Andrew Kreps Gallery,
525 West 22nd Street
New York City
212 741 8849
February 7 to March 16
In the 1960s, abstract painting and pop art parted company. Now and then, it is true, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol flirted with abstraction. But on the whole, there was a clear dividing line between abstract painting, whether minimalist or painterly, and visual art presenting or critiquing images of commodities. The paintings of Robert Mangold and Cy Twombly looked pretty different from those of Jim Dine or James Rosenquist. And then in the 1980s, younger abstract artists often felt beleaguered. They needed to argue for the validity of their concerns at a time when painting, especially abstract painting was so often said to be dead. But now all those debates seem very distant. Certainly that is true for Ruth Root, who entered the art world in the 1990s, and so has a very different take on this history. She an abstract pop artist, which is to say that although her pictures are entirely devoid of figurative references, they are as sleek as commodities depicted by Warhol and his peers.
Root’s six horizontal and two vertical pictures on display are all very flat and very thin. These big paintings have smooth glossy enamel surfaces. Using high pitched artificial color, she makes glistening reflective surfaces. Root loves pink, orange, and violet, shades of designer colors frequently encountered in urban experience, but not in nature. Her horizontal paintings do not resemble landscapes, and her verticals do not look like abstract-portraits. Without making any reference to these traditional subjects, she uses straight edges and gentle curves, and impersonal paint handling, to compose elegantly. In the 1960s, Michael Fried famously argued that the internal composition of Frank Stella’s paintings was deduced from the shape of their frames. Without this deductive structure, he feared that abstract art would merely become a form of decoration. Root rejects that worried way of thinking. Abstraction, she shows, has its own self-sufficient validity. For an artist of her generation, abstract painting can “come off” without any need to obey such constraints. She perhaps owes something to pattern painting, which gave visual artists warrant to create attractive pictures. But citing this historical reference hardly does justice to her originality. Beauty is back, which is to say that we can accept the visual pleasures provided by her (marvelously!) decorative paintings without demanding that their structures be grounded in some reading of art history.
In the 1980s, many young abstract artists were concerned to situate themselves by reference to some historical narrative. Root, a very economical visual thinker, gives some good clues about how to understand her art in a handout of visual sources available at the gallery and on-line. It is unsurprising that she cites Paul Feeley, Peter Saul and Richard Tuttle, for their art looks like hers. What, however, is a little unexpected is her referencing of Gordon Matta-Clark, the matching dresses and wall paper in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; and some ski socks. For an abstract painter of her generation, the older distinctions between figurative and abstract art, or between politically critical art and the consumer products of mass culture cease to have much importance. Perhaps that is why her essentially cheerful art shows no signs of that angst which inspired so many of the pioneering Abstract Expressionists.