CUE Art Foundation
511 West 25th Street, Ground Floor
New York, New York 10001
Robert Sussman’s show at Cue Art Foundation breathes the same Chelsea air as that of his esteemed predecessor Willem de Kooning at Gagosian. I visited the latter just before the former. Unfair perhaps, comparing the two seems nonetheless profitable; viewing Sussman next to De Kooning allows one to see more clearly the contemporary twists in Sussman’s content. The comparison is also fitting because Sussman cites the Abstract Expressionists as his primary influence claiming, like those artists, to “favor experience over conceptualization.” This chunk of the artist’s statement, surely apt as far as the abstract expressionists are concerned seems less well suited to Sussman’s paintings.
Sussman, like his exhibition’s curator, Thomas Nozkowski, favors small paintings. This small scale lends itself to a more retiring contemplation of the art than the Abstract Expressionists tended to provide. Prompted by the artist’s focus on certain forms, I find myself viewing his paintings as one might a puzzle, dissecting them for intersecting meanings. The calligraphic curly-cue, reminiscent of cartooning, repeats itself throughout the paintings on display at Cue, as does Sussman’s use of rectilinear constructs of solids and voids. He plays washy trapezoids against hazy yet colorful grounds. He has a tendency to centralize his compositions like icons while his employ of the diptych consistently emphasizes horizontality. The paintings seem schematized at times. Take, for example, untitled #2, in which the right hand panel is a stark black that severs the landscape-like composition on the left. Such a black in such a context does not seem experiential. It seems instead to derive from some concept of experience as interrupted or fragmented. Much of Sussman’s color functions as does this black.
De Kooning always uses naturalistic color grounded in sensory experience no matter how intense the hue. His paintings from the 60’s and 70’s are relentlessly atmospheric – color speaks always of observed phenomena. Brushstrokes swim outward, suggesting space far beyond that contained by the picture plane. These paintings do not repeat form with the exception of the brushstroke itself, the lowest common denominator of content in de Kooning’s work.
Sussman might find a more apt lineage in other abstract expressionists, such as Barnett Newman or Clyfford Still, whose insistence on certain compositional devices mirrors more closely his own. Yet both of these artists use scale to force viewers into awareness of themselves bodily in relationship to the paintings. To look at their larger paintings, one must literally pace the length of the room, close to see the surface, far to contemplate the whole. You’re meant to lose yourself in the abstract expressionist’s colors, to have an experience of your own. Before a Sussman, one stands at several paces, physically tranquil. It’s the mind and the eye that do the work. Sussman’s easy, inventive way with paint appears driven by a far more cerebral core than the artist is willing to admit. Rather than favoring experience over concept, Sussman’s lush and intellectual paintings reveal the pitfall’s of such dichotomies.