The Filipino Roots of Minimalismby Jim Long
Leo Valledor and Mario Yrisarry
Mitchell Algus Gallery
September 7–October 7, 2006
This exhibition presented works from 1964-1967 by two pioneering reductive painters, Leo Valledor and Mario Yrisarry. Valledor (1936-1989) was born in San Francisco, and grew up in the gritty Fillmore district, while Yrissary was born in Manila in 1933; both were Filipino. Valledor came to New York in 1961 and left in 1968, to go back to San Francisco, while Yrissary moved here with his family at the end of World War II. Their paintings in many ways anticipated the work included in the current traveling exhibition, High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975, admirably curated by Katy Siegel. But since their work also preceded the exhibition’s theme, it is not part of the show.
Valledor was one of the founding members of the legendary Park Place Group (1963-1967), an artists’ collective which included Mark di Suvero, Forrest Meyers, Edwin Ruda, and Robert Grosvenor, to name a few of the well-known innovative painters and sculptors who exhibited (and created music) together at Park Place Gallery, an immense space on West Broadway that paved the way for the emergence of Soho as a center for galleries and artist’s lofts. Yrissary was one of the artists, along with Brice Marden and Ronnie Bladen, who were invited to exhibit there. The dealers John Gibson and Paul Cooper got there start there as well.
Valledor and Yrissary were right in the center of things when painting was going through seismic changes. In addition to sharing a feeling for painting that was far too anarchic to be termed “Minimalist,” both artists employed a distinct hard-edged, elusively geometric approach to abstraction. Aware as Filipinos that they would never be fully assimilated into mainstream culture, they absorbed radical ideas about painting without aligning themselves with any of the sanctioned agendas, Donald Judd’s definitions or Clement Greenberg’s pronouncements.
Yrisarry’s work is based in a linear response to the painting field. Working with a spray gun and stencils, he creates areas defined by sharp or hazy boundaries, depending on whether the stencil edge is clean or caked from over-spraying. A notch cut into the stencil edge adds organic variation and provides an index to the set of variations the stencil will perform: horizontal/diagonal, right/left, reversed/flipped, and continued/interrupted. Often the same stencil is used in different works, adding a tentative sense of continuity to diverse themes.
“Copper Oxide” (1964) and “Precincts” (1965) seem to share one stencil, but their feel and intent, one from the other, is very different. The acrylic paint industry was introducing metallic colors at the time, and “Copper Oxide” refers to the linear patterns of thalo-green dividing the painting’s copper pigment ground. The work was painted on primed canvas tacked to the wall or floor; its image was cropped and stretched afterwards, wrapping around the edge.
Many of Yrisarry’s paintings bear tiny pinpricks where the stencils were attached. Each work begins with a gridded field. The stencil (or stencils) are placed according to calculations corresponding to the artist’s perceptual analysis of alternative variations inherent in the grid. His mathematically generated compositions are capable of producing mysterious, asymetrical arrangements of form: irregular divisions often surrounded by reservoirs of space space that, while inactive pictorially, allow the whole to breathe. The end result is crystalline structure not unlike that achieved by Lawrence Poons through a similar study of the grid. In contrast to the formalism of Poons’ activated fields, Yrisarry signals his divisions with classically mechanical boundaries that can take on a crevasse-like reading of planar separations. Yet the illusion is quickly undermined and dispelled by the clarity of the artist’s method of determining space—a speculative geometry of visual paradoxes and fascinating possibilities. It is this anti-formalist aspect of Ysissary’s work—his willingness to bring more possibilities into play—that not only distinguishes his work from his contemporaries, but also sets the rung higher.
Leo Valledor’s painting starts with geometry, but it’s about practically everything else. He uses geometric division and color the way a musician (which he was) might give life to the phrasing of a line or passage. At his most reductive, Valledor employs a single zigzag division made up of multiple “fingers” that lock perfect pairings of color to the painting surface. These read as “rays,” each originating at points in the infinite distance, from the left and right, simultaneously arriving in the form of dovetailing vectors to create an experience of light-drenched fullness. “Lull” (1967) is violet and sienna. The color wraps around oversized stretcher bars and fills the horizontal visual field, fifteen inches high and ninety-eight inches across. “For M” (1966) is blue-gray on the greenest green I’ve ever seen. Its synthetic pigment appears completely natural, with light to dark modulation optically induced by the interaction of compressed color as the vectors narrow toward the painting’s edge. The left and right edges generate the action, and the “event” is spontaneous and whole. The paint is thin, thicker than a stain, properly a skin, but one that reveals the canvas texture.
“Skeedo” (1965) is more industrial. In the early and mid-1960’s a lot of artists were exploring the possibilities of a shaped support. “Skeedo” is a complicated juncture of many diverse parts, sixty inches high and one hundred twenty-eight inches long. The work reads left to right, with diagonal blue-gray planes and red wedges, while a red line leads the eye to a horizontal yellow bar that angles sharply down and then back in the opposite direction, as if to draw an angled plane. The whole resembles a schematized bird in linear flight. The carpentry is impeccable, though to this viewer, overly drawn and unnecessarily complicated (as opposed to complex).
Largely unheralded during their painting careers, both Valledor and Yrisarry confront lucid abstract space in ways that are distinct and different from their contemporaries. The paint is bright and hard, without being brittle. They engage to-the-point contemporary issues. Although aware of the accomplishments of Minimalism, their work is equally aware of its limitations, and both have created valuable, flexible alternatives. Ironically, the one person who did champion both of them in his reviews was Donald Judd. The work, classical without appearing conservative, speaks with a surprising currency that commands attention and a wider appreciation of its accomplishments.