Rodrigo Moynihanby John Yau
Robert Miller Gallery
January 24 - February 16, 2008
A contemporary of Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Rodrigo Moynihan (1910-1990) was in his early sixties when he began painting still lifes and self-portraits in the studio, and these paintings occupied much of his attention until his death. In limiting himself to scrutinizing the dusty, quiet rooms in whwich he worked, thought, and passed many hours, Moynihan could have easily become a fussy, self-conscious painter, someone who chose and arranged the objects on a table or shelf in order to prove some point, philosophical or aesthetic. He made something close to the opposite happen; he depicted various collections of objects as he found them: “It was especially important to me not to arrange the still life so as to form a pictorial grouping—a picture. I wanted the objects to be found. I wanted to paint them because they looked like that—without my intervention—having arranged themselves like that in that particular light.”
The results are quietly astonishing, not least for the way they slowly unfold before us. Our attention is caught by the neutrality of the objects (sponges, light bulbs still in their cardboard box, bottles, jars, pieces of paper, maul stick, and, later, a second-century Roman head and hand), the lack of composition, the play between the vertical and horizontals of the shelf, supporting struts and whitish walls, the sensitivity to light, and to the things it envelops. In these paintings, many of which are quite large given their subject matter, Moynihan renewed the still life, just as Morandi did before him, in the most unassuming way, by being scrupulously attentive to humble, non-descript things.
By the time Moynihan began his late still lifes and self-portraits, he had already achieved a distinct and unique, if somewhat marginalized place in modern English art that was in keeping with his outsider status. He was born in Tenerife in the Canary Islands, and spent part of his childhood in London, in Madison, New Jersey, where he went to high school, and in Rome. His peripatetic childhood was followed by an artistic restlessness that lasted throughout his life. In the mid-1930s, he was a central figure in a London exhibition, Objective Abstractions (1934), which was the first show of pure abstract paintings in England. The response was nil because Moynihan’s interest in Turner and Monet was completely out of step with English sensibility at that time. By the late 1930s, Moynihan seemed to have done a complete about-face, painting figuratively, though he would return to abstraction and then finally arrive again at figuration. He worked more variously than Jean Helion, but never achieved that painter’s cult status. As I see it, Moynihan was driven by something that eluded his grasp until the late paintings, the need to be both original and unaesthetic. This means that in his sixties, he didn’t want to start using thick paint or push the grotesque to emphasize his vision of the world, sometimes at the expense of his subjects, which, of course, is what Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, and Leon Kossoff were up to in differing degrees, or act as if abstraction hadn’t happened.
Moynihan is a tonalist who is interested in pale grays, off whites, whites touched with a pinkish tint (late afternoon light), and silvery grays—what he called “bone-colors.” In the somber works done shortly before his death, dark browns, slate and soot grays predominate. A number of the paintings are tondos and one is a vertical ellipse. Within this format, the tables and shelves (horizontals) with their legs and struts (verticals) structurally divide the surface, as well as thrust forward from the wall, creating an animating tension between surface and space, which, in turn, echoes the relationship between the order and disarray of the objects. In any single painting, the paint application will run the gamut from the precise to the painterly and sketchy. In the dark paintings from the late 1980s, the table legs are indicated with such sketchiness that the tabletop, weighted down with things, appears to levitate, as if in defiance of gravity. In all of the paintings, time has been slowed down, so that the stuff of an artist’s life (sponges, white plastic cans, rolls of cotton and paper, plastic pails, jars, light bulbs, and tubes of paint) is looked at as if for the first time. More often than not, Moynihan’s objects also evoke the tools of both a surgeon and an architect; and one wonders if, in fact, the artist is suggesting a connection among these three professions.
In these paintings, Moynihan seems intent on being a dispassionate witness to his unavoidable absence (in the self-portraits, it was the transitoriness of his passage through time that preoccupied him)—and this is what makes their austerity so emotionally powerful—in a way that downplays the self or I. Mortality happens to us all, and, as the artist seems to be saying, my passing is of no more consequence than anyone else’s. Having reached this point, Moynihan did something remarkable; he kept gazing at the things before him without trying to devise an escape or protesting what he knew awaited him.