Cambridge with Tulips and View

Anne Tabachnick, “Cambridge with Tulips and View” (late 1960s), acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 38 x 48 inches (all images courtesy Lori Bookstein Fine Art)

We usually describe seeing an object by using the past tense: “I saw.” The emphasis on its foreclosed quality can make us forget how open-ended seeing is. The dynamism of a seen object is every bit as charged as our bodies’ initial physiological responses to it. It’s only natural then that we tend to forget this instability once we have registered and cataloged what we saw. After all, it’s a matter of milliseconds between seeing and apprehending and knowing.

Anne Tabachnick: Object as Muse, at Lori Bookstein Fine Arts, pinpoints the wonder of the seer and the instability of the seen as interrelated and central to appreciating this painter’s art. The carefully selected show consists of eight very large paintings from a career that spanned five decades. It showcases Tabachnick as an artist who at her best created paintings that might prolong our eyes’ unfolding encounter with the ordinary.

Since her death in 1995 at the age of 67, critics have described her body of work as one that paid ongoing, passionate homage to Henri Matisse. But this is only half the story. A unique combination of objectivist rigor and interest in the uncanny complicate even her most opulent canvases. Their flattened perspectives and richly painted backgrounds are punctuated by haphazardly arranged and delineated objects that are strangely disconnected from their ordinary roles.

Portrait of Anne Tabachnick (photographer unknown)

This is why Tabachnick’s paintings can be demanding and disorienting, qualities that are byproducts of her ambition. Her motivation is, in part, to show how a realistic painter might reclaim for herself and for others the lost sense of suddenness that is fundamental to any visual encounter. To achieve this, her paintings revive the initial disorientation of arriving upon given objects, that opacity which in ordinary time dissolves as soon as our minds have situated the objects and intellectualized their names, relations and uses.

Unfortunately Anne Tabachnick has long been one of the many New York School painters relegated to a minor role by art historians. Born in Connecticut in 1927, she was influenced by her father, a Yiddish poet and intellectual who had participated in the Russian revolution before he immigrated to America. She spent most of her life in New York City. Inspired by her father’s commitment to books and political ideals, she was drawn to academic study and to art making, and fell in with the burgeoning Greenwich Village bohemian scene of the 1940s. As a teenager, she modeled for Nell Blaine’s students, who included Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers. Blaine remained an inspirational teacher and mentor to Tabachnick. At Blaine’s urging, she studied painting in Hans Hofmann’s night classes. By day, she earned a degree in anthropology at Hunter College.

Just as she was getting started as a painter, Abstract Expressionism exploded on the New York scene. Like her slightly older colleagues who had also studied with Hofmann — Robert De Niro Sr, Al Kresch, Leland Bell and Louise Matthiasdottir — Tabachnick adopted Hofmann’s forceful coloration and buoyant abstraction while she gradually converted to a realistic mode exemplified by French figurative painter Jean Hélion. Hélion had fled the war in Europe and arrived in New York City in the 1940s, where he showed fledgling American artists like Tabachnick how they could integrate the innovations of the Cubists and Neoplasticists into a fresh kind of representational painting.

Like Hélion, Tabachnick incorporates blocky, outlined figures into almost all of her paintings. By mid-career, she had refined this practice by incorporating charcoal drawing into acrylic paintings done on large canvases.

Anne Tabachnick, “Purple African Queen” (c. 1980s), acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 46 1/2 x 58 inches

In “Purple African Queen,” (c. 1980s) the often faint charcoal outlines of three objects — a vase, a potted plant and an African sculpture — float like emergent presences beneath lyrical swathes of purple, blue and pink paint. Looking at the painting evokes the experience of entering a room for the first time. The viewer absorbs the converging lines, shapes and colors of the concrete objects before being able to name what is on the table. Everything involved in first sight — eye and mind and world — is in a state of coalescence, which privileges painting’s decisive early phases, with its charcoal lines and erasures. If it seems incomplete, Tabachnick seems to be saying, that’s because seeing and painting always are.

As a result of this extreme attention to incipience, the elements in Tabachnick’s paintings are stripped of functionality and take on a totemic aura that makes the banal exotic.

In “Bright Boxes (Gates III)” (late 1960s) a constellation of sharply drawn objects hovers upon a solid backdrop of periwinkle sparked by occasional yellow. The decentered arrangement offers the eye no point of focus, and the setting deprives the viewer of spatial depth. But there is a delight in this brassy disorientation that makes “Bright Boxes” one of the most compelling paintings in the show.

Bright Boxes (Gates III)

Anne Tabachnick, “Bright Boxes (Gates III)” (late 1960s), acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 35 x 47 inches

The square boxes of what seems to be a wine rack teeter above a disarray which includes toy blocks, yellow and blue bowls, a conch shell, a black and white desk lamp shaped like a tulip, a tomato pincushion, a gold metallic star, and two small statues of the Hindu god Vishnu.

Within this jumble, the strewn objects’ contrasting shapes and punctuating colors develop a rhythmic pattern. The attentive viewer might find correspondences among the blue, green, yellow, gold, white and black, as if the painting were not a representational still life at all but instead a work of hard-edge abstraction. It’s a mesmerizing picture.

In “Logs with a Vase” (1971) distinctly rendered drawings of variously sized, arbitrarily piled monochromatic logs sit in close proximity to a two-handled vase with an intricate floral design. The bizarre pairing seems at first to be deliberately lighthearted, perhaps even a nod to the disarming iconography of 1960s Pop Art.

Logs with Vase

Anne Tabachnick, “Logs with Vase” (1971), acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 38 x 53 inches

A greater significance derives from how the viewer’s attention instinctively oscillates between the two disparate objects. Subconsciously the mind struggles to establish what these things are doing together and which one of them is the painting’s intended focus.

Once again Tabachnick retraces our experience of sight back to that fleeting pre-rational moment in which we intuitively grasp two objects — cut logs, fine china — but haven’t yet made sense of what those objects are doing in the space they inhabit. As a result of that acute uncertainty, these otherwise recognizable objects shed their customary names and functions: the pairing lingers as purely visual phenomena. Their solidity and texture — their thingness — eclipses their utility, and we see them more profoundly than we would if they were depicted in a settled context.

This rewarding distance between seer and seen is even more dramatically enacted by “Still Life (Black)” (c. 1960s). Here a mostly black painting contains in its upper right hand corner a cluster of familiar objects. A gray silhouette of a woman and the upended legs of a mannequin are set within abstract round and square geometric forms lightly painted in primary colors. A double layer of mystery fascinates the viewer — the inky absence of light and the alluring obscurity of the disparate, brightly lit, energetic figures in the upper corner.

Tabachnick’s paintings inspire constant reflection on the twin processes of seeing and of painting, and on the existential mysteries inherent to both — mysteries that led the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, late in his career, to write about the art of painting under the supposition that it could help philosophy better comprehend the nature of being.

As I was drawn further into Tabachnick’s paintings, I thought about Merleau-Ponty’s passage from Eye and Mind, “the eye is an instrument that moves itself, a means which invents its own ends, it is that which has been moved by some impact of the world, which it then restores to the visible through the traces of a hand.”

Tabachnick’s work, trusting the agency of the eyes and the traces of the painter’s hand, shows seeing to be more than just one of five separate senses. Rather, eyesight connects us to what the philosopher calls the “enigma of visibility,” which is probably as good a name as any for the state of being alive.

Anne Tabachnick: Object as Muse continues at Lori Bookstein Fine Art (138 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 7.

Tim Keane's writing on poetry and visual art has appeared in Modern Painters, The London Magazine, Utne Reader, The Brooklyn Rail, Vision China, and in Joe Brainard's Art (University of Edinburgh...