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2002 Painting Report, Plane: The Essential of Painting

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center Through November 1

Al Held, installation. Exhibition curated by Alanna Heiss with PS1 Associate Curator Daniel Marzona. (2002)

In his seminal essay “Modernist Painting,” Clement Greenberg claims that “it was the stressing of the ineluctable flatness of the surface that remained, however, more fundamental than anything else to the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism.” For Greenberg, the evolution peculiar to Modernist painting from Manet onward is the condensation of the practice of painting to its essential, underlying truth: an expression of the flat, two-dimensional nature of the picture plane and perhaps also the delimiting character of the edge in works which address nothing outside the beholder’s rapt eyes. With his idiosyncratic, and often contradictory, hybrid of American pragmatic empiricism and refined aestheticism, what Greenberg never scrutinizes in classical easel painting is the integrity of the picture plane itself as the irreducible locus where meaning in painting occurs. Elsewhere, Greenberg famously asks what is minimally necessary for something to be a picture and he entertains the possibility that a blank canvas could be the perfect picture; here, Greenberg is not interested in the flatness of the canvas itself, but in whether the unmarked canvas already constitutes a picture plane. I sketch these dated aesthetic debates because in P.S.1 curator Alanna Heiss’s unilluminating introduction to Painting Report, Plane: The Essential of Painting, she misleadingly conflates the physical surface on which paint is brushed or sprayed or thrown, and the more elusive notion of the picture plane. This conceptual lapse may explain why Painting Report, Plane: The Essential of Painting, as an exhibit which purports to explore the ways in which four contemporary artists address one of the deeply contested fundamentals of painting as an art, feels so aimless.

Painting Report, Plane: The Essential of Painting, which includes work by four artists of distinct generations—Kristin Baker, Al Held, Fabian Marcaccio, and William Scharf—examines neither the plane nor the essential of painting. I can imagine an exhibit which actually examines the nature of the picture plane and the fundamentals of painting by invoking Greenberg’s prophetic question in a more generous, inclusive spirit. Such a show would press questions about the picture plane and the boundaries of painting. Are Michael Heizer’s pigment drops and Robert Smithson’s flow pieces paintings, given that both clearly came out of the painting tradition? And is the land on which they were enacted a picture plane? And what about messily performative work, like that of Carolee Schneemann and Paul McCarthy, both of whom owe complicated debts to painting? Can the “plane” of painting be anywhere? Does it have to be stable? In the end, however, none of this matters a great deal, for Plane: The Essential of Painting is in essence a survey of Al Held’s recent work. Given that Held’s influential paintings of the 1960s and 1970s have been rarely on view in the past decade, at most sporadically displayed in the Metropolitan Museum’s contemporary wing or in the Whitney’s permanent collection, it is regrettable that the rooms occupied by William Scharf, Fabian Marcaccio, and Kristin Baker were not simply dedicated to a small retrospective of Held’s earlier work.

In her brief introduction to the work of second-generation abstract painter William Scharf, Alanna Heiss poses the curious question, “What if Baziotes, Gottlieb, Rothko and Pollock maintained the surrealist apparatus of their early works?” The answer, I think, is that their unequal achievements would have been seriously curtailed, crippled by a derivative and inauthentic idiom. Painted with a smooth sensuality and in a palette of pale pinks and creamy yellows, Scharf’s paintings are a hybrid of the style of Kandinsky’s early expressionist abstractions and the whimsical vocabulary of Miro’s surrealist works. Scharf’s paintings predictably include squiggly bands, multicolored splatters, fish, embryo forms, and ladders, but his style is too slick and languid to invest clichéd icons of the unconscious with force; Pollock’s pre-drip, Jungian paintings are compelling, not because of their allegorical imagery but because of their explosive energy. Set on a sheet of vinyl stretched over an undulating wooden frame, Fabian Marcaccio’s immense “Untitled” (2001) consists of a transferred photograph of a rope knotted into a grid, loose and frayed at one end and tighter and tighter toward the other, over which Marcaccio has superimposed photographs of boldly expressive paint strokes, actual paint strokes and conflagrations of candy-colored molten plastic. Marcaccio both literalizes and deforms the grid that has haunted abstract art since Mondrian, the photograph pulling the grid from Platonic mathematics and giving it a decayed, three dimensional quality. The simultaneous use of photographs of paint strokes, actual paint strokes, and plastic confuses figure and ground and subtly undermines the emotional expectations of gestural abstraction. This is territory that has been explored before, especially by Gerhard Richter when he photographed details of paintings and then executed large paintings of the photographs, but Marcaccio pushes it farther by combining various media in a rambling collage. Nonetheless, Marcaccio’s placement of the photographs of paint strokes and pools of plastic is curiously haphazard, making the entire piece feel like a formal experiment whose aesthetic adds little beyond irony to the Julian Schnabel of the 1980s, but without Schnabel’s shameless sensuality and lyricism. The youngest artist in the show by more than a decade, Kristin Baker’s paintings of race tracks and cars, while not hugely ambitious, are elegant and quirky. Painted in acrylic on PVC, Baker’s paintings flatten out into fractured, nearly abstract geometries, but her sensibility hovers somewhere between Hopper’s austerity and Lichtenstein’s pop goofiness. The strongest are “3G’s Gone” (2001), a curving, tilted, streaked length of track viewed at an oblique angle through netting, and “Boom Boom” (2001), a scatter of flying tires, skid marks, a pieces of the disintegrating car.

Painting Report, Plane: The Essential of Painting is, again, largely a survey of recent paintings by Al Held, whose work occupies P.S.1’s epic third floor gallery as well as the surrounding rooms and corridors. Held made his reputation in the 1960s, painting geometric abstractions which distinguished themselves from the work of refined contemporaries like Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Mangold by being tough, direct, and physical. By the end of the 1960s, however, Held had moved to black and white drawings in paint, deploying an unabashedly illusionistic vocabulary of three-dimensional geometric objects—cubes, cones, spheres, rhomboids, and the like. These drawings in paint not only defy the prescriptive flatness of the abstract painting of the moment, but their alphabet of forms introduce figurative references which evoke Dada and Futurism’s fascination with technology: Think of Duchamp’s and Picabia’s drawings of mysterious, impossible machines. Held then began to tape off his lines with exact, hard-edged precision and to meticulously sand away any remaining traces of painterly touch. By the 1980s, Held was using a bright, electric palette in elaborate, sometimes massive paintings which resemble science fiction fantasies. The paintings currently on view at P.S.1 are part of this later body of work.

Al Held’s recent paintings can be singularly off-putting, their floating architecture and infinitely receding spaces desolate and inhuman, their forms and images resembling dated, hokey science fiction films. For this reason, I think it is best to approach Held’s work through his finely rendered watercolors, which are executed by Held himself rather than his assistants and whose natural pigments, variable densities, and more open compositions make them more intimate than his works in acrylic on canvas. In “Jupiter 5” (1997), for example, an earth-red column stands upright on a deep, slatted, wood-colored floor beneath which a watery pale green seems to flow. In “Heatwave” (1997), lines wave across a green sky beneath which is a structure with an ominous device attached to one end and a cluster of cubes covered with translucent sheaths. And in the beautiful “Morre XII” (1996), there is a blue web in the foreground and behind are a slightly rotated diamond, curving bands, and a checkered passage which leads deep into atmospheric green space where a tube and a diamond rest. In these pieces, Held’s calculated geometry, which inevitably evokes the depiction of architectural spaces by Renaissance masters like Albrecht Durer and Jan van Eycke, is counterbalanced by a sense of natural space, matter, and light. The objects are sufficiently anchored that, while still abstract, they resonate meanings: They are ruins, weird factories, enigmatic, symbolist visions. At moments they even have the air of paradox and reticent melancholy of De Chirico’s best surrealist canvases. De Chirico uses images of familiar architecture and technologies to create sinister monuments of the unconscious; Held’s fantasies unfold at an almost mathematical level where nothing is wholly identifiable.

In Held’s works in acrylic on canvas, however, every vestige of the natural and emotionally present has been ruthlessly erased. The canvases are dense with precisely calibrated geometrical objects, each cleanly painted in immaculately mixed hue, the illusionistic space extending to infinity in every direction. Many of Held’s mid-sized canvases are congested, airless, and static. The endless, whorling competition of cubes, globes, and other forms, themselves built up out of smaller elements, may be intended to be in continuous transformation, metaphorizing a dehumanized world increasingly governed by computation and technology, yet Held’s compositions are so willfully overdetermined, their inner logic so exhaustive; there is no space in them for the viewer to enter. “Equinox” (1995), for example, is crowded with huge, faceted globes stacked one behind the other, the steely blue color scheme sliced through by protruding maroon cross sections. An impressive exception to this, however, is “Aperture III” (2000), which appears closely related to the watercolor “Morre XII,” in which a jagged blue diagram presses forward in the picture plane in front of a dark red diamond, torquing spirals, and traces of lighter globes which recede into an eerie, light-suffused blue and green cloud where a diamond and a pipe rest, weirdly enthroned. “Aperture III” is compelling in part because the reductive rigor of pure projective geometry is interrupted by the miasma of light, pulling the viewer toward an ecstatic and wholly enigmatic presence. As in “Morre XII,” in “Aperture III” the diamond and tube nested deep in the labyrinth of spaces have enough breathing room for them to exert an unsettling, enigmatic presence. They are, one senses, symbols in a cryptic, fatalistic code whose meaning is to us indecipherable. Perhaps Held is tapping into a kind of technological unconscious.

Al Held, installation. Exhibition curated by Alanna Heiss with PS1 Associate Curator Daniel Marzona. (2002)

The three most magisterial and terrifying of Al Held’s paintings currently on view at P.S.1 are the massive “Requiem I,” “Requiem II,” and “Requiem III,” all from 1996; together they form the definitive statement of Held’s remarkably terminal late aesthetic. In “Requiem I,” the canvas is centered by a huge, slightly torqued tube, familiar from other works such as the “Aperture” paintings and “Binocular II” (2000). The checkered floor and the heavy yet streaking block shapes on the ceiling, all in deep shades of purple and grey, angle toward an infinite horizon of minute, glowing yellow shapes which blur into a bright band. The tube serves as a window or lens trying to focus in on the radiant and continuously receding exterior beyond the gloomy, oppressive, fragmented architecture. In “Requiem III,” the globe in “Equinox” reappears, suspended from the dark beams of the ceiling in the foreground. Pillars rise from the ground, some apparently connected to the ceiling, others free-standing, like ruins. The perspective of “Requiem III” is cast lower than that of “Requiem I,” the atmosphere more ominous, and the viewer is propelled out over the warping patterns of the floor toward the bright, narrow band of the horizon. Of the three “Requiem” paintings, “Requiem II” is the largest and most overwhelming, its format boundless and horizontal. A curving half-arch, like a fragment of one of the tubes, extends from the left-hand edge of the canvas, and jutting out from the lower right-hand side is a shelf of stratified forms. The floor is flat, without incident, extending out in slightly bowing lines, striped with masses of shadow, and the ceiling curves toward a band of horizon so long the viewer cannot take it in in a single glance. Whereas both “Requiem I” and “Requiem III” are framed by the architecture, in “Requiem II” the vistas are split wide open, projecting without limit in every direction. One might say that in “Requiem II” the illusive picture plane aspires to swallow everything, including the viewer.
While the black and white paintings of the 1970s evoke diagrams of strange devices and systems, and the recent watercolors at least suggest architecture and visionary landscapes, the geometrical objects which populate the “Requiem” paintings, each of them number-coded, jeweled, and positioned in a mathematical recession, are the building blocks in an autonomous, artificial universe which is infinite, arbitrary, and finally bears no relationship to human beings. Unlike the watercolors, these paintings have neither space nor light as indeterminate, fluid elements; all they have are specific objects, proliferating yet unanchored in a gaping void. Whereas the great paintings of the natural sublime, Frederick E. Church’s exotic landscapes or Thomas Cole’s vast Grand Canyon canvases, inspire a sense of one’s finitude, the narrowness of the circumference of subjectivity in the face of the unencompassable scale and force of nature, Held’s paintings literally crush the viewer and fill him with anxiety and dread; the blazing light deep in the horizon may intimate paradise, but it is a cruel paradise and one that is not made for human beings. It is surely one of the remarkable achievements of these paintings that, while their imagery evokes computer graphics, the paintings themselves never feel like mere graphic manipulations; they have an obsessive, alien, and even menacing physical presence. With their number codes, geometrical precision, compulsive use of perspective, which in the end is not anyone or anything’s perspective, Al Held’s paintings are an attempt to will into existence a perfect and perfectly controlled universe—in the mind, in mathematical space, in the void—which is in the end impossible. The tubes do not really point anywhere; the architecture is floating; the morphing patterns are centerless and incoherent; the geometry is disconnected and arbitrary. Despite their density of forms, what one senses most powerfully in Held’s large canvases is the presence of the void in which everything is suspended. One can almost feel Held trying to fill the void, to master the void, and yet by the paintings’ own logic, the void dominates. Perhaps the “Requiem” paintings are requiems for the incapacity of reason to fashion perfect new worlds. Or perhaps they are requiems for Held’s own solipsism and megalomania.

If Painting Report, Plane: The Essential of Painting at least attempts to review the ways in which the picture plane is approached by some contemporary painters, Al Held’s recent work is a singularly extreme rejection of the idea of the picture plane as flat, and an aggressive affirmation of total illusion. William Scharf’s work hints at pictorial depth but relies for its effect on the warm sensuality of the surface; Kristin Baker plays a matte flatness and abstraction against figuration; and Fabian Marcaccio sets in motion a clever dialectic between illusion and surface, image and substance, on a support that clunkily asserts itself as an object. Al Held, on the other hand, is not interested in acknowledging either the flatness of the picture plane or the material limits of the edge of the canvas: illusion is total and encompassing. Clement Greenberg’s conception of the ineluctable development of Modernism aside, the often strident anti-illusionism of much American art beginning in the 1960s is among other things an expression of skepticism toward art’s bombastic and transcendent claims, and a return to a pragmatic, empiricist, material immediacy. Held’s abstractions of the 1960s, as well as those of artists as divergent as Ellworth Kelly, Robert Mangold, and Robert Ryman, among others, made art that specifically addresses the eyes and bodies of human beings: Think of Kelly’s abstracted glimpses of shadows and glints of light on water, and Ryman’s intimate scrutiny of the properties of material. Paintings like those in the “Requiem” series, by contrast, not only embrace limitless illusion, erasing every accident, every trace of touch, but in so doing they radically exclude the viewer as an active participant in the painting. Perhaps these paintings, like Peter Halley’s, are supposed to offer a critique of a world dehumanized by technology. If this is so, Halley’s recent exhibits offer an instructive example. For even if Halley’s canvases and elaborate installations are meant to mirror a repressive, post-industrial, corporate geometry, they offer no place from which a meaningful critique could be enunciated, and merely present those structures in a bright, decorative form. The same could be said of Held’s work. In the end, both are dehumanizing and nihilistic.

“Requiem I,” “Requiem II,” and “Requiem III” are maniacally ambitious and perhaps even important paintings. And yet they are also strangely arid and leave the viewer oppressed and desolate. This is not just a consequence of scale and optical overload; scale, as Barnett Newman noted, can be intimate. The huge, blazing canvases in the astonishing survey of Alfred Jensen’s work mounted at the Dia Center for the Arts last year, for example, marshal a highly personal iconography of geometric shapes, symbols, and colors, which are part of an authentic and monumental effort to grasp a dynamic cosmos. The literalness with which Jensen drew his forms and laid down thick layers of unmixed paint make it clear that Jensen’s project is at once communicative and personal. Held’s iterating forms float in an inhospitable void that is without beginning or end and bears no relationship to human knowledge, and the awe and dread they evoke leads nowhere and remains purposeless. One thinks of Pascal’s famous reflections in the Pensées on human life as viewed from the perspective of the infinite universe, and yet for Pascal such thought experiments are undertaken from the standpoint of a reflective and even despairing subject, a position Held’s paintings resolutely deny. This, I think, raises the question as to what we want and need paintings, and works of art in general, to do. There is surely no single answer to this question, but I think that, in an age which so aggressively militates against both private experience and thought, we need art which effects a symbiotic intertwining of private experience and critical reflection. This is not a call for an expressive, sentimental humanism, but rather an insistence that works of art play a role in the complex consciousness of the viewer. Majestic, insane, and emotionless, Held’s “Requiem” paintings render the viewer anonymous and impotent, and, ironically, their effect is not wholly unlike that of trying to think about multinational corporations or American military power. As I left the exhibit, dizzy and queasy, I longed for tiny works of art executed with an unsteady, passionate hand.


Daniel Baird


The Brooklyn Rail


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