Paula Cooper Gallery September 1 – October 3, 2009
In the first installment of an extensive, three-part interview with Thomas Butter in White Hot Magazine, David Novros, who traveled in Europe in 1963-64, recalled that “in Spain, I went to Granada, and saw the Alhambra, and it occurred to me that painting could have the same quality of being non-pictorial, or being ‘not a rectangle,’ not a picture in a rectangle.” He went on to say that “[it] is very difficult, almost, for me to look at regular pictures. I adore many, many, many paintings that were painted that way—but my preference is for the other” (see article). Done between 1965 and 1969, the six paintings and three drawings at Paula Cooper mark the beginning of Novros’s engagement with the “other,” which he has redefined and reexamined from different viewpoints, ranging from his right-angled arrangements of L-shaped panels that evoke rectangles incorporating the wall (three of them were in this exhibition) to his later frescoes (the first one he did was in Donald Judd’s Spring Street loft in 1972) and the “Coppers,” which were made of cut and hammered pieces of copper sheeting, and shown in New York in 2000.
Despite the diversity of methods and materials, Novros’s formal preoccupations run steadily through his work: the nuances of light; the relationship between the painting and the wall (these first two concerns have been commented on by others); the tension between completeness and incompleteness; dynamic rather than static composition. In this regard, the artist is far closer to Mondrian than to Frank Stella, whose shaped paintings are often mentioned by those writing about Novros’s work of the mid to late ‘60s. I see this as a case of apples and oranges because Stella’s work hangs on the wall and almost never incorporates it, while Novros’s open forms (or viewed another way, absent painting) make the wall part of its rectangular presence. And this concern with presence/absence, and with unifying the wall and the painting, came to the forefront when he began working on frescoes in the early ‘70s.
Buildings are more fragile than paintings, a fact that impacts the tragic history of lost, destroyed, and decaying frescoes. This history starts well before Giorgione’s fading frescoes on the Fondaco dei’ Tedeschi, Venice, and reaches all the way to Novros, whose public frescoes have not all fared well. I mention Giorgione because it is in his essay “The School of Giorgione” that Walter Pater wrote: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” He went on to say: “For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it.” Beginning with the right-angled panels and continuing up to the “Coppers,” certainly, Novros has found imaginative yet palpable ways to focus almost exclusively on the issue of matter and form.
The six untitled paintings can be divided into three groups, which the artist underscored with the hanging. The most problematic painting—and the only one like it in the exhibition—wasn’t helped by the fact that it was placed on the landing of a narrow stairwell, where a chain across the stairs made it off-limits. The painting consisted of two simple house-like shaped panels (one was a slightly darker green than the other) complete with peaked roofs and doorways abutting each other along one side of the roof. The shapes suggested a literal reading of painting as wall, as house, as side of the house, as house inside the room, and as doorway to wall, that became distracting. While Novros wasn’t able to transform or elevate the whimsical aspect of the painting—and whimsy is not a quality I associate with this artist—I also wondered whether or not it influenced Jennifer Bartlett’s “Rhapsody” (1976).
While all three paintings in the main gallery were made of L-shaped panels, whose outside edges define an incomplete rectangle, the artist used a different medium for each work; acrylic and oil on canvas, and lacquer on fiberglass. Done in oil, “Untitled” (1965-67) consisted of six right-angled L-shapes, only two of which appear to be identically sized. The colors range from rust brown and red oxide to a muted blue and green. Initially, from a distance, one might think the panels are made of an industrial material, such as steel, used in construction. Through color and the arrangement of the panels, Novros keeps returning us to the relationship of matter and form. The smallest two L’s are placed vertically in the lower, left hand corner, while others are horizontally aligned and stacked on top of each other, with the shortest segment aligned vertically. The overall configuration felt sturdy but precarious; it didn’t defy gravity so much as feel as if it were trying to overcome it. While the edges of the angles were aligned on the right side, suggesting a straight edge running from top to bottom, the left side was notched, open. This incompleteness infused the piece with a sense of longing, a sense that nothing is permanent, that things inevitably get chipped away. The shadows cast by the panels are integral to our experience, reminding us that light is not fixed, and that time is always passing.
In the six-panel lacquer on fiberglass painting, Novros juxtaposes two sets of color. One set is composed of two off-whites and gray, while the other is orange, blue, and a smoky, muted green. And yet, even as I state this, I remember pinks embedded in a white panel, which I at first thought was magically reflecting and distorting the color adjacent to it. From the outset of his career, Novros was interested in paintings that revealed themselves slowly, in fragments and bits. It is when he is able to get us to constantly refocus our attention that the paintings really sing, both discordantly and harmoniously.
Of the two paintings in the small gallery, the one that is a complete rectangle was the masterpiece of the exhibition, and to my mind deserves a special place within Novros’s far-ranging oeuvre. In a painting that is simultaneously simple and complex, completeness and incompleteness mesh perfectly, and that is only the beginning. Made of eight differently colored monochromatic panels, including two partial lintel-shapes, a group of vertical and horizontal rectangles, and one that is square or very nearly so, “Untitled” (1969) successfully resists being seen all at once. Our attention keeps shifting and refocusing. At first, it appears as if the narrow green rectangle divides the painting into three sections, with the upper and lower parts comprising an architectonic arrangement that includes the partial lintel. It was only after prolonged looking that I realized that every panel was different, and the shifts and changes in color followed no clear logic, but at the same time didn’t feel arbitrary. Thus, the green panel, which is larger than all the others, initially pops out, like someone yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, but then the painting slowly and masterfully absorbs it back into its domain. I can’t say exactly how Novros pulls this off, but he does. Magical isn’t a word I use very often, but here it feels both absolutely right and necessary.