For his solo show at Pace Gallery in 2010, Thomas Nozkowski made the decision to hang his work in pairs, with an oil painting on canvas board or panel alongside a related work on paper, setting up a contrast between density and light, slow and fast, rumination and riff. This comparison came to mind repeatedly while wandering through Paintings on Paper, the effervescent summer exhibition at David Zwirner.
Paintings on Paper is an enormous show — nearly fifty works across three sizable rooms and two ancillary spaces on the second floor of the gallery’s West 20th Street space. But it never feels unwieldy or wayward. It helps that all the paintings are abstract, which provides an organic cohesion among them, as does the decision to group only a few artists per room to highlight their formal connections.
For the most part, these works are truly paintings on paper; only a couple of pieces in pencil and watercolor by Raoul De Keyser come off more as drawings than paintings. While the gallery’s press release states that the exhibition is comprised of “artists who make paintings on paper as an integral part of their practice, rather than as preparatory works,” the most intriguing pieces constitute a divergence from established notions of an artist’s oeuvre.
In this regard, Mary Heilmann, Ad Reinhardt and Stanley Whitney stand out. Heilmann has contributed three small works and each is a showstopper. In “Negative Space One” (2014), she has painted the left side of a piece of step-shaped, handmade paper in black acrylic, and the right side in white, though the identically patterned “Negative Space Two” (also 2014), perhaps punning on its name, is actually composed of two sheets of paper, one black and one white.
The black rectangles on the left of the zigzagging shape create a three-dimensional illusion if you allow your eyes to be fooled that way; otherwise the two works appear as flat, Minimalist objects possessing the weight and tactility of sculpture. The same holds true for the kooky, lusciously colored “Shore Break” (2014), which employs another piece of heavy, handmade paper, but here it is painted in drippy, undulating cloud-like bands of red, yellow, black and a couple of shades of green. In their solidity, these works recall Heilmann’s early career as a ceramist — they are paintings you want to hold in your hands.
Reinhardt, who has been enjoying a recent wave of interest, due in no small part to Zwirner’s spectacular centenary exhibition last winter that featured the artist’s austere black paintings in the back room and his raucous cartoons in the front, has two works in the show. They are from the period between 1940 and the early ‘50s when the artist was transitioning from the Synthetic Cubism of his earlier abstractions to his hallmark all-black works.
While an untitled painting in gouache and oil (c. 1949), consisting of violet, orange and yellow brushstrokes in a brickwork pattern, maintains the rationality prevalent in Reinhardt’s best-known works, his “Number 2” (1949–50), in gouache, oil and watercolor, seethes with dark abandon, as irregular strokes of red, green and blue float amid clouds and washes of translucent black.
The two Reinhardts are in separate rooms, each on its own wall, where they anchor everything else in the space. “Number 2” is surrounded by lovely architectonic works in muted colors by Ilse D’Hollander and James Bishop — six untitled gouaches made in 1996 from the former and two small pieces in oil and crayon (2009 and 2011), also untitled, from the latter — and two paintings in ink and watercolor by Rebecca Morris — a set of rectangles-within-rectangles (“Untitled (#300-13),” 2013) and a woozy, blotted grid (“Untitled (#131-14),” 2014).
The violet, orange and yellow Reinhardt sets the tone for the largest of the gallery’s three rooms, where shimmering, often intense color dominates the offerings. In between the windows on the wall to the right of the Reinhardt are four works by Brazilian artist Paulo Monteiro, whose simple, boldly graphic compositions share a bloodline with the surrealist landscapes of Joan Miró. On the two other walls there are three more pieces by Morris, including the raw, black-and-white “Untitled (#154-13)” (2013); five open and airy works made between 1997 and 2000 by De Keyser; and two untitled gouaches from 2013 by Whitney.
While color may be the foremost concern in Whitney’s oil paintings, which are made up of stacked bands of luminously toned squares and rectangles, there is also an irreducible material sense to his surfaces, a masonry wall of binder and pigment. The gouaches on display are still composed of stacked colored bands, but they are executed with a fleeting touch that allows the brushstrokes clustering around off-center patches of untouched paper to puddle and bleed, overlap and iridesce. To stare at these works while holding Whitney’s oil paintings in your mind’s eye is to experience a dissolution of a once-concrete reality, a visualization of the Marx/Engels line, “All that is solid melts into air.”
Even more of a departure are Whitney’s two paintings in black gouache from 2009, both untitled, which present the bands of color as uneven linear grids. An acute colorist, Whitney uses black not as a graphic element but as a hue with a specific range of depth and lustrousness. And by stripping his structures of color, the artist reveals the strength of their bones, and that his works are as grounded in drawing as they are in chromaticism.
Whitney’s two black-and-white gouaches are hanging beside Heilmann’s two black-and-white “Negative Space” paintings in the smallest of the gallery’s three rooms, a grouping that contributes to the handsomely monochromatic feel of the space. The key work is Al Taylor’s large “Rat Guards (Palms I-V)” (1998), which is done in gouache, ink, and acrylic mica mortar on five narrow, vertical sheets of paper. Dark washes pervade the upper and lower portions of the paper, their blocky shapes coupled by linear connectors that feel simultaneously architectural, entomological and sexual in a David Cronenberg sort of way.
On the opposite wall, Taylor’s five loose-limbed, untitled acrylic paintings on magazine pages (ca. 1984-1985) join Suzan Frecon’s three fan-shaped watercolors on single-weight agate-burnished Indian jute to add some subtle color to the room. Another Frecon watercolor, which was made on found agate-burnished Indian ledger paper, is another fan shape, but, like Whitney’s grids, it is done in rich, velvety black. And like Whitney, she seems to be engaging in a form of dematerialization, in that her oil paintings on linen possess a similar density to his, with an even tighter compositional approach. These free-floating single shapes therefore feel cut loose from a larger paradigm, although they are still unmistakably Frecon’s.
The exhibition also features seven small, untitled paintings done in 2013 by Ben Berlow, which greet you at the top of the stairs, around the corner from Heilmann’s “Shore Break.” A series of geometric configurations done in a range of media from gouache, gesso, ink and collage, to casein, house paint and graphite, Berlow’s intimate works reverberate with an understated intensity that recalls Sol Lewitt’s colored ink wall drawings.
Moving through this exhibition, with its breadth of imagination and freshness, it’s easy to forget that with paper, there’s no going back. Every mark is non-negotiable; every mistake, hesitation and false move is embedded in some strata of the surface. If such missteps aren’t nimbly integrated as the work develops, it will deaden and fail. Some of the paintings here have come through with their purity intact, as if done in a single shot; others are the sum of their imperfections. Either way, the subtext is always the fallibility of the hand and the discourse it implies.
Paintings on Paper continues at David Zwirner Gallery (537 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 15.