say it because, at least since Cubism, contradictions like these change one's understanding of art and perception. They make illusion a matter not just of art-school technique or the psychology of vision, but of living in the material world. In turn, they make the very physical being of art part of the active imagination. Cubism reduced space and sensation not to planes or cubes, but to a greater variety of cues for the imagination, from textures to song titles—the deliberate incongruity, challenging the coherence of any imaginative vision, that Foucault called a heterotopia. By habits of belief, one may think of vision as immaterial, something apart from how people first find their way around the world, but, in art as in life, that may be as much an idealization as single-point perspective.

I say it, too, because few shows have had me feeling vision in my gut like the latest from Richard Tsao and Petah Coyne. Tsao makes pigment into a layer that outstrips its canvas support but picks up light from deep within. Coyne starts with the stickiness of earth and tar, but with an imagery as thick as a Victorian novel. If all that sounds too strange, imagine first what happens when Ryman himself reintroduces brushwork, colored paint, and bare canvas. It shows how many of the same contradictions have been lurking all along in some of art's apparently quietest visions.

Less than white

Robert Ryman in his evolution is so intimately tied up with the acme of formalism that the evident brushwork of a previous show could easily have seemed a mistake. Perhaps, one was tempted to think, he was trying too hard. Perhaps older artists safely entering the pantheon feel they just have to have broader strokes, more open spaces, and cleaner, brighter colors, like a late modern version of Rembrandt's blur. Think of like Willem de Kooning in his sometimes exhausted, sometimes rapturous 1980s. Perhaps next time Chuck Close, who already over the years has adopted first overt gesture and now daguerreotypes, will continue his march backward through the centuries and start pouncing his traces into fresco.

Ryman's latest show grows still more gestural, but also murkier. It adds literal color to his trademark white paint, bare metal bolts, and white walls. The strokes assume a character of their own, but one focuses on the areas of color and bare canvas more than on the artist's air of control. One sees painting again, apart from its hanging. And once again, as so often in Ryman's career, one has to question what it means to speak of white on white.

Ryman's monochrome sounds austere without even the spiritual comforts of asceticism. He shuns the existential drama of large scale, intense color, or for that matter black on black, as in Ad Reinhardt or late Rothko. Besides, both Ad Reinhardt in his black paintings and Rothko in his late work cared deeply about shades of color, with black itself an illusion waiting to give way to experience. Ryman relishes how much he can do with one can of paint, a surface and its supports, the sheetrock walls behind them, and the industrial associations of all these. Like Minimalism, his art does not simply announce its integrity in the present. Rather, it arises from chance encounters—in the gallery with the viewer, during its installation before that, or earlier still, during its making.

With Kelly, for one, that can mean work that mimics the fall of color and shadow onto wood and canvas. Ryman's sense of the art object can appear more minimal or funkier. Either way, however, it allows a more down-to-earth appreciation. One may have fewer illusions, but one still has the actual apparitions within the work. Call it Pomo's concentration on the gallery as institution, but without the critical displeasure.

Ryman took up white just before 1960, with rather sloppy strokes, sometimes signing the work in white for good measure. Before long he was covering the panel and effacing individual strokes—but hardly hiding them. The wall brackets became part of the game, literally without a screw loose, as obvious in the mini-retrospective of his room at Dia:Beacon. Color appeared, but because it arose from the encounter of material objects with gallery light and cast shadow. The artist hardly needed a color chart to know that there is no such thing as simply white and that a great colorist need not even attempt to control his colors. Who needs nuance when one can have all that?

Does his dabbling with brushwork and color now mark a retreat, a career run out of its own logic? Perhaps his art has come to reflect on its own shadows. Perhaps Ryman has merely dispersed them into yet another chance encounter still to come. Or perhaps he has obliterated the boundaries between the visual and the material so thoroughly as to find a space empty even of white. And now at least two younger artists are ready to fill it.

Moon river

For one extended moment, Richard Tsao took me completely into the space of vision. His modest canvases leave ample space for an exhibition's white walls. A still more intense white surrounds each work. That glow comes from using the gallery fixtures as broad spotlights, but it seems to arise from the work itself. If Ryman enables white paint to cast colored shadows, Tsao uses concentrated color to fill a room with points of light. It may not match your idea of contemporary Asian-American art.

Eventually, I had to break that moment and get closer, if only to see how he does it. The water-based medium contains fabric pigment and marble dust. He could tell you what else, but he would have to kill you first. The highly reflective components give even pale tones the depth of pure primary colors. As he pours paint, without a brush, the colors may blend, bleed into one another, or add to each other's intensity. Sometimes the cracks take on the fine detail of deliberate drawing. As with Morris Louis and his darker poured paintings, the components visible along the sides come as a surprise and serve as part of the image, too.

They also call attention to its material support, and up close one perceives the paint as a series of thin layers on equal footing with canvas. The ground media give the layers considerable strength, even when they stick out irregularly from the edges. Occasionally Tsao peels off a chip as it dries and transplants it elsewhere. Like much of the color, those thin patches may make one think of flower petals as much as marble chips, and that labor over a painting's ground may have something in common with tending soil. The catalog essay, by Benjamin Genocchio, suggests a connection to the flower markets of the artist's childhood in Thailand.

The rough edges also make the canvases appear like fragments torn from something more continuous. The images, too, evoke a larger scale in space and time. They may recall river beds and lunar or planetary surfaces, and Tsao is fond of titles like Flood and Sci-Fi. No question such associations make poured paint comfortingly familiar, attractive, and self-referential. Color-field painting has a history, after all.

However, the associations have something else in common, too, however. They all exist in a space neither fully organic nor inorganic, like abstraction finding its way between the human image and material object. They suggest not just poured media and flowing color, but the marks of processes long past. They allow one again to see paint as both itself and trace, substance and image.

They help keep the work from coming off as a little too pretty, a little too neat, or a little too close to camp, like paintings of artificial flowers or retreads of Jules Olitski crossed with Ross Bleckner. I take comfort in knowing that work in progress normally lies heavily all over Tsao's Brooklyn studio rather than on white walls, and he has had to negotiate with his landlord to keep the liquids from turning the place into another uninhabited world. I imagine it as yet a greater mutual saturation of the tactile and visual.

Dress rehearsal

Petah Coyne, too, believes in getting her hands dirty, and she makes me feel that I may never shake the dirt from my skin as well. She drew attention in the late 1980s for constructions of soil held together by goodness knows what, but definitely not by goodness. They look earthy, rough, dense, rich, and strange. Petah Coyne: installation view (SculptureCenter, 2005)

Perhaps they look at times a little too rich. I often forget to look beyond their palpability and estheticism. They avoid formalism on one side or obvious representation on the other. They sit comfortably in a gallery, where earthworks would spill over its edges or simple statuary would declare a public place.

They do, however, implicate art and artist alike in that rough interior space, with a notion of femininity as unsettling as Bontecou's soot and ashes. Soil may suggest nurturing, like the space of Tsao's imagined flowers. It may suggest humility in the face of forces beyond one's control, like that of Candide cultivating his garden. This soil, however, has no space for penetration or time for rest. Besides, it gets in the way of good housekeeping. It would leave dark stains on a wedding dress.

In the last decade, Coyne has in fact let those stains appear, and the work has become that much more interesting in the process. It is still earthy, dense, rough, and strange, but it spills over the sculptural, and it cherishes associations. Some works resemble dresses, veils, or female busts, hardened in pitch black or pure white.

Coyne has not transcended color but imperfectly effaced it. Up close, a torso spreads into birds. Seedpods morph into tresses of hair. Roses and lace vie with their covering of with paint and tar. They make feminine imagery more explicit than in her earlier work, but with a terrifying melancholy. At her gallery, one could be the witness to a broken wedding, an altar left without a bride.

At SculptureCenter, a small selection from throughout her career has the main floor—appropriately enough, above the crawl spaces of the crenellated basement used for group shows. Coyne's blackened roses rise from the converted factory floor by Maya Lin. Earth clings to the walls and, as the retrospective's title has it, "Above and Beneath the Skin." The lace and birds hang from the high, half-open industrial ceiling, on long cords that blend into the suspended surfaces, images, masses, and materials. I thought of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, always in her wedding dress, floating once more in the dark, empty rafters of Pip's imagination.

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Robert Ryman ran at PaceWildenstein in Chelsea through January 8, 2005, Richard Tsao at Chambers Fine Art through April 9, and Petah Coyne at Galerie Lelong through March 12 and at SculptureCenter through April 10.


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