Color Field, Literally: Ronnie Landfield at Stephen Haller
Ronnie Landfield: Structure and Color at Stephen Haller Gallery
September 8- October 15, 2011
542 West 26th Street
New York City, 212-741-7777
Paintings as decorous and tasteful as Ronnie Landfield’s demand a critical response equally mindful of its manners. And yet, if ever an artist called out for a pun on his name, this is he. For here is a painter who reinvigorates the tradition of post-painterly New York School abstraction by making explicit what were –despite partisanship for non-objectivity, or at least non-representation, at its historical outset – irrepressible references and sly allusions to landscape. Landfield puts the field back into Color Field Painting.
Clear as Day (2006) uses color and stain to denote distance and differentiate the play of light and mist on receding hills with the polite subtly of a watercolor, despite its nine feet width and its being acrylic on canvas. What Gauguin Said (1998) is a more turbulent, busy, heated composition, less legible as landscape, but it still uses the bold gestures of action painting in ways more akin to paint hatching reminiscent of the Post-Impressionist of its title than the Abstract Expressionists he evokes in his scale and stripping bare of reference. Franz Kline in Provincetown (2010), a brooding and romantic evocation of a valley with encroaching storm, is similarly more Turner than Kline.
Of course, where pioneers of the first generation like Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko were implicitly landscape-like, denizens of post-painterly abstraction like Helen Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski went on, in their later works, to revel unabashedly in romantic landscape associations. Landfield is never as sumptuous as Frankenthaler or as fearless as Olitski, but he has a very likeable touch that is restrained even when it is exuberant. He exudes pictorial intelligence.
His elegantly installed exhibition includes work dating back to 1997 as well as examples from this year. Several paintings here include what has become his trademark device, a bar of solid color at the base of the canvas. This gives the works a somewhat incongruously conceptual look. If they serve as chromatic points of reference for the artist in his working process then they are, I guess, like Alberto Giacometti’s (or Euan Uglow’s) nervous-tic spatial markers, pentimenti that are tolerable if nonetheless somewhat affected. But if they are intended to ground his images in a contemporary moment, as if to apologize for the otherwise traditional implications of landscape painting, then the strategy is heavy-handed and likely to back fire, as they actually make him look a bit old-fashioned. He’d be raising the bar if he lost them.