Kenneth Noland, Markus Linnenbrink and The Sentimental Favorite: abstract painting
“Kenneth Noland: Contrapuntal”
Ameringer Yohe Fine Art until November 22
20 W. 57th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, 212-445-0051
“Markus Linnenbrink: The Beauty You Are”
Margaret Thatcher Projects until November 29
511 W. 25th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212-675-0222
“The Sentimental Favorite: abstract painting”
Elsbeth Deser, Iva Gueorguieva, Frederick Hayes, Mark Takamichi Miller, Jennifer Riley
Triple Candie until November 23
461 W. 126th Street, between Amsterdam and Convent Avenues, 212-865-0783
Although, as Cézanne observed, there are no straight lines in nature, art and design more than make up for it. Still, it is surprising how late and inauspicious an entry stripes made into Western consciousness. As the French scholar Michel Pastoureau noted in “The Devil’s Cloth” (2001), when the Carmelites brought the pattern back from the Holy Land, stripes bewildered and infuriated people: The medieval eye was conditioned perceptually by figure-ground relationships. Stripes came to be viewed as diabolical.
In our own times, however, the stripe appeals to artists of a reductive bent precisely because of its ubiquity and standardization, the unostentatious way it sits upon the eye. (No room for the devil if there aren’t any details.) Three painters currently showing revisit stripes: Two – the German Markus Linnenbrink and the Bostonian Jennifer Riley – are relative youngsters, but Kenneth Noland is a grand master of the motif.
As ever with Mr. Noland, his exhibition at Ameringer Yohe of nine new canvases is in equal measure elegant and enigmatic. In his last show at the gallery, the artist revisited his trademark “target” format, first seen in the late 1950s. Now it is the turn of stripes, which became his idiom ten years later: emphatically horizontal bands of solid color, posited in radical chromatic relationships with one another.
Mr. Noland’s own rhetoric, and that of his formalist champions, speaks about optical hedonism. His style and achievement were pitted, historically, against the hard, cold, logic of the minimalists. But while this new show deploys sumptuous colors, ranging from the pumped-up synthetic to the shamelessly pretty and pastel, it is hard to get these paintings to work in the way one assumes they are supposed to. How is one to resist the banal conclusion that they are delightful graphic designs?
Scale helps. In their bid to envelop the gaze, these canvases are heroically horizontal. At least double-square, they sometimes stretch in width to more than three times their height. But getting the eye horizontal doesn’t mean these paintings have their wicked way with it. Bands of color are hardly more prone to blend on the retina than Seurat’s dots; they insist on their autonomy. At best, if stared at long enough, there’s a bit of optical buzz, but – to pursue the bedroom analogy – it is hardly as if the earth moves.
Mr. Noland’s paintings are “about” color relationships rather than actually embodying them: They are beautifully printed scores, not symphonies. This artist, who has suffered for his formalism, is actually not formalist enough. Revisiting his own high-modernist halcyon days at a time when *de rigeur* ironists are doing the same, Mr. Noland has become an inadvertent postmodernist.
I first became aware of Markus Linnenbrink at the Hammer in Los Angeles last spring, where a floor-to-ceiling mural filled the UCLA museum’s entrance. This stunningly audacious décor, “Myself Outside,” fused the yin and yang of painterly abstraction: the stripe and the drip. It was droll, canny, and felicitous in its balance of semiotics and sweetness.
Mr. Linnenbrink’s third solo show at Margaret Thatcher Projects, however, disappointed me. If only he could heed the classic modernist dictum that less is more; instead, the artist seems to be hedging his bets with a variety of strategies and confections. It is not that there aren’t winners on hand. In “Ladylove” (2003) strips of bright, colored, epoxy resin form a beaded surface, each strip artfully seeming to drip its way to a point. In “Zimmer in the Dead Sea” (2003), horizontal lines of epoxy, tentatively zigzagging and densely clustered (at places almost sandwiching), shimmer or dribble over faintly legible collage materials to intriguing effect.
It is the array of that ideas is unbecoming. Whether the artist means to show off, is unsure where to go, or is placing his disparate efforts in clever-clever (Richterian) quote marks is unclear. This market-stall act is decidedly gauche from an artist of such proven poise.
Jennifer Riley’s contribution to the stripe renaissance is to be found in an eclectic and bizarrely titled group exhibition at Triple Candie. “The Sentimental Favorite: abstract painting,” is like the Harlem industrial space that hosts it: sprawling, rough at the edges, and quite a trip.
Ms. Riley, who is represented by three large canvases in this five person show, appears to be the only artist who can plausibly be described as abstract. It is also difficult to believe that abstraction is, or ever has been, “the” sentimental favorite. But so what? The true selection principle is that these are emerging artists with some reputation in their hometowns: New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle, and, in Ms. Riley’s case, Boston.
It’s worth the detour, incidentally, for another painter in the show, the emphatically figural Mark Takamichi Miller, whose fast, thick, gooey action paintings read like family snapshots caught in atomic meltdown. In contrast to these gushing fountains of virtuosity, Ms. Riley’s sparse, introverted compositions reveal their quirky individualism as if by micro-irrigation. They pay a kind of warped homage to the earnest mystical abstraction of Agnes Martin, the Zen nun of stripes. Ms. Riley, however, is devoted to what are more like heraldic bars.
She is often symmetrical, but more in the breach than the observance. In “Multiflex” (2003), color schemes seem suspended between the random and the sensical. Typically of the artist, the eye is beckoned towards an ever-elusive logic. Ms. Riley’s subtle touch creates fluid, almost sinewy lines. Strangely flesh-toned, these can almost misread as stretched stockings (connecting with the funky Mr Takamichi Miller after all). It is as if by stealth this gentle subversive is claiming back – for nature, for the body – the hardest edge of abstraction.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, November 13, 2003.