Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1000 5th ave, and 82st Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Drawings. Through Sep 3rd.

I know this reproduction sucks. It's not indicative of the work. I assure you it's my fault, not the artist. This is a really good show.

Just in case you're not familiar with Ellsworth Kelly, he's one of the founding members of the minimalist movement, and is considered one of the great non-representational artists alive today (although just barely. He's got to be about 90 years old). He's known for his monochromatic, shaped canvases combined in diptych and triptych form. His work is what you think of when you think of minimalism. His name is that tightly aligned with the movement. One of the things that makes this show interesting is that here is one of the most well known non-representaional artists of our day making representational images. What's also interesting is that these drawings were not made prior to his flat, non-representational work, nor after them. They were made contemporaneously with them. In fact, the show stretches from the late 1940's up to present day. So, what we're seeing is how Kelly sees figurative images non-figuratively.

I have to admit that one problem I have with minimalism is it's sterile, self important aesthetic. It's a movement that can be distant, and utopian in a "get over yourself" kind of a way. I've felt that way with some of Kelly's non-representational paintings in the past, but I don't feel that way about these drawings. Maybe it's the subject matter, or maybe it's the inexact tremor within the hand that creates these drawings, but there's a humility and sincerity to this work that's very attractive. It may also just be a characteristic inherent to the medium of drawing. I don't know.

There's a sketchiness in the work from the 1940's and 50's which gives way to clean contour drawings in the 60's and after. We first start seeing this with his "seaweed" drawings, which are particularly striking. Now, as anyone who's ever taken a life drawing class will tell you, there are no outlines in nature. So, once you start drawing contour's you're engaging in an abstract thought process. Kelly, a master of abstract thinking, uses this in a particularly sophisticated way. The drawings are usually made with a graphite pencil, but the lines feel like they've been made with a lazer, dividing the paper into clean cool forms. He creates a tense dialogue of positive and negative shapes existing on both sides of the outline. This is most impressively seen in his large "Beanstalk" drawing in the last gallery. Kelly occasionally uses color (watercolor), but that's usually just to create silhouettes.

Why leaves, and vines, and flowers? Well, what's most apparent in this work, and it's relationship to his more known non-representational paintings is his appreciation of symmetry in nature, and it's more subtle asymmetry. Obviously there's a great history of visual artists being drawn to the nondiscoursive delicacy and purposefulness in natures humbler forms, but minimalists? Aren't they supposed to be driven by grander, more epic subjects than a floppy banana plant? Not Kelly. What I find most revealing about this small show is how he translates natures humble, intimate abstractions into large scale non-representational paintings. He was, in this way, following in the tradition of the impressionists. I know, you're thinking "Ellsworth Kelly? Impressionism? Yeah, sure Matt". But trust me, I'm right on this. If you make the chronological transition from Monet, to Gauguin, to Vuillard, to Mattise, you can see how Kelly falls into that Modernist sensibility. Believe me, he has much more in common with Monet and Cezanne than with Mondrian or Malevich. Or don't believe me, see it your self. It's up till September. Or, don't see it. Kelly's not for everyone. No skin off my ass. I'm just trying to help here. You can stay home and watch NASCAR, and eat beef jerky for all I care.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Matthew Marks Gallery. 522 West 22nd street. Terry Winters: Cricket Music, Tessellation Figures & Notebook. Through April 14th

Matthew Marks Gallery

Terry Winters first became popular in the 80's and early 90's by creating very elegant, painterly abstractions. I'm making a distinction between the term abstraction and non-representation, because
his paintings, while abstract, contained images of (or at least references to) things outside themselves. Usually he'd find inspiration in plant life, cell structure, and architectural forms like the geodesic dome. With most of this work it was difficult to determine what the images were representations of, but the drawing was always so specific that it was clear that the images had some representational source. I remember somewhere reading that Winters viewed painting as a means of creating hybrids of visual information.

Then, some time in the early 90's Winters changed styles. He did away with the organic colors and forms, and started painting these very graphic lines that would criss cross at tight angles. The lines would form structures, almost like he was making some very primitive architectural blueprint. His colors also became very garish, and deliberately ugly. Clearly he was challenging himself in order to avoid complacency. He was rebelling against the very things he made his name on, the things he was good at. While I admire his courage, and ambition in branching out like he did, I have to say I didn't much care for the paintings. I found them unresolved both aesthetically and conceptually, and I couldn't see where he was going with them.

Well, apparently this is where he was going. I'm told in the Press release that the term "Tessellation Figures" refer to the process of creating a two-dimensional plane through the repetition of a geometric shape. I guess the mathematical concept of knot theory also inspires some of the work. I have no idea what "Cricket Music" is. But, whatever the source, this is a stunning show. It consists of eleven paintings, nine of which are exactly the same size (76"x80"). The other two are slightly larger. The structure of the images are based on the grid, but are broken up into richly layered planes of light. The grids are warped, and overlap thus creating an asymmetry and an ambiguous sense of space. I couldn't help but think that they looked almost like someone had thrown a cinder block into a Rothko, thus shattering his giant silhouetted blocks of color, and turning them into broken shards flying through space. Those shards never completely leave the picture plane though. They look kind of like they're at a state where they haven't yet deciding what form to take once they reconfigure.

In spite of Winters early popularity he's always been seen as kind of a painters painter. I guess that's because he's always stayed true to that painterly non objectivist ideal, and even when the paintings weren't all that successful, he appeared to be very sincere in terms of process. It became very clear to me while I was looking at this work that if it wasn't for the Abstract Expressionist movement this kind of painting couldn't exist, but I was also acutely aware of why that movement was so important. The Abstract Expressionists, with their large scale, painterly, non objective, nonrepresentational canvases created a new and original identity for painting. A painting was no longer a picture, but an arena. An arena where activities, and interactions of color and form occur. What happened inside the framework of the canvas was not an image, but an event. The people who don't understand Abstract Expressionism do so because they never learned to adjust to this radical new way of seeing. They have my sympathy, because they truly do not know what they're missing. Winters is a virtuoso at this kind of painting.