4.20.17 — Gates of Perception

I shall be running through some shows of abstract art tomorrow, as a brief and, I hope, fun gallery tour. Allow me, then, in preparation an extra post today that somehow fell through the cracks this winter.

If one is going to take Mark Rothko halfway around the world, it only makes sense to rotate the painting as well. Rather than stacked pillows, Yun Hyong-keun favors rising or falling pillars, most often side by side. Yun Hyong-keun's Burnt Umber & Ultramarine (David Zwirner gallery, 1978)They may nestle against the picture’s outer edges, their rounded peaks not quite touching the top. They may start nearer the center, almost covering the whole.

Either way, they draw one up close to watch the dark oil spread, at David Zwirner through February 18. One can immerse oneself in the slivers or fields of bare cotton, stained by osmosis or the artist’s touch.

The Korean artist found a welcome in New York in 1974. Donald Judd invited him to Texas. In turn, his paintings from 1976 through the 1980s have an obvious debt to late Rothko, and he worked on the floor like Jackson Pollock. I cannot swear that he met Morris Louis, but he, too, thinned his paint to watch it run. The stains at the edges of his widening bands approach raw turpentine. One might borrow from Louis oneself and retitle the paintings Unfurled.

Still, they belong to another continent. Yun died in 2007, in his late seventies, little known here. Like Mono-ha in Japan, he adapted Minimalism to Asia. He compared his blackness to ink and its flow to calligraphy from the nineteenth century. If he has rotated Rothko ninety degrees, some older Korean writing may read vertically. One can think of the irregular stains as bad penmanship. One can think, too, of the pillars as gates of perception.

They work best that way, rather than as color-field painting. As with Rothko or Ad Reinhardt, blackness is not what it appears. The work comes in two series, Umber-Blue and Burnt Umber & Ultramarine, for its true two colors. Still, one can look a long time without seeing either one. One can look in vain, too, for a signature element like Rothko’s rectangles or Reinhardt’s squares, apart from those widening edges and their turpentine stains. One can look a long time all the same.

Not every stained canvas out there is a doorway to perception. Maybe you think of a few stalwarts and standouts as sustaining painting through its lean years, like Jennifer Bartlett or Elizabeth Murray. Maybe you think of a resurgence today driven by artists and midlevel dealers facing a system stacked against them. Still, stained canvas today has a pricy and public side as well. Glibber versions than Yun’s are turning up in the mainstream. Where others speak of zombie formalism, they approach subjectivity for the living dead.

At least they share a love of color. Katharina Grosse at Gagosian, through March 11, applies it to canvas and aluminum with a spray gun, where scale and electric hues supply an energy that the arbitrary shapes and drips may not. Adrian Gheni brushes it onto canvas, at Pace through February 18, where what may look at first like abstraction represents the lap of luxury, on balconies overlooking the mountains. I prefer Liliane Tomasko in the more modest surroundings of the Lower East Side, at Marc Straus through February 10, where bright primaries out of Joan Mitchell give a balance of luxuriance and control. With Grosse from Germany, Cheni from Romania, and Tomasko from Germany via Switzerland, has the rebirth of painting become just another tool of global markets? Maybe, but one can always return to umber, blue, and black.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

1.2.17 — Beware of Darkness

I did not go to the Rothko Chapel to pray. Even in a hushed room, I could not hope for a reflection of myself or of God. I could not safely turn from the dark canvas surrounding me to contemplate something else. Put away talk of pure plasticity and the sublime’s cosmic drama. I had entered a place where I could live for a while with myself.

Mark Rothko's No. 22 (Untitled) (photo by the Mark Rothko Foundation/ARS, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1961)Mark Rothko created that special place, and I have entered it again. I do not mean the building I once visited in Houston. I mean at Pace through January 7, for his “Dark Palette.” As I left, I thought back with a shock on what the age of big-time museums takes for granted. I had forgotten how art can darken the world’s mirrors to let in a stronger light. Because I wrote at such length on the occasion of a 1998 Rothko retrospective and later on Rothko in 1949, allow me to draw briefly on those two reviews, to bring you up to date, and to invite you to read more.

Critics have compared that light to the harsh northern sun. They have recalled the grand aspirations of the nineteenth-century sublime. Perhaps, but Rothko offers something more down to earth. A Romantic mirror of the eternal seems far away. These paintings hold out a darker, far more palpable kind of mirror, the clouded glass of everyday perception. Like Jackson Pollock, Rothko in his last years comes close to working in black and white.

Rothko’s discovery of a not-so-flat flatness has a lot in common with Pollock’s as well. He, too, starts doodling in signs, only to abandon them for the scale and texture of a mural. As he relies less on design and composition, he takes more seriously than ever the old metaphor of painting as mirror or window onto nature. Only now the mirror is clouded over. Now the window refracts more than it transmits or reflects. The old idea of the artist on one side and the viewer on the other goes out the window.

Pace picks up Rothko at his darkest, but nothing is really black and white. “Dark Palette” achieves a blockbuster with just twenty paintings, drawing on museums, private collectors, and the artist’s family and estate. So long after his New York retrospective, is there anything left to learn? Maybe not—not from painting all about looking without insisting on seeing oneself or him. The organizers go so far as to dismiss reducing his late paintings to his failing health, failing marriage, darkening mood, and coming suicide. They do, after all, begin a good twelve years before his death in 1970.

Perhaps, although I would have to forget the joy of his brighter colors along with the deeper elation of the darkness. More to the point, the show goes beyond black and white with its sheer variety. When you think of Rothko, do you think of something like a formula, with two rectangles against a fixed color, on a canvas two or three times as tall as it is wide? So what happens when he turns from the long horizontal of his unfinished mural for the Seagram Building to an unexpected tall, narrow vertical? What happens when he adopts a single rectangle, three rectangles, or slim dividers—or, like Ad Reinhardt, black on black? He keeps experimenting, but without the idea of progress toward a given endpoint.

One can linger over his technique—canvas stained with pigment and binder, then overlaid by thin layers of oil or, occasionally, acrylic. The layers may seem to merge with the underlying color or add up to a thicker slab of black. Most often, a dark tone overlays a more richly colored field, in Rothko’s familiar dark red or purple. At least once, though, the topmost layers run to loose brushwork and an electric blue. Do not even ask what comes next, and do not ask whether to call it black or color. Beware of darkness, and look again.

Read more or read more here, in two feature-length articles on this site.