SHARING THE LIGHT: ALAN UGLOWS GENEROUS ECONOMY OF BEAUTY
Two museum exhibitions in Germany give an in-depth look at the work of a New York painter, Alan Uglow. At the Haus Esters, in one of two Mies van der Rohe villas in Krefeld that were converted into a museums after the original homeowners departed, Uglow joins a select group of artists with works from the last decade. At the Museum Wiesbaden, a look back over his work from the Mondstudio Collection traces the development of Uglow’s sensibility and concerns over more than 30. Together with catalogues from both venues, Uglow’s work receives critical attention long overdue here in the States.
Two large, horizontal pieces are the first on view in the exhibition at Haus Esters in Krefeld. In “Blue Equator” (2000), both strong and subtle contrasts, classic to Uglow’s way of working, pull the first impression of a minimalist geometry toward a complex unfolding. A blue stripe dead center divides a field, which only slowly differentiates itself from the four small, white rectangular tabs in each corner. After a moment the field emerges as a grey. The grey moves towards green grey in relation to the warm tan tone of the borders, keeping the apprehension of the painting in motion while entering the villa. Through its unfolding, this painting creates an immense breathing room, while the piece, simple and unpretentious, hangs low on the entrance wall, naturally lit by the villa’s front facade windows. The vertical casements of the windows, similarly proportioned, seem to mirror Uglow’s work. There is a spareness and a clear demarcation of elements; there are corner details that play an essential role in stabilizing the whole.
In the next room, a large “Standard #23 (grey)” from 1998 stands against one wall on hardwood blocks, an aspect of Uglow’s installation that serves to enhance the object quality of the painting. On an adjacent wall, “Portrait of a Standard #3 (silver)” (2000), a photo-silkscreened version of a standard piece angled to the plane of the canvas, also stands on little hardwood blocks. The canvas and blocks provide information about qualities of the object that are missing from the silkscreened image, while the angled image of the photo-silkscreen exhibits properties that are both similar to and different from those of the painted object. Light reflecting off the silver silkscreened bands jumps out from the image at certain vantage points, and at others nearly disappears, but the implications of the artist’s position, as embedded in these works, require thought. Object and image are so fitfully intertwined in this constellation, any attempt to separate them becomes labyrinthine and begs the question of what it means to do so.
The way the top of the silkscreened canvas disappears into the glare of the overhead lights matches the way the top edge of the painting “Standard #23 (grey)” disappears for lack of contrast with the wall. It’s something that doesn’t happen in the photo-silkscreen, where the image of the painting’s edge stands out against a darker background, which is how the camera lens reads the wall. These subtle aspects of perception, which differ when confronting diverse media, take on an importance in Uglow’s work as a way of coming to terms with the problematics of painting in the last several decades and the preponderance of the image in our era. His photo portrait of his painting comes forth as a reflection upon painting. A painting and an image of a painting, standing together in a room, facilitate a movement between one and the other that allows us to verify their sameness as well as their distance from one another. Uglow confronts the photographic with the much slower perception of the subtler qualities visible through an extended time in the presence of his works. His gesture reveals how his painting has become disembodied in terms of the image, and then re-embodied through the screening of it onto canvas again. This move to give the image a material basis in painting gave Uglow currency in the era when painting had lost a great deal of its capacity to communicate. His paintings stand by as source material in this context, so one has to admire Uglow’s ability to show us what it takes to remain in the game.
Much has been made of Uglow’s obsession with football, that is, European football. The format of the “Standard” paintings, with their symmetrical borders and rectangular interstice, mirror the soccer field’s proportions and create a ripe ambiguity between the fields in the painting and the field of play. As analogy it throws light on painting as a series of moves, and in the realm of movement it reveals the importance of who’s playing the game. As a twist on the endgame discourse that painting was caught up in when Uglow emigrated to New York, it offers another way to go. It’s an open-ended relationship, one that no doubt will continue to be mined in discussions of Uglow’s work. What keeps it from descending to the level of gimmick is the degree to which it reveals Uglow’s rootedness in the world around him and how it gives us a way back into his paintings.
“Gold Top” (2009), in acrylic on canvas, shows how symmetrical events in Uglow’s “Standard” vocabulary have also been used to create asymmetry and a revolving complexity. Each element in the piece is measured through the symmetrical format against its opposite, initiating a search for other elements to verify the symmetry through another aspect of the form. This process continues revolving in and around the “Standard’s” fields, unfurling the space in successive turns. The gold and silver sparkle and darken while the open field of white takes on shadow and light as only white can give us.
In “E.” (2009), a light turquoise “T” form, standing on its left side, pushes from right to left, separating the upper gold field from the lower silver one. Each of the four colors on the outside band are different, though some do not immediately separate from one another, but rather gradually distinguish themselves, torquing and tugging at the field whose gold and silver surface shimmers and shifts back and forth in response to the tension. The four white tabs in the corners hold the picture plane in spatial tension, confronting the indeterminate space that the painting posits. Its latency is reflected outside, where the lush garden of the Mies van der Rohe villa is about to burst into spring.
There’s a beautiful moment where, through the villa’s window, the details of the Mies van der Rohe balcony guard rails inform a visual dialogue with “Untitled” (2009). In it another “T” form, this time in gold, stands atop a central red line framed by two outer bands in silver, painted as a single form with the ever-present small corner tabs. Both forms speak with the same vocabulary albeit in different disciplines. The silver end pieces in the Uglow guard the inner space of the painting just as the van der Rohe guard rails secure the balcony’s edge; both address themselves to being.
Uglow’s exploration of perspectival angles and illusion, interference pigments, and surface reflectivity, are all aspects of his work that demand varied approaches that go beyond the faculty of mere sight. Through our movement certain things become known, and this form of knowing bypasses a theoretical understanding and puts the work in the service of anyone who inhabits the present moment. Not only the eye and the mind but the human body, with all its perceptual capacities and memories, is the means of verifying the experience given to us through painting. Uglow shows us that we cannot fragment ourselves and still have the means to comprehend painting.
With this position Uglow set himself apart from the dominant market interests, and distinguishes himself from such contemporaries as Olivier Mosset who took the position in the 70s that a painting is finished when it is sold, and then later modified, when it is restored. For Uglow, a painting seems to be complete when someone is moving through its field. As he described it in an interview with Bob Nickas, it’s “A paradox. A finished object that stays open.”
In more recent work, Uglow makes use of metallic and iridescent mediums that shift in value and luminosity in response to light and movement. A strange iridescent orangish green jumps out of the center of “Green Gold Strip” from 2008. Thin stripes of gold surrounded by a strip of raw canvas bisect the upper and lower fields of the medium-sized standard. The gold stripes fall way back, like a horizon, torquing the edge bands whose fluctuating darker silver grey attempts to negotiate the impossible double spatial reading. Top and bottom, the silver bands also shift off the plane as they struggle to accommodate the deep space Uglow has put into play. For all their orthogonal elements, Uglow’s pieces are never static; they shimmer and dance with light and in moving remind us that the point of perception also remains in motion. Presence is acknowledged when reflections throw or shadows obscure the light falling on the paintings’ pristine surfaces.
One can catch a glimpse of the evolution of Uglow’s endeavor in “On/Off Reality,” the concurrent exhibition at the Museum Wiesbaden. Set deep inside the museum’s neoclassical structure, Uglow’s work is found after walking through a sequence of rooms opening to the left and right showing Jawlensky, Ryman, Serra, Robert Mangold, David Novros, and Donald Judd among others to establish a context. Approaching the exhibition one hears the soundtrack from a soccer game playing in the distance, where a boom box sits in a bag in “Coach’s Bench” (1997-98), one of Uglow’s football punches.
The first room of Uglows holds a series of “12 Standards/Leaning” (1994)—silkscreened images of his classic “Standard” paintings sandwiched between two sheets of glass leaning against the walls. The glass sheets feel heavy, and their weight, propped up on the hardwood blocks, Uglow style, gives the impression of something serious happening. Looking at the “Standard” photographed straight on eliminates the information about the painting that we see with our own two eyes, calling attention to the limits of the single-lens-view a photograph gives us. The paintings in the photos are on blocks, too, creating a doubling that brings this level of information back into his works and allows the information to be read both mediated and not. As objects they feel much like what one sees, when by covering one and then the other eye we observe the phenomenological shift that is unified through stereoscopic vision. Uglow, looking at the separation dead on, sets it up as subject.
The glass reflects the surrounding space, bringing the world into the paintings and giving a hint of how Uglow’s oeuvre will evolve. Wiesbaden’s high-ceilinged rooms and natural light make a perfect setting for the careful play of whites and off-whites, offering an opportunity to see the work’s inner light not overwhelmed by spotlighting. “Untitled,” (1974-75) is the earliest piece in the exhibition—a cream-white expanse with indications of incidence curving along either edge. The short, horizontal lines that punctuate a long bare canvas strip running top to bottom along the right side seem to breathe, going in and out, in and out, bowing the line in a constant rhythm. Coming in on the top and bottom, two silver tabs frame the void. The relationship between one side of the painting and the other is one of inestimable distance. Tensions are low-key but grow more pronounced over time.
In a casual pairing of works throughout the main room of the exhibition, “Untitled” (1986) offers a counterpoint to the adjacent “Untitled” (1974-75), just described, evidence of a shift in focus from periphery to center. Its two black rectangles serve as figures in a fluctuating field of whites. The fluid painting of the white ground creates an irregular field that punches and dives, causing the rectangles to hover. The space they posit emerges slowly through the process of looking as the elements assert their presence and set up spatial relationships. Situated at a moment before Uglow’s project had fully formed, these works in the Mondstudio Collection offer an opportunity to see the origins of Uglow’s position in context.
“Midnight Blue Alfa Romeo” (1990) is a black and white stripe painting that turns dark blue as you close in on it and see your own reflection in its depth. Shiny like a car’s surface, it is hung low, at a sports car height. This could be one of the earliest paintings to clearly acknowledge the movement around it as constituent in viewing. Its frame, attached rather to the wall than to the beveled-back edge of the painting, is a device Uglow began to work with in the 60s, and it sets this piece apart from the others in the collection.
The high note in the big room is struck by “S.R.” (1992). Here mint, cobalt green, black, and light grey blue horizontal and vertical bands twist and torque the field as the eye roams around trying to make sense of their impossible interaction. Top to bottom, left to right, the painting won’t sit still. A white T form, horizontally deployed, pushes across the canvas right to left until it hits the grey blue band on the opposite edge. The contrasts push the grey blue towards lavender. The space the painting carves out shoots forward at the top and lays back at the bottom, sending the orthogonals into unlikely motion. Paired with a red “Standard” (1993) that sits on blocks next to it, calmly holding its own, their differences show the distance Uglow has taken a simple set of variations.
In one of the side rooms, a group of small pieces hanging in a row and measuring around 24 to 28 inches high, mostly square, gives a sense of Uglow’s interests between 1989 and 1998. Painted on various materials from canvas to galvanized metal and MDF board, they show the range of Uglow’s vocabulary to be simple but deployed to unfold in waves of complexity as the relationship between the parts impress themselves on the mind’s eye. For example, a stunning visual play occurs in the two-panel “Interval #7” (1992), where the classic Uglow corner tabs are cut out from the support instead of painted on it. The painting comes alive when the cutouts in the MDF board on the left edge of each panel start to activate a discrete square between the two panels. The immaterial square, equally a form, is roughly the size of one of the panels. Once the correspondence between them becomes apparent, the tension between the autonomy of the individual panels and their transformation into a whole brings the relationship between material and form into focus. A slippage on the material plane, it recalls Carl Andre’s famous line, “A thing is a hole in a thing it is not.”
In four pieces from the “Bootleg” series (1994-6), in acrylic on galvanized metal supports that are spread out around an oval room, a central white stripe determines the center of a solid color field. Blue, silver, orange, and green, Uglow’s colors are both commonplace and specific. Through their interaction, a glimpse into their associative potential arises to challenge the banal categorization we sometimes assign to colors. It takes a bit of time to see that the central white bands are of slightly varying dimensions; the play between color and scale, and then the contrast with white, bombard the eye, but slowly the bands individuate out of the series to differentiate themselves from one another. The support and hanging device have merged in these works as in a Robert Ryman painting, but with Uglow it never becomes part of the composition.
Three horizontally formatted, low-hanging “Standard” paintings from 2005, 2006, and 2007 use iridescent medium and metallic color in the horizontal and vertical bands to reflect light, effecting a modulation from dark to light in response to movement. The whites in their reticent voids hover and disappear. Both work in ways to acknowledge that changes in a two-dimensional surface occur through shifts in the point of perception. A translation of the minimalist theatricality that Fried wrote about, Uglow’s paintings haven’t gotten the wide recognition here for the solid grounding in the 70s they are built upon. There have been any number of other artists who have brought painting forward through the endgame era—Hafif, Mosset, Marioni, and Rosenthal come to mind along with Ryman and Marden, among others—but Uglow’s contribution is singular. With a masterful flatness in his application of paint that stands in opposition to the depth that those same surfaces create when form is put into play, Uglow delivers a multilayered twist on Greenberg; yet he has most often been shown here in the context of work relying on conceptual posturing.
The beauty of the museum’s early 20th century rooms is underscored by the way Uglow’s paintings interact with the space in front of them, at the same time their interior space emerges through the act of seeing itself. They take into account that perception is not static, that it doesn’t happen from a singular point of view, but is based on presence, with all that implies. The dense materiality and perfectly pitched, painted surfaces are calibrated to speak through the visual to the haptic. You need the hair on your skin in order to read the subtext of an Uglow painting. It happens in a moment, and if we understand Uglow, it cannot be separated from the one who perceives it.
JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.