ROBERT MOSKOWITZ: Window Shades, 1959–62
CRAIG F. STARR GALLERY | FEBRUARY 8 – MARCH 24, 2018
Back in 1959, Robert Moskowitz was making art that broadly and barely stood some place between conceptual, minimal, pop, abex, expressionistic, and new imagist. But in the subtlest of ways it belonged to no specific genre, and in that sense, was also very much a part of its time. More than ready-mades, the works here, in the familiar form of once-functional window coverings, can be considered art that makes itself, allowing the patina of time to alter its tones and internal shapes.
The eight paintings and two drawings in this tightly focused show, titled Window Shades 1959–62, are composed of discarded or found shades that, in one form or another, have been collaged onto canvas as is, torn, cut, or frottaged (that is, rubbed onto paper to create an impression).
Composed, as Constance Lewallen writes in her elegant catalogue essay, at a time when Moskowitz had a studio in London, the series was inspired by the artist’s observation of a shade covering a skylight. He cut out a piece of it and glued it onto canvas, where the shape, she points out, resembled “the austere landscape-related abstractions of Clyfford Still.” When he returned to New York, between 1960 and ’62, he produced some thirty-five shade paintings.
Ostensibly non-referential, they nevertheless have a subtle beauty and the sense of alluding to whatever goes on behind lowered shades—blocking our view but letting in a bit of illumination. They can be sexy and, in that way, strangely narrative. Pulls that hang off the bottom of the shades or off the canvas invite us to look beyond and beneath, which we obviously can’t do, while in a large (80” x 54”) untitled work from 1962, a saucy fringe embellishing the shade’s bottom edge seems to have been captured mid swing. The pattern on the shade uncharacteristically and improbably gives a sense of the object’s biographical origins—more pattern and decoration than minimalist.
The installation moves from the most active of all—a large (54” x 119”) untitled triptych from 1961 that manages to show action with the swinging pull that seems to oscillate like a metronome measuring time—to the stillest, black-and-white piece with an only barely perceptible cord. In the midst of such subtleties comes a weighty-looking image of the shade “sledding” in diagonally across the darker ground as if in a cartoon.
Some of the canvases are “framed” with pieces bearing rickrack stitching cut from the edges of the shades. In fact, such works, along with their Rauschenbergian smudges accidentally or intentionally take on the characteristics of landscapes geometrically hinted at by treelike verticals, while the finger smudges and the impressions from the frottaged pulls that are barely perceptible force a close reading and offer skewed entries into the work.
The tones are moody and neutral—cream and bedroomy-beige—conveyed by the rabbit-skin glue, which is applied as paint and assumes an aging process of its own, naturally tanning itself. The effect is reminiscent of the works of Dorothea Rockburne from the same period and Robert Ryman’s seductive off whites. But Moskowitz’s paintings are quite different—slightly talkier beneath their quiet demeanor and with their drips and rubbings and unexpected tears, they warrant close readings.
Unlike Moskowitz’s subsequent more formal, more geometric, architectural-style paintings that are somewhat reminiscent of Frank Stella, these works have a softer, more poetic, spontaneous attitude that might well have autobiographical undertones
It’s incidentally worth noting that the town-house installation allows for a satisfying intimacy that evokes the works’ 1962 debut at Leo Castelli’s cozy uptown gallery.
Barbara MacAdam is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail