Artwork by Joyce Robins Contact

Joyce Robins, “The Vly” (1975) (all images courtesy of the artist and THEODORE: Art, New York)

In an interview that appeared last month in The Brooklyn Rail, Joyce Robins, while addressing the relationship between abstraction and representation, pointed out: “’Vly’ is a Dutch word for swamp.” She went on to say:

Generally speaking, swamps are monochromatic worlds with hints of green and flashes of other colors. The waters rise and fall and kill and bleach away the colors. There are passages in the painting that are very electric, particularly since I outlined the shapes with very bright color, which in turn enhances that articulation of the grays.

Instead of offering a pictorial description of a swamp, Robins defines it in terms of color and abstract composition (monochromatic worlds with hints of green…”). In the painting, “The Vly” (1975), which was done early in her career, she locates her packed, mesmerizing surface precisely and beautifully on the border between looking (or recognizing) and seeing (scrutiny).

“The Vly” is made up of literally thousands of distinct, similarly colored shapes, all quietly jostling for attention. Nearly all the shapes are done in gray, with a few black and pale, nearly white ones scattered throughout the painting’s teeming visual field. And here is where everything gets more interesting. Robins never seems to use the same gray more than a few times. It changes, however slightly, from shape to shape, spanning the spectrum from blue-gray to lead gray and everything in between. Moreover, Robins distinguishes each of her gray, black and nearly white shapes by outlining them in scarlet, electric green, sunshine yellow or bright blue – resulting in a kind of halation in which interior seems to brighten and push against its sharply colored boundaries. At the same time, by entwining the shapes’ tonality with the brightly colored outlines, she challenges our ability to hold them in view simultaneously as they compete for our consideration.

Once you have reached this point in visually assessing the painting – and Robins has faith that the viewer can and will do so – you are presented with a choice: Do you keep looking or do you turn away? How closely will you scrutinize this constantly changing phenomenon? Will you elect to lose yourself in the looking as you pore over the surface, becoming, as I did, increasingly aware of the material dispersal that awaits us all? This elevated, self-reflective state of looking is not, as one might say, a go-to experience that many of us would seek out. At the same time, there is something single-minded and exuberant about “The Vly” – a state of hyperconsciousness in tandem with prolonged looking. This extreme state is crucial to the experience of the work in Joyce Robins: Paint and Clay at THEODORE: Art (May 16 – July 20, 2014.


Installation view of “Joyce Robins: Paint and Clay” (2014), THEODORE: Art, New York

In retrospect, it is clear that in the mid-70s, when the prevailing styles were Minimalism, Pop Art, Color Field painting and Painterly Realism, Robins would reject any club that would have her. More importantly, she developed a body of work – as the three paintings in her exhibition at THEODORE: Art make readily apparent – that stood in thoughtful and thorough opposition to the aesthetic attitudes – by-then widely upheld, institutionally sanctioned, particularly as they concerned abstraction – that emphasized particular techniques (staining), the historical necessity of flatness, and a literal (or anti-associational) mindset – all of which could be summed by Frank Stella’s terse dictum, “What you see is what you see.” By making work that articulated an alternative to the prevailing ethos, but was neither nostalgic nor backward-looking toward the gestural, Robins belongs to an unnamable group of artists that includes, among others, Catherine Murphy and Sylvia Plimack-Mangold, who also refused to join any club. While some of the artists in this group gained a modicum of attention, others received far less.

Artwork by Joyce Robins Contact

Joyce Robins, “Rectangle Color Circles” (2014)

In 1975, the year that Robins finished “The Vly,” she first showed her clay pieces at Artists Space. Here, it should be said that she began working in clay in 1966, right after graduating from Cooper Union, and continued to do so along with painting. At one point, she attached pieces of shaped clay to her paintings, but quickly realized that this wasn’t going anywhere. The move from painting to ceramic pieces, at first placed on the floor, happened between the mid- and late-70s. Eventually, Robins stopped painting on canvas. By the 80s, she was concentrating on making wall pieces. The ceramic paintings on exhibition at THEODORE: Art date from 1999 through 2014, with the largest being the earliest piece, “Indented Circle” (1999), which is nineteen inches in diameter.

Instead of shaping or constructing vessels, which is what we generally think of when we hear the word “ceramics, Robins tends to make circular or rectilinear slabs whose relatively flat or convex surfaces she perforates and/or indents with circular burrows, as if preparing to place seeds or marbles in them. She is likely to use a crackle glaze and paints the uneven surface with thin washes of color, paying particular attention to the changes in the ground, from the tiny fissures to the visceral burrows. Although she tends to work generally within these rather obvious parameters, no two pieces are alike. She can get more out of less than almost anyone else I can think of. Moreover, Robins’ work never seems fussy or precious. There is something sturdy, subtle, original, and matter-of-fact about everything she does, a directness of touch that underscores her fingers and hands as instruments for making.

Artwork by Joyce Robins Contact

Joyce Robins, “Topographic Rectangle #3” (2014)

Robins isn’t a ceramics artist so much as an abstract artist working in ceramics and, in that regard, her work shares something with the abstract ceramic pieces of Mary Heilmann and Norbert Prangenberg. What distinguishes her work from these two artists, as well as from ceramic artists, is the dance she sets in motion between clay’s susceptible materiality and color’s gossamer light. The way spots of various colors define a loose grid of indentations conveys Robins’ quiet mastery. In “Blue Rectangle” (2002), which is largely blue, the color shifts and changes as it migrates across the surface until it is interrupted by spots in a range of reds, tangerines, dusty pinks and pale violets in the centrally located indentations. In “Rectangle Color Circles” (2014), each perforation is encircled by a different color that also disperses into the tiny network of fissures in the glaze. Our attention shifts from the perforation to the ring of color to the cobweb of rivulets and back again. An awareness of mortality shadows these deeply felt works.

Artwork by Joyce Robins Contact

Joyce Robins, “Blue Rectangle” (2002)

At the same time – as with her paintings from the mid-70s – the ceramic pieces invite the viewer to get lost in the looking, to experience a pleasure at once solid and elusive, in which inevitable change is a component.

Inspired by the finger marking she saw on the clay-covered walls at Rouffignac in the Dordogne, Robins’ abstract ceramic paintings – I know of no other way to adequately characterize them – are both primal and sophisticated, visual and visceral. For Robins, seeing, which cannot be separated from the physical, is open-ended; it is without a destination, and is more about keeping one’s eyes open rather than recognizing what is there. Throughout her career, Robins has refused to align her work with the stylistic goals defined by forward-minded critics and historians. In an era in which artists feel a constant pressure to stylistically conform to what is touted as avant-garde– which amounts to a form of aesthetic bullying –Robins’ courage and independent thinking should count for something.

Joyce Robins: Paint and Clay continues at THEODORE: Art (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through July 20.

John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...