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  • Dana Gordon

New variations on the theme of Ab Ex

Dana Gordon

February 5, 2021

On “John Mendelsohn: Color Wheel + Tenebrae Paintings” & “Stephen Pusey: Strange Attractors,” at David Richard Gallery, New York.

Modern abstract painting has traditions, even though it has existed for little more than a century. An arrangement of flat right-angled shapes is one such tradition. Emphasizing the patterns of brushstrokes is another. Even Abstract Expressionism has its traditions, though it dates back a mere eighty years, to the 1940s.

Countless artists in the 1950s and ’60s found inspiration in the energetic, gestural expressions of painters such as Pollock, Rothko, Guston, and especially Willem de Kooning. The example of “painterly” painting set by these leading artists became so fashionable—and indeed ubiquitous—in the New York art world that a reaction was bound to take place. Clement Greenberg distanced himself in 1964, when he derisively wrote of these painters’ “Tenth Street Touch”—those strokes “left by a loaded brush or knife,” fraying out into “streaks, ripples, and specks of paint” that turned up everywhere you looked in the East Village “Downtown” scene. In time the heat of Ab Ex cooled to a freeze, and evidence of the gestural “hand” in painting became anathema.

More recently, however, the taboo has loosened, and painters who unironically adopted the styles and techniques associated with those mid-century New York abstractionists have found success. This renewal of gestural painting has been accompanied by greater interest in the lesser-known artists, many of them women and minorities, whose work has drawn on the “first generation” Abstract Expressionists. With time, too, our sense of abstract expressionist painting has enlarged and become more inclusive. Color Field painting first emerged as a reaction against Ab Ex, but, compared to the wildly different avant-garde movements and trends that have come and gone in the intervening years, it has begun to look rather more like an evolution or variant than a radical break. The paintings of John Mendelsohn (b. 1949) and Stephen Pusey (b. 1952), on view now in concurrent shows at David Richard Gallery in Harlem, are representative of this newer, less restricted attitude.

In his new series of relatively large paintings titled Strange Attractors, Pusey emphasizes expressive brushwork without conscious reference to representational space. His thinly applied, curving lines range from broad to narrow, often in the same stroke, and they vary according to changes in motion and pressure that use the painter’s whole body: from arm and elbow down to the wrist and finger. The carefully chosen colors of these lines are mostly bright, and set against dark, unmodulated backgrounds. Some of the strokes cluster together; some stretch out into all-encompassing clouds. Some works call to mind a smoke-filled room—for those of us old enough to remember smoke-filled rooms, that is. Despite this evanescence, Pusey’s long brushstrokes have a sinewy, muscular feel. The title, “Strange Attractors,” refers to a phenomenon and its illustrations in chaos theory. But the erudite name doesn’t reflect the wider spectrum of allusions present in these paintings.

John Mendelsohn combines hard-edge painting and color fields with precise, controlled brushwork. The paintings, we learn, follow a set of self-imposed “rules,” created to give the artist a means of organizing the painting process. Yet in following these rules, Mendelsohn allows for adjustment and nuance. Included in the exhibition are two different series that are united by their intimate and delicately applied color. Color Wheels (2020) features slightly overlapping discs overlain with starkly colored radii. The Tenebrae paintings (2014) are composed of closely packed, somewhat angled striations of nearly parallel colored lines, which produce the effect of a rainy cascade of colored light over a dark background. Latinists know that “tenebrae” translates to “darkness,” but the lines read as the visual expression of light in its respective physical forms as particles and waves. The Color Wheels express light, too.

The beautiful effects of both artists’ paintings are better appreciated in person in the spacious, high-ceilinged exhibition halls of David Richard Gallery, rather than virtually. Yet even through the light-emitting medium of a digital screen, both shows bring the viewer to a kind of otherworldly state of mind, despite the down-to-earth painting styles.

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