COOHAUS GALLERY | FEBRUARY 27 – MARCH 19, 2014
William Pangburn’s strong show, consisting of an installation and a sequence of small paintings, has water as a major theme. Pangburn, a longtime resident of Tribeca, New York’s venerable art neighborhood, belongs to the tradition of the New York School. Sixty years old, he represents the still-vital energies of a legacy some might feel is moribund. While Pangburn has some connection with the Abstract-Expressionist legacy, he remains his own person—a necessary stance if an artist’s work is related to a practice that was established in the middle of the last century. In a post-postmodern environment, pluralism holds sway, and a major criterion for success in art has to do with maintaining the excellence of a chosen style. The trick is to maintain a balance between the old and the new, and this is something the artist does extremely well. Pangburn’s pursuit of independence within the legacy of the New York School has resulted in a show of genuine vitality, whose stylistic vernacular reminds us of a time when New York was the center of the art universe, with such major participants as de Kooning, Gorky, and Pollock.
Pangburn’s stylized, nearly abstract environment, “Hokusai’s Falls” (2012), riffs on nineteenth-century Japanese printmaker Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic waterfall series. Consisting of five sections of blue strips of Chinese paper, with white stripes running vertically from top to bottom, the installation’s austerity is enhanced and offset by the contrast in acrylic colors (the paper has been painted blue and white). The paper strips hang from the gallery ceiling to just above the floor, giving the piece a feeling of substance. “Hokusai’s Falls” is a bold expression that negotiates between figuration and abstraction. Its clean lines and ordered arrangement make clear that the artist belongs to the tail end of modernism and its penchant for formal austerity. However, the work’s sensitivity matches its boldness of technique; the strips of cloth flutter slightly in response to persons passing by. All art made now is constructed with some sense of influence; the trick is to make the influence interesting while remaining relatively independent of the weight of the past. By refusing to repudiate the past, Pangburn’s work gains gravitas even as it establishes something new. This is historically aware art that is fully capable of standing on its own.
A series of Pangburn’s small watercolors are based on his visit to the Texas panhandle. Looking down from a plane, the artist studied the Canadian River, whose twists and turns he represents with flowing, calligraphic lines. “SW-10” (2011) consists of black and brown contours that interlace in energetic fashion. “SW-1” (2011) is filled with thin black, red, and white lines on a brown ground. Here the composition is loose, although its small dimensions rein in the piece’s exuberant energy. “SW-3” (2011), a particularly beautiful work, consists of black curling lines overlaid on thicker, orange curves. Their rhythm and ebullience place them directly in the tradition of Abstract Expressionism. These works demonstrate the ability of art to transform the memory of a particular natural feature into something handmade; Pangburn thus makes his experience of nature accessible to an audience who likely hasn’t seen the Canadian river in all its majestic force. Here, memory is a major part of the artist’s palette, and its tenacity amplifies the painterly verve of Pangburn’s watercolors.
Despite his debt to New York’s relatively recent art history, Pangburn remains autonomous. His ability to do so shows mettle of an unusual kind; he looks back in order to move ahead. My feeling is that Pangburn’s influences, which include the Ab-Ex inheritance and the Japanese woodcut-print practice (Pangburn was trained as a printmaker), are internalized so that they belong to his own creativie repertoire. This frees him to do what he wants with both cultural and personal memories. Our appreciation of his accomplishments is made stronger by the knowledge that this highly accomplished show both transmits and transforms memory into visible reach. It is a matter of using the imagination in a historical manner in order to produce work that feels contemporary. This is what all good artists do—expand their feelings into works of art that resonate long after being viewed.