The Fireworks of Abstraction

John Haber
in New York City

Odili Donald Odita and Mark Wiener

There is something daunting about fall openings these days, but also something calming: it brings another report on the state of abstraction.

It may broaden one's view of abstraction, in case one had missed the role of such African American artists as Odili Donald Odita. It introduces Rosemarie Fiore, Caetano de Almeida, and Reed Danziger, who treat geometry and colors as firework displays. It also brings vivid memories of Mark Wiener, who did not live to see his retrospective. Between them all, abstraction can still set off fireworks. Mark Wiener's Untitled (01:45pm, April 29, 2012) (photo by the artist, 2012)

Running wild

One could still have the immeasurable beauty of small differences, with Anne Truitt and Robert Ryman. One could see Ron Gorchov bending geometric abstraction into 3D the hard way, in handmade paper. One could watch Sean Scully softening the borders of his lushly massed oil. Abstraction may have lost the rigor and mission of late Modernism. Even Frank Stella has set aside the picture plane. Yet one should never forget how that mission allowed softer edges and a quieter beauty.

One could follow as Herb Jackson gives paint the rough sheen of solid rock. Or one could see a bolder version of Sol LeWitt than one often remembers. His ink drawings from the 1988 Venice Biennale give the gallery walls the texture of stone, and their shapes resemble monumental sculpture. One could shoot instead for excess, with Ford Crull. Crull's scrawls can recall graffiti, with black as a weapon of choice. As one says before a duel, choose your weapon.

One could settle for the back of the canvas or watch it burst through to the front, with Jane Fox Hipple. One could find a duly conceptual spin, in Morgan Fisher, who thinks of his materials as home decor. Yet the paneled constructions still speak softly as Minimalism. One could indulge in the sheer variety of imagery available now, with Alison Miller or Charline von Heyl. von Heyl could well sum up every other show and then some, but only because of their own multiplicity. Complain all one wants, but "anything goes" now means eclecticism or even gesture and excess rather than a new avant-garde or a Neo-Mannerism.

Maybe best of all, one could adopt a single-minded focus that refuses to stay put. For Odili Donald Odita, that means color—but color as an avenue to something hitherto unseen. Odita speaks of it as a thing in itself, as singular and apart as music. And that reminds him of another kind of otherness, that of black America or the Third World. Has he run into an obvious contradiction, in using color as a metaphor and in breaching the senses while declaring it irreducible? That just shows how far the other has entered the gallery.

Born in Nigeria, Odita calls his dazzling display "This, That, and the Other." Color ripples across the entrance wall, in jagged pillars, and no one color ever stands alone. Its diagonals collide on canvas with verticals separating it into columns. Odita brings hard edges to life without falling back on reductive logic or illusion. He adopts compositions so crowded that flatness goes without saying. Yet their twists and turns could belong to living flesh.

The occasional pinks remind me of nudes in a forest by Henri Matisse. A crowded canvas or the white of the wall has become a space in which to live. And that riot still leaves others to tease out at greater length here. The same weeks offered a look back at another African American with command of abstraction, Eugene J. Martin. For Martin, the languages of art could take in the entire history of Modernism, but for others it is more like an explosion. As Odita says, with a nod to Josef Albers, "A color does not exist without its other."

Shooting for fireworks

Sometimes artists shoot for fireworks. Maybe they have to, in a competitive art scene—especially if they dare to make "just painting." They also get to break one last border. After abstraction and representation, photography and trompe l'oeil, new media and old, abstraction and madness, why not canvas and spectacle? For her "smoke paintings," Rosemarie Fiore does not need to set off fireworks, at least literally. She does not, though, shy away from the metaphor.

Fiore, Caetano de Almeida, and Reed Danziger all spin wildly or deliberately off the grid. That does not, however, preclude a conceptual underpinning. For Fiore, the concept is obvious: she is painting with colored smoke. It stains paper, which she then cuts into small disks and pastes down. The work still functions more as painting than collage.

For all the fireworks, she is building on regular elements, like late Modernism. In a gallery that also shows the fictive brushwork of Mark Sheinkman and Stephen Ellis, the patterning of Valerie Jaudon, and the illusion of natural processes in Catherine Howe and Joseph Stashkevetch, Fiore's smoke and mirrors fit right in. Her colored circles also recall Robert Delauney. They form spirals, connected by broader arcs that stain more freely, without the sharp edges of a knife. Sometimes the patterns bounce off one another and ricochet back. They never quite explode, but then they already have.

de Almeida also has ties to early Modernism. The Brazilian favors colored grids that overwhelm the senses and, often as not, his own compositions. For once, though, he adopts sparer and more regular lines, although they still refuse to behave. Sometimes their departure from the vertical brings them closer to gray spheres, as if pulled by a magnetic field. The more rounded spheres look right out of Fernand Léger and his icy humanism. And sometimes the field takes on a logic of its own.

Danziger is most obviously at home in three dimensions. Like Fiore, she lends works on paper the scale of painting. Her pen and ink twists into depth, clustering around colored planes in gouache and watercolor, like the vanes of a fan in high winds. The sheer density and the emptiness of surrounding paper both recall Julie Mehretu, but without the grandeur of imagined landscapes. Rather, motion itself becomes the subject. So does the potential for human transformation, as art tackles science.

Does art have to shoot for fireworks? Yeah, painting as contemplation is so modernist—and installations, alas, have everyone looking for spectacle. For now, though, one may as well enjoy it. Once transformation becomes subject matter, one can also think of future possibilities. Danziger is interested, he says, in "the moment" when "new patterns begin to take form." If one cannot have fireworks, one can always collect the ashes.

A studio in black and white

When a painter gives up color, one knows what to expect. Darkness, despair, discipline, refusal, contemplation, or relief. Francisco de Goya in his Black Paintings or Goya portraits, Georges Seurat with the exacting medium of Conté crayon, Franz Kline or Ad Reinhardt with the ultimate turn to abstraction, Willem de Kooning for Black Friday, Mark Rothko before his death, or Jasper Johns in gray. Not all the same nouns apply to each, but the words are waiting, to be accepted or denied. For Pablo Picasso, black and white could represent a return to his strength, in drawing, or a turn from sexual escapades to anger, for Guernica. Either way, for a man with little patience, the absence of color counts as restraint.

Not for Mark Wiener. Starting in 2006, he was just letting loose, and he had never looked more at ease with himself and with paint. His drips, stains, and brushstrokes have a greater momentum, as if paint had exploded out of the can and landed on Mylar or canvas. He still works with hard edges and geometry here and there, but the white circles, diamonds, triangles, and tapered rectangles seem to float more freely above the surface. Nearing the end of his show, he also works large, and I can remember him standing in front of the painting in his Chelsea studio. It hung closer to the floor, incomplete, and I still think of it as his native environment.

Larger circles in fact look like the edges of a paint can, as if left there in the studio by accident. I doubt that they were, but they do suggest real spaces and real time—and so do titles with the absurd precision of a date and time of day. Up close, one can see a pencil grid, evidence of the artist's thought process in what looks most disordered and spontaneous. It also marks an orientation in the picture plane, while the paintings defy orientation. Drips attest to gravity, while paint cans attest to the presence of canvas on the floor. One can say much the same about space for Jackson Pollock, who also ended his career in black.

Some artists get a two-gallery exhibition or a two-museum retrospective. Two corporate lobbies sound less impressive, but one can cross the street to see what Wiener left behind, starting in 2003. He had a residency and exhibition in those years just a block south, off Bryant Park. Clearly he was not leaving color behind because he was uncomfortable with it. Still, maybe he was finding himself in his fifties. For an artist too young to have experienced the course of postwar abstraction, he recapitulated it in paint.

The curator, Janusz Jaworski (with Linda DiGusta), notes his Bauhaus influences, but the earliest painting has the static density of Surrealism in America. At first Wiener retains a horizon line, before loosening up in the direction of color-field painting. The free curves, yellows, whites, reds, and breathing room in his last color paintings take one right to late de Kooning. Black and white may have allowed at last a way out of the textbooks, although one can see also continuities across the two bodies of work. Compare the apocalyptic landscapes to the painterly explosions. Or consider the ongoing interplay of geometry, splatter, and stains, in what Nick Goss has called "bluing."

Any of these can stand for something impersonal or for the artist. The works in color keep coming back to nested squares, the central square a single stroke. Later, either black or white can come forward, although black serves as a marker of space. Wiener could describe uncertainty without shades of gray. Regrettably, he did not return to midtown with his art. He died of illness in 2012.

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Anne Truitt ran at Matthew Marks through October 26, 2013, Robert Ryman at Pace through October 26, Sol LeWitt at Paula Cooper through October 12, Ford Crull at Creon through October 30, Ron Gorchov at Lesley Heller through October 13, Sean Scully at Cheim & Read through January 11, Herb Jackson at Claire Oliver through October 19, Jane Fox Hipple at Dodge through October 27, Morgan Fisher at Bortolami through October 19, Alison Miller at Susan Inglett through October 19, Charline von Heyl at Petzel through October 5, Odili Donald Odita at Jack Shainman through November 16, Rosemarie Fiore at von Lintel through October 19, Caetano de Almeida at Eleven Rivington through October 13, Reed Danziger at McKenzie through October 13, and Mark Wiener at 1133 and 1155 Sixth Avenue through November 20.


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