Shaping the Square

John Haber
in New York City

Don Voisine, Angelika Schori, and Al Loving

Remember shaped canvas from nearly half a century ago? For Frank Stella, it could take flight like an exotic bird. For Elizabeth Murray, it could explode into scraps from everyday life. It could have the craftsmanship and rigor of Charles Hinman, the casual but vital cool of Richard Tuttle, or the defiance of its own logic of Robert Mangold. For Ellsworth Kelly, it need not even depart from the rectangle.

It might seem newly relevant, now that painting is back, but less as formal exercise than as a hybrid of styles and media. I keep coming back to that hybrid, not solely with shaped canvas and its heirs. Most recently, I caught art between painting and sculpture or challenging the opposition between exuberance and geometry. Still other artists, though, are putting geometry through its paces much like Stella, including Don Voisine strictly within the rectangle and Angelika Schori on both sides of the picture plane. Don Voisine's Reset (McKenzie Fine Art, 2015)Do not overlook, too, an African American who was there all along, with work on paper from the late 1970s by Al Loving. Their art does not need shaped canvas to reshape the rectangle.

Cleaning house

Don Voisine shapes painting the old-fashioned way, with paint. I almost said "the hard way," but that would sell some truly pioneering artists short. No one is going to match the rigor, energy, and humor of Frank Stella and Elizabeth Murray with actual shaped canvas, and that does not count the sheer feat of its construction. Even after seeing Charles Hinman with work in progress in his studio, I still hardly know how he does it. Come to think of it, the craft behind a Renaissance tondo, or round painting, deserves respect of its own. Voisine, though, pares oil on wood back to basics, while keeping things in motion.

His hard-edged stripes run parallel to the picture's edge, much as for early Stella. The generally modest size of his panels gives added breadth to the stripes—and added weight to Voisine's care in effacing his brushwork when he wishes. They may reach right to the edge, although thinner bands may instead provide a buffer, much as Stella's brush stops short of filling the canvas. The colors of the thinnest bands, including pink and olive, play off against the underlying surface and each other. Thicker stripes run diagonally, merging into still broader fields of paint. Stella departed from the grid with his last paintings to exhibit an unquestioned formalism, the Irregular Polygons of 1965 and 1966.

Voisine, though, is not giving up on the rectangle. More often than not, he barely departs from a square, and the diagonals owe their direction to nothing more than themselves and each other. They stand out at a painting's center, between paired horizontal or vertical bands. They cross or abut one another as well, like an X in the process of both thickening and coming apart. They come in red, white, and, most often, the color that provided Stella with his own breakthrough, black. They lend the image its sense of motion, while their very breadth helps to reinforce its stability.

Is it insulting to praise these paintings as "clean"? That sounds almost prurient, but the clarity is enlivening, just as with Minimalism. It may also sound as if loose brushwork, in contrast, is just plain dirty, as part of the very revival of abstraction, legitimized by slick shows like MoMA's "The Forever Now." Sometimes it seems as if anyone can throw paint around, including painters who pride themselves on not settling for conceptualism or irony. That still leaves a long lineage of simplicity but unpredictability, going back at least to Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Mangold. If it can leave me cold, some days I really miss it.

Voisine stays still closer to the grid, and that contributes to the logic of stability in motion. He keeps experimenting, but within the bounds he has set himself. He is working more with contrasts between matte and glossy areas, much as Ad Reinhardt works with contrasting tones in black on black. His thin bands are becoming more prominent notes of color. He is also paring things down still further, as in his last show, with some paintings restricted to cream or to black. In all these ways, he retains the motion of shaped canvas and the stability of oil on squares of wood.

I would call them subtle, but that, too, sounds insulting. I first encountered Voisine along with Gary Petersen in group shows, as a kind of Bushwick Neo-Neo-Geo. A revival of Minimalism is common elsewhere these days, too, in both painting and sculpture. It can seem like just one more formula among too many others, yet another example of what Jerry Saltz has called "derivative art-school abstraction." Yet artists can still shape painting with minimal means and an appreciation for paint. Never mind that Stella himself gave up long ago.

Running the light

Angelika Schori calls her show "Light Touch," and for all that her work bears down of its own weight. Schori rings the changes on detaching painting from its stretcher, while still identifying it with its support. In each series, paint runs right to the edge, much as for Minimalism. With some, diagonals run casually every which way. With others, canvas laps into the room cut, crumpled, and damaged. Yet the more material they are, the lighter they get, and the more the light emerges from within.

Angelika Schori's Chloe (Pablo's Birthday, 2015)Lightness might be on the artist's mind just from dropping in on Orchard Street. Her gallery called an earlier show of Michael Rouillard "Lighter Still," as if he had somehow seen Schori's work and responded in advance. She has that light touch most obviously in mere canvas, holding itself up to the wall as best it can. In a second series, canvas peels away and hangs down from the center of a rectangle on stretcher, as if sticking out its tongue. The whole composition might represent a TV set from a clunkier age. The lightness of tone, though, matters less than the lightness or weight of materials.

Both series could have a point of reference in Arte Povera, with all its violence against the work of art, but with much less to prove. They are also about light in the sense of color—and of letting color speak for itself. Schori has painted the back of the canvas a different color, and the very damage allows one to see it. Again like artists of the 1960s, she has nothing to hide. Here what you see is very much what you get, twice over at that. Yet it matters, too, that one never sees all of it at once.

The third series is the most consciously shaped, but also the most luminous. Here she works on powder-coated steel, each piece a variation on the rectangle. Several pieces hang together from a pin, like steel for Erin Shirreff. Their contrasting diagonals also push away from the wall, like stripes for Frank Stella in the 1970s. Their pure white matches the white of the wall, but with a greater glow. It arises not only from the reflective powder and metal, but also from bright color on the edges and backs.

Variations on Minimalism keep coming, but without the self-conscious grandeur of geometry back in the day. Tondos from Pamela Jorden have wisps of paint out of Robert and Sonia Delauney, sometimes sharing half the field with black. Adam Winner has even more in common with Schori. For "Scratchpad," some paintings stay only white, as for Robert Ryman, their torn edges attesting to their making. Others have the concentric rectangles of still earlier Stella, in black or white, with the same care to leave space between them so that its brushwork stands apart. Here, too, though, the thick stripes take on color from the underpainting that they reveal.

Somehow painting has outlived the death of painting. Galleries feel the pressure to insist on it at that, by boosting older artists who may have missed their fair share of the action. In her "verb paintings," Lee Lozano took as her titles active verbs—like Pitch, Slide, Lean, Swap, and Cram. Their shaped canvas fits together into rectangles that deny the shaping, while warm colors and soft modeling in turn disturb the picture plane with the illusions of a third dimension. They might represent nose cones flying dangerously close—and this was 1964 and 1965, with a missile crisis not so far behind. Contemporary eclecticism may never recovery that urgency. Yet it can still hope for a lighter touch.

Paper thin

Al Loving, too, had a light touch. Not that he shied away from deep colors, but brighter curves cross them like particle tracks close to the speed of light. An entire assemblage is in constant motion at that. Arcs and strips of varying width run wild, spinning or jutting outward with little care for their neighbors. But then work from 1978 and 1979, really is light, even on the tremendous scale of a wall. It is, after all, made of paper.

A fine lightness is even more vivid in reproduction, where the painted fields let in white from the page or screen. In the gallery, though, the work gathers weight, as things tend to do in real life. It has the shape of Exotic Birds, aluminum reliefs by Frank Stella from precisely the same years. It has their metallic sheen, too, as paint darkens, accumulates, and reflects the light. It recalls Stella's weighty experiments, going back to shaped canvas, in another way as well, for these are not just works on paper. They are works of paper, and the irregular outlines of the materials are the work.

Unstretched canvas from the early 1970s has the same play of lightness against weight, much as for Sam Gilliam and Richard Tuttle. The fabric hangs down of its own accord, stained with parallel bars. The paper includes grids, too, set at an angle as if seen in perspective. It takes on that much more vibrancy and substance by seeming to come off the wall. Geometry also helps hold the work together, as does the tendency of shapes and colors to collide and merge. Tall, narrow paper constructions approach welded steel from another African American, Melvin Edwards.

Alvin D. Loving, Jr., might have had his own memories of flame cutting through metal. He was born in Detroit, in 1935, although his father taught school and then college rather than worked the assembly line. Al Loving's Self-Portrait #23 (Gary Snyder gallery, c. 1973)He studied at the University of Illinois and then the University of Michigan, where the elder Loving served as dean. Geometric abstraction came naturally to him, too, just as to another black artist in Stanley Whitney. Paintings from the early 1970s have the pale yellows, hard edges, and diagonals of Stella from those years as well. They just happen to look like cubes edge-on.

People too often overlook Loving's engagement with his time. Like many black artists, he had to put up with life on the margins almost to his death in 2005. He had a reputation as an Abstract Expressionist after painting had moved on. His very choice of materials helped mark him as a lightweight, as did his sense of irony. He did not stick to the sobriety and rule-based structures of Minimalism, but neither did he have the organic form of Post-Minimalism for Eve Hesse and others. Yet he has their tactile presence, and he called the unstretched canvas Self-Portraits.

Were they portraits of blackness? Not particularly, although they do resemble blankets out of any number of cultural traditions. They also look newly contemporary. Thanks to feminism and art-world fashion, a Neo-Minimalism on fabric keeps coming—as just this past month from Elena del Rivero, Martha Clippinger, Brent Wadden, and Lissy Funk. Loving's unstretched canvas and paper, though, tell only part of the story of a painter with real weight. More of his past is still to come.

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Don Voisine ran at McKenzie through June 14, 2015, Angelika Schori at Pablo's Birthday through June 28, Pamela Jorden at Klaus von Nichtssagend through June 7, Adam Winner at Josée Bienvenu through July 11, Lee Lozano at Hauser & Wirth through July 31, Al Loving at Garth Greenan through June 27, Elena del Rivero at Josée Bienvenu through May 23, Martha Clippinger at Hionas through May 30, Brent Wadden at Mitchell-Innes & Nash through May 30, and Lissy Funk at JTT through June 21.


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