Nicholas Krushenickby John Yau
Marianne Boesky Gallery May 4 – June 16, 2007
Nicholas Krushenick (1929-1999) has rightfully been called the father of pop abstraction, which suggests that a lot of what is currently going on owes something to him. And while this is certainly the case, this well-meaning sobriquet doesn’t tell half the story. Krushenick’s bigger, more radical accomplishment is that he made abstract paintings which have continued to successfully resist being domesticated by academic language, including the kind imported wholesale from France and Germany starting in the 1960s, and which are now ubiquitous in various states of dilution. Starting around 1962, just as Minimalism and Pop art were beginning to take off, to the point of becoming buzzwords in the popular press, Krushenick did the unthinkable. A contentious man, he said “fuck it” both to purity and to representational images derived from the mass media. To this end, he brought basic graphic signs and patterns from Western pop culture and Japanese woodcuts into the realm of hard-edged abstraction, while deftly suggesting spatiality through color and compositional structure.
Krushenick’s decisions amounted to nothing less than a rigorously conceived alternative to the various narratives of finality that critics brought to bear on painting. From the outset, he was adamantly anti-formalist without being nostalgic or reactionary. He believed it was the artist’s right and responsibility to be independent, and he determinedly explored and defined a territory that was all his own. This seems to have gotten him points with other artists, including an emerging generation trying to find its own way, but with few others. Unlike Al Held, whom he had known since adolescence and whose work he exhibited in the Brata Gallery, an important cooperative gallery that Krushenick and his brother John started in 1958, he didn’t have a champion such as Irving Sandler. (It also should be noted that in addition to Held, the Brata Gallery showed Ronald Bladen, Yayoi Kusama, and George Sugarman, all of whom were committed to finding their own alternatives to the dominant modes.)
Krushenick’s desire to make paintings that don’t derive their justification from widely accepted critical discourse or received values regarding subject matter or meaning ought to be the litmus test for all artists, whatever medium they work in. It isn’t likely to happen, of course, but that shouldn’t stop me from stating the obvious. To realize how invisible this artist remains even to this day, one has only to look at the career of Frank Stella, whose savvy bow to formalism’s dictums regarding flatness and opticality have earned him mountains of accolades. The reason such discrepancies should be noted is because they hint at how much revision still remains to be done. The truth of what Krushenick did is in the paintings, which don’t look like anyone else’s, though, I would also add, one can see traces of his influence (or shared affinity) in the work of many contemporary artists, including Amanda Church, Jonathan Lasker, Thomas Nozkowski, David Reed, James Siena, Philip Taaffe, and Stephen Westfall.
The exhibition of Krushenick opened without fanfare, which I am sure wouldn’t have surprised the artist, safe in heaven, dead now nearly a decade. Until this revival––and only time will tell if the gallery is committed to sustaining it––the only place you could see Krushenick’s work was at Mitchel Algus, a small New York gallery whose intrepid and passionate owner ought to receive more credit for his contributions toward sustaining the collective memory of the art world. (It is he who gave Krushenick his last show while he was still alive and who kept his work before the public.) The 14 paintings at Marianne Boesky are dated between 1969 and 1993, with selections from every decade. Five paintings, all “Untitled,” from 1976 and 1977, are thematically related. Otherwise, the gallery provides no real context and has published no accompanying catalogue, which is a shame. For all that the gallery is giving Krushenick, I would say he deserves far more. Again, I am not surprised. In the press release, the gallery emphasized that, shortly after the artist died in 1999, Peter Halley wrote a tribute to him in Artforum. There is a telling irony in having an artist committed to locating his paintings within formalism’s lineage and its European offshoots writing about a painter equally committed to not fitting in, not being stylistically smooth or consistent in his work. It seems that there are lots of areas where the art world is deeply committed to getting it wrong, and who can blame them? Why shake the tree when you are sitting in it?
“Electric Soup” (1969), the earliest painting in the exhibition, is a good example of Krushenick’s ability to synthesize graphic elements within an abstract pictorial structure. A bright yellow band outlined in black runs along the painting’s physical edge until midway down each side, where it becomes a serrated line cutting into the painting’s bright red ground, like two interlocking cartoon explosions in the middle of the painting. Within the “opening” defined by the saw-toothed yellow lines are horizontal bands of orange and blue. Krushenick uses the black outline to turn the band into a thing, rather than a strip of color, and to prevent adjacent colors from optical interaction. The use of a solidly colored band outlined in black to demarcate the physical limits of the painting is a recurring feature of Krushenick’s painting; it is a self-reflexive, anti-transcendental device, as it calls attention to the fact that the viewer is looking at a painting, which is often defined as both a surface and a window. He wants us to become conscious of the illusory aspects of painting, and the fact that even an uninflected surface often consists of layers of paint. Thus, the jagged yellow band revealing a pattern of orange and blue bands beneath it, because it does not completely encircle them, suggests that they continue beyond the painting’s edge.
Because the orange and blue bands seem to extend beyond the painting’s edge, we cannot tell if we are seeing something close-up or not, which is discomforting. There seems to be no proper place to see the painting in its entirety; we feel as if we are too close or too far away. Returning throughout his career to this tension between closed and open, seen and unseen, Krushenick uses it to destabilize the painting as well as suggest that living in the world is inherently vertiginous. In doing so, he connects seeing with the body, a relationship that, despite their flawlessly smooth surfaces, makes these paintings intensely visceral.
By the mid-1970s, Krushenick has jettisoned many of his more overt references to cartoon graphics, as well as upped the stakes for himself by activating the surface to such a degree that one literally gets lost in looking; and this perhaps is the point he wants to make. We see, but we do not see; we know where we are, but we haven’t a clue as to where we are going. In “Untitled” (1976), which is part of the thematically related group of paintings I mentioned earlier, Krushenick juxtaposes a gray rectangular structure whose interior is made up of weirdly angled triangles and trapezoids against a blue ground. The structure’s outer edge conforms to the painting’s physical one, locking the oddly angled strut-like sections in place, like a jigsaw puzzle. And yet, the painting is not static. There is a visual tension between the overall structure and the movement suggested by the different angles. It’s like looking into a kaleidoscope, where each part keeps changing its relationship to the ones around it. There are so many focal points that one becomes visually disoriented. If, as many formalists and their adherents believed, painting’s avowed goal was to achieve a state of self-sustaining purity, Krushenick suggests that this enterprise was akin to building the Tower of Babel. Not only does the sky remain beyond us, but we’ve also blocked our way there.
With their rectangular structures made up of odd angles juxtaposed against a monochromatic ground, Krushenick’s paintings of the mid-70s expand upon the project that Pollock began in his poured paintings. Like Pollock, Krushenick is able to create a dynamic surface that imparts the sense that nothing is at rest. The difference, and I think it is an important one, is that Krushenick utilized a structure to lock everything in place, even as he conveys a ceaseless movement of triangles tumbling wildly within a rectangle. His paintings are informed by drawing, by a willful determination to get from one side of the painting to other without falling into repetition. Harmonious paintings held no interest for him.
For all their formal mastery, Krushenick’s paintings are never purely formal. In sharp contradistinction to Greenberg and all the critics who believed that the direction radical painting had to take was all-overness as well as the reiteration of flatness, Krushenick defines painting’s single most important issue as a figure-ground problem whose implications are finally metaphysical. He didn’t feel the need to banish illusion, or become literal, because he revealed his every move; he was a magician compelled to confess how everything was done.
In the early 1990s, nearly two decades after he largely stopped showing and had pretty much withdrawn from the art world, Krushenick was still producing terrific paintings. “Untitled (Mango Madness)” (1993), previously exhibited at Mitchell Algus, shows that he is still at the top of his game. Described in Boesky’s press release as evocative of mountains against a sky, which is the least interesting way to see this painting, “Untitled (Mango Madness)” consists of two groups of flat, shard-like shapes, one of which is gray and the other dull yellow. Outlined in black, the gray shapes are gridded off, with the grid continuous from shape to shape in some places and shifting its orientation in others. Parallel lines, one set of which is curved, define the yellow shapes. Combining repetition (the grid and parallel lines) with different kinds of outlined shapes, Krushenick is able to both neutralize the surface and activate it. The painting keeps contradicting itself, and we have to keep refocusing our attention on the shapes, the continuities and the interruptions to see if there is an underlying order to it, which there isn’t.
The logic of “Untitled (Mango Madness)” is internal, rather than externally imposed. We seem to be confronting its fragmented shapes frontally as well as looking down at them, with the awareness that what we are seeing is part of something larger and unknowable, even as what is before us remains unexplained yet straightforward. In “Untitled (Mango Madness)” one sees how much Krushenick absorbed from Japanese prints and artists such as Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) and others. In their depictions of kimonos, robes, and warrior’s armor, they used a black line to indicate subtle shifts and folds in the material’s abstract patterns. Krushenick takes that device and provokes us to look and look again.
It would be easy to continue seeing Krushenick’s oeuvre as somewhat distant from mainstream concerns, an interesting anomaly. But that would be a disservice to his work and to painting itself.