Painting about Paintings
Anne Tabachnick at Lori Bookstein
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 Matisses Red Room,
El Grecos Laocoön, Arshile Gorkys
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."
Tabachnicks 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 arts enterprise.
Tabachnicks 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 elsewhereyields
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 isnt necessary to make appeals, as the catalogue
does, to the Tao of Painting for Tabachnicks
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 Matisses many drawings that depend for
their liveliness on precisely the linear interplay of rehearsal
and conviction that Tabachnick emulates so successfully. Was
Tabachnicks art touched at the core of its development
by the great niçoise ? Absolutely. As British
poet Christopher Reid asked: "Isnt 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, dealers art, the stuff straining
to pass as the certifiable Next New Thing. It has nothing
to do with what actually goes on in an artists 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
dont 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 Gorkys 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.
Tabachnicks gift for restatement is wonderfully apparent
in Studio with Artist and Sitter, 1965. Matisses
The Red Studio, 1911, comes immediately to mind the
instant you see it. Yet Tabachnicks 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. Tabachnicks
red is calmer, earthier, closer to red umber. In the move
away from Matisses 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.