Ad Reinhardt (1913 – 1967) studied both Eastern and Western art history at the undergraduate and graduate levels. He deepened his understanding of Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies by attending the lectures of Zen teacher Daisetz Suzuki at Columbia University. Number 22 (1949) shows Reinhardt fusing Eastern and Western traditions by using calligraphic brushwork inspired by Chinese and Japanese calligraphy in a gridded composition influenced by those of de Stijl cofounder Piet Mondrian.
Number 22, Detail
In classical East Asian painting, the fragility of paper wet with ink limits the artist’s ability to rework the composition. The sturdier canvas support and slower-drying oil paints used throughout much of the history of Western painting allows artists to highlight various revision and layering techniques. Although he worked in oil on canvas, Reinhardt chose to restrain himself and not rework his painting’s surface, in keeping with Asian calligraphic traditions. The result is a far more controlled manner of gestural painting than those of the Abstract Expressionists.
Although it wasn’t on my list for that day’s art crawl, I was drawn into the Andrea Rosen Gallery by a glimpse of one of Josiah McElheny’s“Paintings” as seen from the street. These works instantly reminded me of the hyper-realist Jewel Paintings of Damien Hirst, so I was fascinated right away. To better convey what these paintings are all about, I’ve borrowed some text taken from the exhibit’s official press release.
The smooth surface of McElheny’s works, each faced with a plane of glass, is something that one sees through, and beyond. Challenging a Modernist perspective that painting is defined by and bound to its surface, these paintings — constructions of wood, mirror, glass, paint and, in two instances, video projection — acknowledge a painting’s physical and imaginable space. Creating an image on, in and behind this material plane, the paintings alternation from “flat” to “deep”, when simply viewed from the front and then the side.
Five paintings structured after works by Kandinsky and Malevich — McElheny’s Crystalline Prism Painting I, II, III, IV, and VI — feature press-molded and polished glass prisms inset into a field of black, matte oil paint brushstrokes, visible behind or through a surface made of a sheet of museum glass. The geometry of each prism offers a visual portal into a landscape of refracted light. Two related photograms, Prism I and Prism II translate these prismatic shapes into two-dimensional black and white abstractions, where their strict geometry is transmuted into an organic latticework.
Prism Painting Detail
Within three large monochromatic works — Blue Prism Painting V, VI and VII — one sees arrangements of solid, cut and polished blue glass forms, each form creating an ellipse at its apex. Here, the surface of the painting is a plane of blue architectural glass; subtle tonal variations play out across a grid structure borrowed from Ad Reinhardt. The black exterior frame and the painting itself, in these works, are in essence one and the same (another nod to Reinhardt). Within, a mirrored interior naturally refracts light into the prismatic objects and also seems to extend the space of the room.
In a related work, McElheny’sWindow Painting I — which echoes an iconic painting by Ellsworth Kelly from 1949 — mirror and tinted grey glass create a mysterious space “beyond,” but here the cylindrical prismatic objects standing inside seem to depict something, perhaps bottles, smokestacks or skyscrapers.
I remember seeing these at Frieze earlier this year.
Across all these works, McElheny hopes to suggest the possibility of an expanded experience of viewing, a view of the images that exist within painting where the viewer’s own physical movement offers additional vistas, imaginary or not. In McElheny’s hands, mining the past lays the groundwork for a path forward, giving a glimpse not only into what could have been, but visions for what might be.
Paintings by Josiah McElheny will be on Exhibit Through October 24th, 2015 at Andrea Rosen Gallery, Located at 525 West 24th Street in the Chelsea Gallery District