Dillon Gallery August 25 – September 29, 2009
There is a story about how Bonnard, as he grew older, became increasingly obsessed with the juxtaposition of color, to such a degree that when he was working with a pigment, he would walk among his canvases and see where the color might be applied in anything he was doing, to get just the effects he was after.
Waste not, want not. This image of Bonnard was constantly on my mind in front of Hector Leonardi’s paintings, which seemed above all to pose the question: why paint just one painting when you can do five at once, and combine them to achieve astonishing surprises. Like Bonnard before him, Leonardi is master of juxtaposition. Over fifty years and many changes, he has developed an approach that exposes relationships of hue and temperature that have not been seen since Bonnard. It works like this: over a thinly painted ground, where the canvas sometimes appears more stained than painted, he will apply pieces of other, often very complex acrylic paintings that he has done on glass and then peeled off. This allows him to juxtapose not merely individual colors but patterns as well, and to build extremely intricate surfaces that don’t play on illusionistic depth but hold the eye suspended. Moving across the surface of any one of them becomes a journey full of diversions, the experience of falling into the painting and having to climb out again. If there is one great objection to the show, it must be that because of the number of paintings (29 on two floors), there is a danger of simply never being able to leave the gallery.
As with Bonnard, getting up close and personal to Leonardi’s technique threatens to dissolve the paintings into labyrinths. But each of them is unified by a dominant character based on a palette of two or three color relationships. Walking into the gallery is like entering a room where each person is talking in a distinct voice but all are speaking the same language. For example, the show’s three large paintings—large for this painter at 6’ x 8’—speak blue/yellow, blue/green, and pink/orange. And the smaller, quietly outrageous “Romagna” speaks peach/gray. But each of these dominant combinations is itself a calibrated blend, especially “Fiorentino II,” which dissolves at either end into a mist, and within every painting a wide range of colors complicate the mix.
Leonardi orchestrates these complexities with a breathtaking aplomb. He studied with both Joseph Albers and Ad Reinhardt at Yale in the 1950s, and he has probably forgotten more about color relations than most painters will ever know. With the exhaustion of Abstract Expressionism and Frank Stella’s “it looks so good in the can” embrace of an industrial esthetic, color (and probably visuality per se) became the great casualty of painting, at least color conceived as the relation of sensation and not as discontinuous, autonomous event. Leonardi acts as if that never happened, just as Bonnard ignored the revolutions of Cubism, Surrealism, and abstract painting in general. Here color is everything and capable of anything. It is not shackled by good taste. It is the origin of form and the source of emotion.
And something else. The something else, I believe, is what makes this exhibition a breakthrough for this American master. One wall of Dillon Gallery is populated by three paintings: the eye candy of “Fiorentino II” flanked by two gray dowagers, “Inverno” on the left and “D’oro” on the right. The gray paintings reveal more of the canvas than Leonardi has shown before. Appearing at the surface, like a foundation or an armature, is a latticelike structure, one that hovers between organic and mechanical suggestiveness. It is the closest thing to a representational or linear form in his work. Similar networked structures appear in the center painting, “Fiorentino II,” and on acrylic strips and fragments in other works. Behind the lattice, or through it, emanates the true animating force of these paintings, light. It is a gray light on the left side, a glowing yellow haze on the right, and a suffusing orange pink in the center, conjured out of color. Taken together, the three works seem to tell a story about generation and the growth of energy and form, or about their diminution and ultimate extinction.
I am not sure what these paintings are really about, but they certainly express as much ambivalence as pleasure, a full awareness of the creative-destructive process that drives the universe: the tension between structure and flow, energy and matter, light and space. All these works were completed in the last year. Such a tide of creativity comes only from the artist’s finding a subject that engages everything he knows. It carries us along, from his heart to end of the world.