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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2020

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OCT 2020 Issue
ArtSeen

Suzan Frecon: oil paintings

Installation view,<em> Suzan Frecon: oil paintings</em>, David Zwirner, New York, 2020. Courtesy David Zwirner.
Installation view, Suzan Frecon: oil paintings, David Zwirner, New York, 2020. Courtesy David Zwirner.

On View
David Zwirner
oil paintings
September 10 – October 17, 2020
New York

With the nine oil paintings currently on view at David Zwirner, Suzan Frecon moves into what we might call the classical phase of her career: the moment when she marshals, with supreme ease, every aspect of her previous work into a grand summary. This is, however, in no way “end-of-the-line” painting. To the contrary, viewers should look forward to an ever-expanding Frecon universe.

Looking back on her career, we see a gradual change in scale. Many of Frecon’s earlier works, including the “dark red compositions” of 2013, were small-scale watercolors rather than oils or encaustics and recalled abstract Tantric paintings. That association marks the point where we can identify a distinctive Frecon aesthetic. As Tantric paintings are aids to meditation, springboards that turn the contemplative soul toward transcendence, Frecon’s works are ends in themselves. Or, as Fernando Pessoa (writing under the pseudonym Alberto Caeiro) put it in a poem about the river running through his village: “The river in my village doesn’t make you think about anything./ If you’re standing on the bank, you’re just standing on the bank.” Frecon’s work is a challenge to the notion of referentiality, to the idea that there must be a meaning hidden in the image.

Installation view,<em> Suzan Frecon: oil paintings</em>, David Zwirner, New York, 2020. Courtesy David Zwirner.
Installation view, Suzan Frecon: oil paintings, David Zwirner, New York, 2020. Courtesy David Zwirner.

Frecon hides nothing: under the surfaces of her paintings there is—literally—nothing. At the same time, we are not dealing with Malevich’s black square or Ryman’s textured white pigments. Both color and the formal arrangement of shapes matter to Frecon; orange and bluebird blue illumination (2019) is a case in point. The title might in fact be a reference, since the eastern bluebird does in fact have an orange chest and a bright blue head and back, but nature, perhaps Frecon’s point of departure, seems irrelevant here. The large composition is disconcerting: an orange half-moon abuts the upper and left-hand limit of the picture surface, off center. At the same time, like all the other works in the show, this one is composed of two panels of equal dimensions (these measure 87 by 54 inches). So, the structural symmetry of Frecon’s twin panels is played off against the deliberate asymmetry of her composition.

In numerology, two is a notoriously unstable cipher. Like a see-saw, it hovers between conflict and precarious equilibrium. In orange and bluebird blue illumination, the two halves of the image are simultaneously sundered and joined by the offset half-moon imprinted on them. What’s more, the half-moon, like the number two, alludes to the concept of mutability, to the uncertain nature of the artistic enterprise. So, while Frecon eschews allegory, the elements she deploys, like the figures on a Tarot deck, have a life of their own that plays out irrespective of their place within the entire deck or their appearance in any particular game.

Suzan Frecon, <em>stone cathedral</em>, 2019. © Suzan Frecon. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.
Suzan Frecon, stone cathedral, 2019. © Suzan Frecon. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.

A portrait-format canvas, stone cathedral (2019), confirms the summa status of the entire show. Frecon has painted versions of this work many times, but here complexity dominates, with five colors deployed to create five shapes. The 108 1/2 by 87 5/8-inch linen surface is crowded with configurations that fit together in dynamic competition: the two-paneled work is bisected by a horizon line—Frecon pays homage to the landscape tradition—but the universe is inverted. At the bottom rises a blue half-moon, compressing a mauve swath toward the horizon. Above the horizon rises an ochre, vaguely mastaba-like shape on the left, pushing against a yellow-orange pyramid. Above, a dark green sky holds all in place. It’s the world turned upside down, sky below, ground above: Frecon’s world.

Suzan Frecon works through paradox: her titles take us into the real world, but her work negates that connection. At the same time, repetitions—dividing works into two symmetrical panels, deploying and re-deploying certain ambiguous geometric shapes, continuously juxtaposing colors to suggest mass—constitute a personal, idiosyncratic painterly language. This is not a language we can learn but a sui generis syntax that is Frecon’s—and hers alone. As a kind of rhetoric, it is highly seductive, though by succumbing to its charm we fall not into sin but into aesthetic pleasure of the highest degree.

Contributor

Alfred Mac Adam

Alfred Mac Adam is professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He has translated works by Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Carlos Onetti, José Donoso, and Jorge Volpi, among others. He recently published an essay on the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa included in The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography.

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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2020

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