On ViewCheim & Read
Ron Gorchov: Watercolors 1968–1980
September 29, 2022–January 14, 2023
Ron Gorchov’s watercolors at Cheim & Read don’t show the strains or stressed conditions that painting was going through at the time these works were made. As many painters in the seventies either tried to keep the abstract expressionist ethos alive or shifted to color field to try to run parallel with Minimalism, Gorchov staked out a position within one of painting’s first deaths. He embraced something casual, testing ideas in his watercolors that ultimately were channeled into the significant works that Gorchov became known for.
As Daniel Buren and Frank Stella challenged painting’s support, Gorchov was working out the shape of Entrance (1972), a stacking of canvases that seemed to mimic the dolmen of ancient tombs. His watercolors lay bare the constraints and breakthroughs of his searching. It seems that it was around 1972 when Gorchov really began to explore what would eventually become the saddle shape, and he began limiting his moves to the exploration of the two slits that would sit on the bend of the canvas. In the watercolors you can see Gorchov playing with the two alleles—transitioning them into antlers or hands, basic trees, scratches, asemic gestures, and quotations. However, we also see that the middle of the saddle was contested in the works on paper, at times as kinetic as Promenade (1985) but also testing density and dramatic color saturation. Gorchov’s watercolors reveal a color sensibility distinct from his paintings, oftentimes exploring vivid tube colors and challenging uses of space.
There’s an earnestness that Gorchov kept alive with his painting during the seventies. Larry Poons’s Brown Sound (1968) would have hung well beside Gorchov’s Untitled (1968), and you can see how his earliest works kept on the crest of the second AbEx wave and what would eventually come to be known as color field. As Castelli shifted from Rauschenberg, Poons, and Twombly to Flavin and Judd, Gorchov followed the path of the shaped canvas works of Ellsworth Kelly, Ron Davis, and Nassos Daphnis. However, I continue to see masks in Gorchov’s saddle paintings and, with the watercolors that relate to Entrance nearby, a relationship to ancient animist forms. It seems possible that Gorchov was looking to the ancients for ways to extend painting forward, finding some connective tissue between the shape explosion of New York abstract painting of the sixties with lintel architecture in his stacked paintings, dolmens, and masks; but just as easily, one can believe that it was really just a rejection of the rectangle, influenced by Lucio Fontana and artists interested in destabilizing the support. Michael Fried’s essay “Shape as Form” had broken from Greenberg on painting’s recursive ability in 1966, defining shape as its extended possibility. With rote conceptualism of the seventies on one side and Neo Geo in the eighties, Gorchov spent his time forging a third way; trying to pick up where Stella left off without veering into Judd, while possibly finding innovation within Jungian forms and timeless shadows.
The two marks of each saddle painting can be interpreted simultaneously as specific formal history of New York abstraction as well as something more primordial. They form a dialectic, announce space as Newman would say, and form a figure ground relationship on a bend. Two things make a relationship, create difference, form tension, force comparison, and create a picture no matter how simple. This becomes obvious within the watercolors, where there isn’t the dramatic structure of the paintings to hide the conceit.
The watercolors in this exhibition show the searching. It reveals Gorchov thinking through shape and color and drawing out the ideas and possibilities to arrive at the language he’s currently celebrated for. The watercolors present the casual intimacy of his practice, that his paintings weren’t arrived at by hypothesis, but through prolonged aesthetic play. The exhibition provides the unique experience to see where Gorchov expands the saddle into more of a field, plays at the boundaries, attempts to relate it more directly to the edge of the paper through trial and error, before finally settling on his aesthetic.