On ViewFindlay Galleries
November 14 – December 12, 2020
Ronnie Landfield is a native New Yorker who wound up studying briefly at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1963 where he made contact with other abstract painters of his generation, including Dan Christensen. He was all of 16 at the time, and precociously established his first studio in downtown Manhattan when he returned that same year. He’d earlier absorbed significant Abstract Expressionist shows on 57th street as a student at the then newly-established High School of Art and Design located nearby and, upon his return, became part of an eclectic downtown scene then processing Pop, post-painterly abstraction, Minimalism, Conceptual, and performance art. Amidst all of this influence he chose to explore color and the possibilities of the grand gesture in large Color Field painting. He’s maintained this preoccupation for the better part of 50 years, in the process becoming something of an elder statesman of that particular mode of abstraction. It’s a way expansive enough to include stylistic interpretations as historically diverse as Sam Gilliam’s early, ground-breaking installations of stained and stretcher-free canvases and Katharina Grosse’s more recent architectural interventions. Considering such stylistic permutations together with Landfield’s continued contribution, lyrical abstraction1 as a type of painting has proven to remain apparently free from the formalist critical occlusion with which Clement Greenberg sought to corner the art world in the 1960s.
An important attribute that has contributed to Landfield’s independence as a painter is his assimilation of the long history of improvisatory painting and his dedication to physically exploring the recombinant potential of its basic pictorial presumptions. One’s optical unconscious can’t help but recapitulate early Georgia O’Keeffe watercolors or even impressionistic washes by J. M. W. Turner when one encounters any stain painting in the tradition of modern lyrical abstraction. The viewer has to learn, though, how to distinguish each individual’s specific contribution to the genre: how they uniquely address it, take up a conversation, or talk back to it. In Landfield’s case, one tactic seems to be to contain (thus to accelerate) the energy of his effusive brushstrokes and colors via geometric interventions that sometimes frame or underscore their gestural passages. There’s a bracingly skeptical attitude contained in these discrete geometric interventions. They lend the artist’s painting a spatial datum and relative aperture, like a threshold or proscenium. The figural distance and formal transitions that such thresholds evoke take the drama of these luscious paintings to another level of critical perception. A remarkable apposition in the gallery’s installation here is the corner juxtaposition of two large vertical paintings We Walked All the Way (1997) and The Harvest (2006). Here one witnesses the artist maintaining a “threshold” band at the bottom of each composition of differing colors, therefore producing a different effect in each predominantly gestural work. In the former painting, the band is a deep azure while the latter is a practically achromatic off white. In each instance, these colorations are echoed in the gestural compositions above. By transparently enacting such formal translations, Landfield invites the viewer to participate in the critical dismantling and reassembly of the parts which makes these paintings “tick.” It’s interesting to note that Greenberg didn’t approve of these formal interventions in Landfield’s work, perhaps exactly because they are critically self-contained. The artist’s brushstrokes in We Walked All the Way are solid, upwardly right-oriented swaths of highly saturated hues. In contrast, The Harvest contains muted, washed-out colors of longer strokes and more integrated edges. The adjacent installation of these two paintings functions as a key to the groupings of works here both with and without intervening bands of geometric color. In the gallery room just beyond are displayed a number of relatively smaller and more recent paintings. Most of these are horizontally oriented in proportion and composition. A few of these do not include any geometric intervention and so meld more easily into lyrical allusions to recessive landscape space. Titles such as Blue Ridge (2012) and Along the Way (2008) evoke romantic landscapes, which are then reinforced by their sunrise/sunset bands of vibrant yet soft-edged hues in blue, orange, and violet. Some of the generous ambiguity of intention in Landfield’s less pictorially determined compositions is kept in tighter rein in these works—due partly to the more restrictive precepts crowding the romantic landscape genre. One is relieved of recapitulating such allusive precepts in Across the Fall and Edge of September, each a lusciously stained interplay of analogous and complementary hues which, while yet alluding to landscape, simultaneously construct an attendant conceptual distance with the initiative threshold seen in many of his other works, and (in the case of the latter) a subtle vertical framing of peripheral bands of assimilative hue. A larger painting, After the Rain (1970), combines the drama of a Thomas Cole or Frederic Edwin Church Hudson River School weather system moving in to create an air of pictorial indeterminacy (a breathless event) with a modernist bracketing of violet, blue, and yellow peripheral bands. The artist’s reintroduction of such explicitly rhetorical devices helps frame the gestural composition past its reductive generic reading as mere romantic fancy. It’s a tough balance to maintain, and you have to hand it to Landfield for his painterly brinkmanship in attempting to bridge the conceptual abyss between 21st-century lyrical abstraction and 19th-century landscape.
The show is an eminently beautiful one, the works plainly evident of the artist’s long experience with the lyric orchestration of color and gesture. The seductive aspect of pure paint poured, brushed, and stained onto canvas is wonderfully residual. This can seem an indulgent luxury, but Landfield doesn’t himself make the capital mistake of letting such a beautiful seduction get out of hand.
- “Lyrical Abstraction” was the title given to a grouping of works, including Landfield’s, displayed at The Whitney Museum in 1971.