Cutting into the Grid

John Haber
in New York City

Nancy Haynes, Mary Heilmann, and Cutters

What happened to color-field painting? Some of the darkest and messiest takes on it recently come from established artists, such as Nancy Haynes and Mary Heilmann. Meanwhile some of the most respectful and elegant versions of abstraction come from artists, like those in "Cutters," determined to cut the grid to pieces.

An accompanying article brings Richard Tuttle up to date for his return from Minimalism to painting. Another looks at some more serious cases of slash and burn from younger artists, including Jacob Kassay. Nancy Haynes's Shadow Syndrome (Elizabeth Harris, 2008)

Dark matter

Nancy Haynes makes light of her own darkness. This is not Pierre Soulages looking "beyond black." Titles like Hesitant, Ill Seen, or Ill Said suggest a painting's failure to reveal itself. Titles like Nothing Said, Close Your Eyes, or Shadow Syndrome suggest an obsession with revealing nothing. Yet the more time one spends with her "Dark Matter" series, the more painting comes to light.

One sees first a carefully modulated monochrome. Much of a surface runs to variations on gray, now including dark red or blue, pale green, and muted yellow. One could also call it a deliberate self-effacement. The somber overpainting draws attention to itself by stopping or hesitating—leaving lighter tones along the top or bottom edge. From the clear outline of a brush, it has stopped abruptly. In drawing back from the edge, erasure becomes revelation.

In other work, the gaps may allow a bright, translucent red and a surface closer to gold. Does even her blackness arise, then, from effacing color—or its accumulation? The dark, painted sides of the linen indicate as much. And that means a lot of color, including the varieties of gray. As one stands back, especially at Harris, the brightest light accumulates at a painting's center. Something of the same thing happens when actual clouds block the sun.

The rectangular brush mark and the painting's edge recall formalism's insistence on art as object. Her dark gray and visible pummeling of the surface has something in common with early Brice Marden. For a while, too, Marden added strips along the top or bottom. Haynes's brighter patches, too, emphasize the horizontal format, and they make a nearly square work look wider, like her diptychs some years ago. However, compared to Marden's oil and encaustic, the thinness of her oil insists on the visual.

Perhaps any horizontal line stands for the visual, like the horizon in Hiroshi Sugimoto's dark-gray images of the sea—which appeared. So does the need to look long enough to see black as color, as for Ad Reinhardt in Reinhardt's black paintings . The primacy of the visual makes painting a kind of sign language, the language of such titles as Index and Syntax. In language, too, erasure multiplies as well as effaces meanings. No wonder things break down at a painting's edge. As John Ashbery wrote, "there's a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas."

Sharing a gallery with Haynes, Nene Humphrey takes the tactile, physical edge of abstraction as her subject, but she, too, thrives on the visual. Layers of Mylar on paper leave floating rectangles or blots of color. From there, ink spins outward, almost like self-generating networks. Humphrey takes her inspiration not only from embroidery, but also from clinical studies of the human brain. She wants her images, also including a construction in wire and mixed media, to serve as both a model for creativity and a remembrance of death. Still, it comes most alive and fragile when translucent.

Edge or no edge

Critics like to praise Mary Heilmann with faint damns. They love the "charm" or "sloppiness" of her "casual," "recycled" geometries. Dave Hickey links the native Californian to a "surfer's ethic" of "never trying too hard to save your life." Her retrospective turns from motif to motif, as if her attention had already moved on. In fact, her attention was only just beginning.

She arrived in New York in 1968, when geometry defined painting, as both an object and a sensibility. In work from the 1970s, inner and outer rectangles undergo their possible color permutations across two or three panels. Everything attests to her deductive logic, down to black household paint that Frank Stella might have borrowed—everything, that is, except for the painting. An outer rectangle meanders away from the edge, and the tart colors wander even further from a color chart. Ever since, Heilmann's frame has become that much more unhinged. The loose horizontals in Surfing on Acid from 2005 resemble an overstuffed burger with lettuce and tomato.

She has not abandoned the ideal of painting as object, including painted ceramics and something like lawn furniture. In her retrospective, one can sit in her chairs to watch her on video. She has not given up either on the oblique fall of light—a point in common with an early fan, Ellsworth Kelly. She turns successively to dots, stripes, and a tracery of lines like that of tiling or stained glass. She also combines and revisits them all. The assemblies of multiple panels seem in danger of falling apart but never, as with Elizabeth Murray and her Pop imagery, of exploding.

Mary Heilmann's Gordy's Cut (Carol and David Appel/Gallery 303/Hauser and Wirth, 2003)She shares the circling back, as well as the tiling, with Jasper Johns. As with Jasper Johns, too, the borrowings from herself suggest a career as a place apart. At first she hung around with color-field painters without quite joining them. By 1980 she was among many disrupting the rigor of abstract painting, but without landing on the floor with "bad girls" like Lynda Benglis. She enjoys smears too much to undertake a conceptual catalog of abstraction with Jennifer Bartlett. She exhibited at Pat Hearn, starting in 1986, without quite falling for the decorative camp of Neo-Geo, but with something of the "fresh out of the tube" marks of Jonathan Lasker.

Heilmann learned from the big boys in 1968 and the East Village crowd twenty years later, but without feeling that she had to conform to either. She has found new fans after thirty years because others, too, are wondering why abstraction ever tried so hard. As recently as ten years ago, abstract artists were still debating whether to declare themselves dead or the cutting edge. Yet she already had admirers like Stephen Westfall for skirting either idea. Others have seen something akin to women in Pop Art even in her early rectangles, like mangled doorframes. In some recent paintings, an odd splotch appears to have spilled across a tiling seen in perspective—sometimes, as in her follow-up gallery show "Two-Lane Blacktop," a casual reference to a long view down the open road.

The late 1970s showed abstraction's restlessness and rigor. The decade and its arguments have turned up repeatedly in the last few years, too, as in "High Times, Hard Times" at the National Academy. Heilmann fits even more with the chastened expectations of today. She reflects on the past without analyzing it to death. She finds a space for a personal touch apart from expressionism or revelation. That has become the ideal for such critics as Hickey and Ken Johnson, and who am I to complain that it privileges intimacy over urgency?

Death by a thousand cuts

Modern art instructed its disciples not to bring peace but a sword. "Cutters" gathers artists who draw not with a pen but with a blade of their own. The show captures a real trend and an attractive, shared sensibility. It does not, as it happens, even aim for the cutting edge.

That alone says something interesting about art. I am not a strict formalist, but I can still relate to Modernism's dream of cleaning house and making as many enemies as possible in the process. That often involved physically ripping into existing forms—with scissors, an X-Acto knife, or something nastier. Cubism had its collage, Henri Matisse his late cutouts, David Smith his welding torch, and Robert Rauschenberg or John Chamberlain his auto wreck and cut foam. When The Large Glass cracked by accident, Marcel Duchamp declared it finished. And then things got really out of hand.

Mary Birmingham, the curator, cites Matisse as a point of origin, but also a child's paper snowflakes. The nineteen artists work by cutting out or perforating single sheets, mostly of paper, and often they do allude to a childlike innocence. Jaq Belcher's white square has the rippled texture of freshly fallen snow, and Hunter Stabler supplies a single huge snowflake. Mia Perlman's or Eva Mantel's white swirl resembles a cloud, Thomas Weaver speaks of the Birdhouse Blues, Casey Ruble's birds skid through paper branches, and Jin Lee imagines a gallery wall as a White Landscape. While Marco Maggi gives the appearance of shattered glass, he has cut each line into Plexiglas and titles it Shadow on Paper NJ. Even when Paul Villanti faces more recalcitrant materials, in beer cans (or, for the reopened Museum of Arts and Design, "Second Lives," old 78s), he is sculpting butterflies.

Michelle Forsyth and Clytie Alexander produce transparency or refracted light, by grids of holes in solid matter. More often, work bars the eye where one expects to turn the page. When Cal Lane cuts into an oil drum, she peels off a patterned rug. Chris Nau's cuts make Sheetrock bulge outward like a seismic disturbance, and Carlo Vialu likes piles of shredded paper itself, like death by a thousand cuts. In an old routine, Mel Brooks as a psychiatrist cures a patient's compulsion to tear paper by saying, "Don't tear paper." Art's obsessive-compulsive behavior remains incurable.

Something has changed from Rauschenberg's dark humor and Smith's ambition to turn the tools of an assembly line into art. Craft has gained in respectability, as has the artist's book. This show simply effaces its text. With carefully assembled sheets, Noriko Ambe turns pages into mountains, Brian Dettmer into interiors, and Curt Ikens into human anatomy. Stefana McClure curls words up tightly into a ball. The best-known contributor, Sarah Sze, unfolds a notepad into a cross between adding-machine tape and a fire escape.

The artists share a nostalgia for art or books as objects to hold in one's hands and cherish, but also the disturbing nature of text, as with cuts by Meg Hitchcock, not in the show. In the real world, their favored tool has given way to desktop publishing, and new technology also allows these artists to ditch a blowtorch for a laser beam or plasma cutter. Way too much of the work looks almost alike. Nothing competes with the darkness of Lee Bontecou, the cynicism about art of Alighiero Boetti, or the mad excess of Tara Donovan and James Lee Byars. Where the imagery gets heavy—as with Jihoon Park's baseball bat and video, Kako Ueda's cartoon toxic-waste dump, or Agitator Collective's insistence that the work has been removed—it never quite adds up. "Cutters" brings peace more than a sword, but at its best an intricate kind of peace.

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Nancy Haynes ran at Elizabeth Harris through March 14, 2009, and with Nene Humphrey at Lesley Heller through March 21, Hiroshi Sugimoto at Gagosian through February 14, and Mary Heilmann ran at The New Museum of Contemporary Art through January 16 and at 303 Gallery through February 21. "Cutters" ran both at the Hunter College Art Gallery through March 14 and at the Hunterdon Art Museum in New Jersey through June 7.


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