Bartleby, Uptown & Pascal, Downtown
Albert York at Davis & Langdale; Giorgio Morandi at Lucas Schoormans Gallery; Nicholas Evans-Cato at George Billis Gallery
The ghost of Bartleby the Scrivener hovers over Albert York, contemporary painting’s best known recluse. On view at Davis & Langdale are 25 paintings, all created before 1992, the last year the gallery received a canvas from him. This exhibition also includes 9 recent drawings abruptly submitted by the artist earlier this year.
|Two Pink Carnations in Glass Goblet
Born in 1928, the painter came of age with Abstract Expressionism. He staked his place vîs-à-vîs the modern movement with passive resistance to its defining imperatives, much as Melville’s Bartleby countered demands with “I would prefer not to.”
While Ab Ex heralded its own significance on over-sized canvases, Mr. York preferred panels under a foot square. Pressure to make noise—pump it up, abandon representation—was quietly met by Mr. York’s bias for the visual world: small-scale landscapes, a pot of flowers, sometimes a cow or a memento mori. His subject matter is so ordinary as to be almost inadmissible. But it is ordinary in extraordinary ways.
Skill with the fabric of paint plus a refined palette combine to shift his renunciatory simplicity away from the margins inhabited by Sunday painters and eccentrics. The quality of his color marks him as a sophisticate whose modernity knows its own roots. His greens, derived from French landscape tradition, are delectable. Spare compositions divide into light and dark zones, the drama of contrast made more intricate by subtle blending of foreground and background color into the motif. While values remain distinct, admixtures of pigment harmonize the counterpoint.
“Two Pink Carnations in Glass Goblet” is a luscious example of his deceptive realism and the improvisational confidence that binds him to the moderns. A goblet of blooms is set, deadpan, in a meadow as if it had grown there. The foreground green is worked into the carnations, reducing the tone almost—not quite—to a middle gray. The optical effect is of a warm, dark pink with anything saccharine denied.
Entries for Albert York are scarce in the annals of modern art; yet every serious painter in New York knows his work. (And so do collectors.) For good reason. He raises simple sights to the dignity of painting with an imaginative elán that strikes the viewer as something deeply felt. In a 1974 essay, Fairfield Porter wrote that it is his empathy that attracts. That, and modesty. Legions of artists pummel us with the weight of their ideas. Albert York would prefer two trees against the sky.
A more illustrious celebrant of a private world is Giorgio Morandi, lodestar for other painters and a poet of the familiar and unexceptional. Now on view at Lucas Schoormans are 6 stunning paintings plus two works on paper in a loan exhibition that was several years in the making. It concentrates on work from the last fifteen years of Morandi’s life, his most mature and exquisitely nuanced.
|Natura Mort, mid 1950s
Volumes have already been said about the formal structure and spatial organization of Morandi’s painting: the distilled architecture of homely items compressed on a tabletop, each adjustment finely calibrated to break the monastic silence of the whole. The same household objects repeat like mantras throughout his work.
No middle ground exists for the audience. One is either captivated (as I am) or bored by his seemingly narrow range: penetrating distinctions so unassuming that you have to work at observing them. Too see the world in a grain of sand or an arrangement of bottles and boxes is an acquired taste. A decision. Everything depends on one’s attraction—or none—to Morandi’s subtlety, a dynamic attentiveness that, were it not for the physicality of paint, comes close to an act of prayer.
The word “contemplative” is overused in relation to art in general and to Morandi in particular. Contemplation of what? and for what end? Your tolerance for these two questions shapes the nature of your response to the work. It helps to know what motivated Morandi’s mastery; it was more than paint.
Morandi was an ardent reader of Pascal, a 17th century mathematician, physicist and passionately religious man. The painter took heart and direction from a man (credited with originating the theory of probability) who lived what he proclaimed: “Let a mite be given to him [the reader]. Let him see therein an infinity of universes.” Morandi had no need to leave Bologna. Infinity was there on the Via Fondazza.
It is commonplace to label Morandi a precursor to Minimalism because of the severity of his methods and materials. But art-historical pigeonholing misses the animating core of his originality. Morandi’s painting embodied his convictions. For these, look to Pascal, not academic categories. The spatial ambiguities and linear evasions of these still lifes emulate Pascal’s refusal to fix the finite: “Let us not look for certainty and stability.” There is nothing minimal in Morandi’s affirmations of material uncertainty.
Nicholas Evans-Cato paints mainly in the rain. It is an arduous plein air commitment that yields brooding images of Williamsburg and its surrounds. Rectilinear structures and the gridded logic of urban streets play against the muting effects of fog and wet weather. My favorites—and ones that feel most contemporary—are those in which the scenic remains subordinate to geometry.
“Albert York: Paintings; A Loan Exhibition” at Davis and Langdale Company (231 East 60th Street, 212-838-0333).
“Giorgio Morandi: Paintings, 1950-1964” at Lucas Schoormans Gallery (508 West 26th Street, Suite 11B, 212-243-3159).
“Nicholas Evans-Cato: New Painting” at George Billis Gallery (511 West 25th Street, 212-645-2621).
A version of these reviews was first published in The New York Sun, October 14, 2004.
Copyright 2004 Maureen Mullarkey