Painting Made Easy

John Haber
in New York City

Rosson Crow and Florine Stettheimer

Clare Grill and Kes Zapkus

Is painting getting easier? Maybe it is just spring, after a long and bitter winter, when people can hardly resist letting loose. Or maybe artists just cannot hold back any longer, after that still longer winter when painting was declared dead.

A spring 2015 gallery tour makes a good antidote to an awful winter, but mixed messages about painting. Several artists let loose without breaking a sweat, in a style one might call "business casual"—or what a gallery calls "Post-Analog Painting." Rosson Crow insists on detail, in her encounters with an American classic, Florine Stettheimer, for still life set in a cross between a party and a madhouse. Trudy Benson's Computer Painting (Horton, 2013)Both alternatives hint at a history of women in art. Last, Clare Grill and Kes Zapkus take sensation seriously. Taken together, they suggest painting caught in both the risks and potential of its renewed success.

Making a splash

A splash here, a spray of paint there, a squiggle or two on top—half a dozen shows could almost have come from a single artist. They value bright colors and open textures, for a glimpse of canvas or the sea, with sincerity or irony almost beside the point. It could, depending on one's mood, have one reveling in paint for its own sake or begging for more commitment and more paint. Just this past winter, many shows celebrated painting's potential, with such artists as Michael Goldberg. Could that celebration lead instead to slapdash solutions? I am not sure myself.

It is a fool's game to look for trends. The avant-garde is dead, and a sucker is born every minute, along with another fashion. In just the last few years, painting has kept returning to hybrids, between abstraction and representation, between analog and digital, or between media. It has had room for obsessing over geometry and gesture, expression and excess. It can get downright conceptual or, at the other extreme, derivative. In different ways, they all speak to a felt need to go over the top, not unlike market prices.

Could that same need have artists paring back? For Jack Davidson, a blot of color like toothpaste right out of the tube settles into craquelure with room to breathe. Lines for Tatiana Berg hint at faces, while the dabs of background color for Jason Stopa broaden into sky or sea, beneath marks like glints of light on a freshly cleaned window. For Shara Hughes, a studio interior facing an open window looks downright lush by comparison. Yet she, too, is becoming sparer, while moving her scenes outdoors. The four differ in overt subject matter, but not so obviously in their true subject.

Other painters were taking the easy way before them, to striking effect. Mary Heilmann still shows how to take the pattern out of "pattern and decoration." Jonathan Lasker recalls the dream of making paint look as good as it does fresh out of the tube. Nicole Eisenman allows her squiggles to cohere into schematic faces, much like Berg's. For the entirety of "The Forever Now," recently at MoMA, impulse aspires to a language of art. Trudy Benson riffs on that language as well as anyone. She sprays and brushes oil, enamel, and acrylic as if to exhaust the possibilities.

Lasker and Benson both appear in "Post-Analog Painting," a near compendium of layered but open styles. Matthew Stone heads for Benson territory, with casual marks gathering in density while leaving plenty untouched. Mariah Dekkenga and Nathan Ritterpusch navigate between Paul Klee and spaghetti. If this seems a cartoon version of abstraction, sure enough Rachel Lord incorporates Angry Birds, while Josh Reames throws in a banana or two as well. Mark Flood tosses off a Jasper Johns flag as inkjet print, while Jeanette Hayes introduces Manga to Willem de Kooning. Never mind that Johns and de Kooning blew abstraction and pop culture out of the water long ago.

Is painting reclaiming ground late in the game, or is it losing ground to impulse and irony? Do artists have too much access to pop culture and art history alike, thanks to the Web? Does it matter that virtually none of "Post-Analog Painting" looks in the least digital? One virtue of paintings like these is to keep arguments going. Besides, one can always lean back and enjoy it. Now if only it did not look so easy.

Cathedrals of the LES

What would Florine Stettheimer have made of the Lower East Side today? Would she have counted it among her "cathedrals of art"? Not that it looks all that much like her four paintings by that name. New Yorkers know her best by the version at the Met, from 1942, with not a craft beer or hipster in sight. Set in a mansion-like interior with a red-carpeted stairwell that would have put Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and her museum to shame, it includes highlights of the city's major museums. Women after Pablo Picasso run riot amid an impeccably dressed cast of museum directors, critics, dealers, and the artist herself in white, idling ever so gracefully to the right.

Still, the critics and dealers have moved on by now, and so indeed had Stettheimer. She never exhibited in her lifetime anywhere near the Met's central stairs (the painting's real subject), although she did show once at Knoedler in its prime. She preferred the company of Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O'Keeffe, and the Society of Independent Artists downtown. She was mocking Modernism's pretensions well before the "Pictures generation," in a style akin to outsider art well before it, too, came into fashion. She also designed sets for Four Saints in Three Acts, the opera by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein, with an all-black cast that would not have found a welcome at a proper soiree. Besides, her paintings are way over the top.

So is Rosson Crow. She considers herself in "spatial conversations" with Stettheimer, although hardly a quiet or intimate conversation. It comes with exclamation points, like that in a tabloid confession in a large, unruly canvas: "I want to be a slave to some man!" Other Xerox transfers layered with paint include Mae West as Diamond Lil and "JFK's Brain Found in Cuba." Paintings like these are knowing if not exactly leading with their brain.

If that sounds hysterical, Crow calls the work "Hysteria." Sigmund Freud outgrew Studies in Hysteria, his early collaboration with Josef Breuer, but the term still carries historical baggage. It announced the discovery of the unconscious and the primacy of sexuality—like that intruding into the cathedrals of art. Yet it also pigeonholed women, much as critics soon enough pigeonholed Stettheimer. She, like her collaborators and supporters, were feminists before their time. Crow also evokes "the feminine" in her affinity to Pattern and Decoration, much like Miriam Schapiro. The nearly abstract images mix carpeting and wallpaper with floral arrangements and still life.

Stettheimer in conversation might have enjoyed the conversation. From a German Jewish family, the theme of a portrait in the Modern, she might have known actual denizens of Orchard Street back then. Yet she knew her way around her Cathedrals to Broadway and Cathedrals to Wall Street. She meant her paintings critically, but they also had their touchstones in American Modernism and fine art. Crow is more at home in pop culture, like much of art now—or, for that matter, like the Lower East Side. Not that she out to provide an allegory, like her predecessor, of either one.

Still, she packs a lot in, starting with the layers of primary color. Red predominates, because this is hot stuff. Mostly she is having fun, and Stettheimer could go along with that. The Whitney has just opened its own mammoth cathedral of art, at the foot of the High Line, with Stettheimer's painting of lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty on display. She believed in liberty, especially if that meant pushing things over the top. A found carved eagle presides on top of the frame.

Beyond excess

Sometimes a lot of work leads to sensory overload. Op Art went for it, and so in a very different way did Pattern and Decoration. So, too, do some fine younger artists who keep one's eye moving across the surface, as with delightfully large and splashy paintings by C. Michael Norton on the Lower East Side. They are not so much calling attention to themselves as keeping one off balance. Sometimes, though, a lot of work can calm things down. Take just two painters more than a generation apart, Clare Grill and Kes Zapkus.

Clare Grill's Fur (Zieher Smith and Horton, 2015)Grill approaches monochrome, while Zapkus approaches a grid. Her surfaces, even at their brightest, come off as subdued. She might almost have rubbed them down until nothing remained but the weave of the canvas and their luster. His rely on short strokes and incomplete cells that function as gathering places for color. Splashes of paint never quite fill their cells but often exceed them. They allow one to appreciate the excess without taking leave of one's senses.

Both highlight what goes into their art's making or unmaking. They accept repetition, but also accident and self-effacement. They both relate painting to finding one's way in the world as well. Grill's compositions look like paving stones worn away by time. Zapkus finds inspiration in mappings and symbols, from Paris streets to sheet music. One diptych sets the standard projection of a world map against its abstract counterpart.

If one does not make the associations on one's own, fine, for he is also challenging the fixity of codes and the world. He has been at it a long time, too, starting with Soho gallery pioneers like Paula Cooper and John Weber in the 1970s. One can take him for granted or for business as usual, but he is still very much in business. Although he has had a show of large paintings at O. K. Harris a few years back, one may also not appreciate just how much his incremental processes works on a large scale. One early work on paper presents a row of parallelograms, progressively leveling off as they march from left to right. Larger color fields help give shape and rhythm to new and larger paintings in much the same way.

Today's fondness for overload extends to well-meaning but outsize group shows, like "The Painter of Modern Life" and "Twenty by Sixteen," both in Chelsea. The latter refers to the uniform size of its paired canvases, but it could equally be called two by forty for the number of its artists. For all their solid choices, mostly abstract, they all but dare one to pause for long, to indulge in fresh discovery, or to remember half one's favorites. They rebel against those who mistake big money and big press for a new canon. Yet they also risk replicating the experience of the art fairs, and who am I to tell you where to begin? My job is to get you to look and to think—and so, I like to believe, is an artist's.

This is not about "slow art." Sure, one has to slow down now and then, but that tag can amount to a smug dismissal of art since Andy Warhol—or of simply whatever art one happens not to like. Pop Art, Minimalism, conceptual art, and Dada long before them all have their share of one-liners, but one-liners that come back to haunt one long after. The immediacy of a drip painting once felt like a betrayal, too, and even The Last Supper for Leonardo presents a moment in time as an explosion. No, this is about dealing with the quiet after the explosion is over and the moment has gone. And then one can honestly start looking and talking.

BACK to John's arts home page

Jack Davidson ran at Theodore:Art through April 9, 2015, Tatiana Berg at Thierry Goldberg through April 19, Jason Stopa at Hionas through April 25, Shara Hughes at American Contemporary through April 26, Trudy Benson at Lisa Cooley through May 3, "Post-Analog Painting" at The Hole through May 24, Rosson Crow at Sargent's Daughters through May 17, C. Michael Norton at Brian Morris through June 6, Clare Grill at Zieher Smith & Horton through April 25, Kes Zapkus at William Holman through May 22, "The Painter of Modern Life" at Anton Kern through April 11, and "Twenty by Sixteen" at Morgan Lehman through May 2.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME