CONNIE FOX Sammys Beachby Joyce Beckenstein
DANESE/COREY GALLERY | MARCH 20 – APRIL 19, 2014
In 1979, at the urging of her friend and colleague, the painter Elaine de Kooning (1918 – 89), Connie Fox moved to East Hampton. Almost daily, the two walked and swam at Sammy’s Beach, a local flat strand of shoreline. Fox calls her continuing “Sammy’s Beach time” a “meditative hike.” Decades of memories, exuberant, elegiac, real, and surreal collide in Connie Fox: Sammy’s Beach her new series of large abstract paintings, completed between 2007 and 2014. Stunned by their grandeur, a young art crowd casually wandering in for the Danese/Corey gallery reception stayed on. Little wonder, for sans technology and appropriation, Fox’s paintings are edgy, fresh, and utterly contemporary. As one young man, transfixed before “Sammy’s Beach X,” observed, “They’re about everything a painting is supposed to be.”
He’s right: each of the works in this exhibition reveal different roads taken along one artist’s journey through expressionist abstraction. Familiar forms, reminiscent of flora, water, and sky, are swept into tangles of lines or imposed on grids. They appear to have landed in place by chance, which in a way they did, for Fox works serendipitously, but with fearless self-confidence. She wants every object, line, and brushstroke to make the viewer a bit nervous and excited, yet thoroughly absorbed in ways that make the finished painting a visual place that is at once familiar as it is strange.
Though inspired by recollections of Sammy’s Beach, these paintings are not landscape portraits of their namesake, but landscapes unto themselves. Each in its own voice conveys its mood in gestural sweeps of luxuriant color that remarkably reach their most exquisite crescendos as complexly layered black forms. Such is Fox’s deliberate search for compositional conundrums, oppositions, and contradictions. They challenge her to seamlessly merge drawing with painting, intuitive gesture with geometric order, figuration with abstraction. Gallery owners Renato Danese and Carol Corey have strategically positioned the works so viewers can follow their intricate rhythms, a tango-like lead/follow choreography between these oft-disparate formalist partners.
In “Sammy’s Beach VIII,” Fox takes the viewer through a foreground of red and black spiky drawn lines, inky inelegant clumps of black, and patches of green and gold. Paintbrush reconfigures scruffy beach brush into abstract forms. Expanses of sea and sky stretch along gentle, often incandescent background grids—stable scaffolds for the less disciplined temperaments of nature and perhaps the artist. But Fox needs a strong form to resonate these disparate elements. Violating tradition, she places—smack canvas-center—a floral-like shape, a paused form about to discharge its bursting inner energy.
Fox paints intuitively. Things appear on canvas as they occur to her. She worries later about making them work. In “Sammy’s Beach II,” for example, she knits the foreground into a dense tangle of lines invading colored space. Drawing yields to painting, a composite media of Fox’s own devising. Then just for the hell of it, it seems, she disrupts this voracious sprawl with an awkward row of outlined white rectangles. Distant summer homes intruding on nature? Expressionist police halting a non-objective, aggressive advance? Who knows? These oppositions function as visual paradox, irony that replicates the ambiguities of natural and creative impulses. To again mediate between wantonness and sobriety, Fox reinvents her quixotic flora-like orbs, here as two audacious red circles a-spin on the border between incorrigible color and relatively stable geometric form.
Fox, a serial risk-taker, who in 1950, bicycled through 1,000 miles of war-ravaged Europe, still flies by the seat of her pants. Two works diagonally opposite one another bow to Franz Hals’s 27 shades of black. Each one plants itself in simultaneously Stygian and seductive worlds where eternity dwells in a given moment. “Sammy’s Beach III,”a mountain-scape of jet-black vertical forms, play a fugue across a pale gray grid. By themselves these ominous peaks suggest primal rocks of the ages. But they’re not alone. Lower right, in a patch of white, an insouciant floral roller hurdles towards a glowing sanctum of warm orange light. Fox strikes a jazzier chord in “Sammy’s Beach X.” Is this an explosion seen from afar, or an up-close flamboyant shrub flaunting its exoticism? The intrigue lies in Fox’s black magic. For her it’s a warm color, achieved through thick and thin layering of transparent pigment: foamy whites, dollops of sky-blue, lavenders and reds, all discretely suspended on an iridescent copper to gold and silver grid.
Behold “Sammy’s Beach I.” It stands alone in an alcove, ending the exhibition where the series began. A compendium of elements reincarnated throughout the show, it consists of scratchily drawn and painterly forms, daringly divided by a path leading towards a rectangle, floating sky high. And don’t miss two sets of compelling drawings, “Weeds”and “Geometrics,” found in separate contiguous gallery spaces.
Fox’s Sammy’s Beach paintings celebrate her 60-plus-year career. Like other women artists of her generation marginalized by male-dominated discourses—Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, and Grace Hartigan among them, her work is receiving a fresh look by millennials. They’re awed by what they see: all the accidents, anxieties, surprises, intuition, and reason that are the stuff of life unfolding within a rectangle. As the young man said as the gallery lights dimmed, it’s about what great art is supposed to be.
Joyce Beckenstein is a writer living in New York.