Washburn Gallery | May 7 – June 26, 2009
Jack Youngerman is 83 years old. His is an aesthetic of quasi-formal organic forms and images that ride the line of geometry, where reversible positive/negative relationships spiral through our comprehension like smoke in a soap bubble, elusive and clean. His work speaks of a kaleidoscopic fate formed from the grain of experience, where color and form collide in their fixed rotation of give and take, an equinox of the heart, or a cosmic countenance devoid of dimension.
Youngerman’s history is well-known and well-documented. It’s worth recalling, however, that the artist left his Missouri home at the age of 21, taking advantage of the G.I. Bill to go to Paris on scholarship. He stayed for almost 10 years and befriended the community of artists living there at that time. He met his friend and contemporary Ellsworth Kelly, also there on the G.I. Bill, as well as the elders: Brancusi, Arp, and Calder. Matisse and Kandinsky were in the ether too. The artist traveled widely to Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey, got involved in the Parisian theatre, and married the actress Delphine Seyrig, remembered for her performance in Last Year at Marienbad. In 1956, Youngerman returned to New York at the request of the then upstart gallerist Betty Parsons. In the winter of 1959-60, Dorothy Miller included Youngerman in the landmark Sixteen Americans at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition also included Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella, and is still considered one of the major events in the history of American painting. In the subsequent decades, the artists roamed from oil painting, sculpture, watercolor, gouache, and drawing with ease and a deft singularity of purpose.
For his most recent exhibition of paintings and small works on paper, the artist states that, “these Triads and Quadrads began as small gouaches more than forty years ago, to which I have returned, sporadically, over the decades.” The bulk of the exhibition consists of oil paintings on shaped wooden panels. For the past several years, Youngerman has worked with a cabinetmaker to build his complex wood supports, most often constructed of Baltic birch plywood. Some of the shapes resonate organic, vegetal motifs, annular forms with a visceral consistency of thick paint played against thin, as in “Catalunya” (2008). Its triadic structure and surface of cadmium and vermillion ripples like a membranous soffit, folding inward towards its knotted center and then out to the nothing that surrounds it. A flat image of flangeous mammary growths rendered with modernist dexterity.
Other shapes read like heraldic emblems of unseen energy resonating through the cirrus, or as Gnostic shields articulating some arboreal mute’s alphabet. Such as “Centrum” (2008), a quadrad of black, yellow, and orange-red that suggests an explosion both intimate and immense in scope. It’s a curious, radiant geometry of fourths and eighths that speaks simultaneously of the silent poof of a lost thought and the galactic collapse of a celestial body. It’s a giddy vertigo falling outward over the offside of the planet, or sucked down to the earth’s core into the burnt-out synapses of a fevered mind.
There is much to this work that lingers and surfaces long after the initial viewing. In particular, the vibrant, questing presence of a living artist pushing the limits of his craft. There is much to wonder about here, and Youngerman’s painting is the kind that provides the space to do so. Its parallax bells loudly in the wild silence between the darkness of indifference and the revenant boundary of our muddled brains.
Craig Olson is a former student of Thomas Nozkowski and regular contributor to the Rail. He is also an artist who lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota.