Painting about Paintings
Anne Tabachnick at Lori Bookstein Fine Art

Seeing this work again, after a significant lapse of years, touched and exhilarated me. I loved it when I first met it at the Ingber Gallery in the late seventies. The painting is as lovely and fresh as it was then. The loose, liquid calligraphic initiatives are as inviting as ever. Overall, the work seems even more gracious, more substantial than I had remembered. Tabachnick died in 1995. Her work is missed

A second generation New York School painter, Tabachnick maintained a life-long passion for Old Master and Modern European painting. On occasion, she invoked famous work as points of departure for her own. This exhibition displays a selection of those reinterpretations: a revisit to Matisse’s Red Room, El Greco’s Laocoön, Arshile Gorky’s double portrait of himself and his mother. Also included are homages to the dramatic pictorial structures of Byzantine and Siennese traditions and Renaissance altar pieces.

The object of this exhibition is simply to permit these invocations to be seen and known. Viewed as an ensemble, they illustrate the way in which serious painters nourish their own expressive potentials. Tabachnick spoke for herself quite well: "Painters are the people who have been taught to see by painters and paintings. So it is the history of painting we are shuffling with our perceptions of nature."

Tabachnick’s dialogues with the Grand Tradition underscore the heart of her vocation as a painter. She understood herself to be heir to pictorial possibilities that, however abundant and varied, are rooted in precedents set by the great painters of the past. From the beginning of her career, with gradually deepening confidence, she took possession of her own vivid domain. It was one that testified to the enduring fertility of past motifs as instruments of creative intuition. For the time that it takes to view this work, we are lifted over barriers of time, culture and artistic temperament to a deeper understanding of art’s enterprise.

Tabachnick’s love of Matisse is evident in everything she did. Her process of drawing and redrawing an image in charcoal —setting it with fixative, partially obscuring it with a white glaze, resetting the line elsewhere—yields a shifting record of pentimenti which animate her surfaces. A rectangular drawing sets within the lovely Pink and Green Screen Door, 1988, covering nearly half the canvas. Yet the impression is one of total coloration, the slightly tremulous effect of partly erased lines adding warmth to the linear portion. This vibrato is enhanced by a wash of clear yellow spreading loosely over the outline of a chair back.

It isn’t necessary to make appeals, as the catalogue does, to the Tao of Painting for Tabachnick’s practices. It is all there in Matisse. Look at A View of Notre-Dame, 1914; Grey Nude, 1929, or any of the figures similar to The Dream, 1935. The list is long. Simply look at Matisse’s many drawings that depend for their liveliness on precisely the linear interplay of rehearsal and conviction that Tabachnick emulates so successfully. Was Tabachnick’s art touched at the core of its development by the great niçoise ? Absolutely. As British poet Christopher Reid asked: "Isn’t that the name of the game at all times?"

Influence-anxiety is a curiously recent phenomenon that arises more from marketing concerns than creative ones. It is a factor in talking about salon art, dealer’s art, the stuff straining to pass as the certifiable Next New Thing. It has nothing to do with what actually goes on in an artist’s earnest engagement with materials, with problems of composition and color. Tabachnick suffered no such anxiety herself. On the contrary, she dismissed it with winning nonchalance: "I don’t mind being called derivative. I derive most of what I do from the past. We should absorb 2,000 years of Western Art to go on to something new." She remained delightfully free from the crippling effects of the popular misconception that value in art is created by an inexorable process of stylistic innovation. Although the notion has been pretty well discredited by now, it lingers at the cultural back door, keeping itself alive on scraps from publicity bins.

Tabachnick knew better: "We must respect the past. The important things from it must be preserved and restated." And, so, she remained free to explore the carefully constructed symbolic and pictorial order of the religious paintings that constitute so much of the Western canon. Working in a cultural climate in which shared religious symbolism has disappeared, she was brave enough to believe that she could improve her own performance by studying the example of iconographers who commanded a degree of communal assent that no longer exists. Spend time with her ambitious, mural-sized painting Blue Heaven, 1966. It resonates with Byzantine, Siennese and Florentine elements in much the same way that so much of Matisse work pulses with his own love of Islamic art

In her summoning of Gorky and his mother, the dark window of the original is exchanged for a crucifixion scene. The image, set behind the heads of mother and son, dares to make explicit the pathos implicit in Gorky’s own creation. That dual image, portrait and self-portrait had great meaning for Gorky who painted more than one version of it. What better way for one painter to probe the mechanisms of emotional engagement with the work of another but to summon it in her own way on her own canvas.

Tabachnick’s gift for restatement is wonderfully apparent in Studio with Artist and Sitter, 1965. Matisse’s The Red Studio, 1911, comes immediately to mind the instant you see it. Yet Tabachnick’s is a wholly other construction, different in color, mood and content. In both paintings, the color red is the material in which everything is embedded, forms frozen and expressed in it. Tabachnick’s red is calmer, earthier, closer to red umber. In the move away from Matisse’s intense cadmium there is a shift of consciousness and concern. This room is peopled. A model is turned toward the artist who dominates the canvas, breaking into to the field of red as a variegated expanse of cobalt blues. Arm raised, her gesture is arrested in one of the many acts that contribute to the work yet to be done.

The past is a foreign country. Tabachnick entered it with due reverence and found there the ground of her own individuality. Young artists in formation, for whom the past exists largely to be scolded for where it went wrong, can profit nicely from this exhibition. It is traveling on to Marywood University Art Galleries. It ought to be kept moving from school to school, a vivid lesson in the visceral necessity of traditions to painters who love paint and painting.

Regrettably, not all of them do, as April Kingsley notes in her reflective and helpful catalogue essay. This exhibition is for those who do.


October 2000

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