“They take a long time to make.”
That’s what the British artist and writer Andrew Forge said when he was “questioned as to the meaning of his paintings,” according to an obituary that ran in the London newspaper The Telegraph (Forge died in 2002 at the age of 78).
Such a brass-tacks perspective would seem to make Forge’s pointillist abstractions strange bedfellows with the all-white paintings of the American pragmatist Robert Ryman — both artists approach each new work as tabula rasa, an unpremeditated engagement with the empty surface (in a 1985 interview, Forge cites Monet’s claim that he painted “as though he were a blind man who had just recovered his sight”) — but there is an experiential connection as well.
The simplicity of Ryman’s monochromes compel you to examine how the painting is made — the length, direction, thickness and texture of the stroke — and Forge’s labor-intensive, tessellated patterns, painted one dot at a time over months and years (“They take a long time to make”), subliminally draw an equal amount of attention to the hard reality of the painting’s evolution.
I had never been crazy about Forge’s work — it seemed a little dry and more than a little academic, a failing perhaps reflexively ascribed to someone who spent nearly twenty years as the dean of the Yale School of Art — until I saw a solo show at Betty Cuningham Gallery in 2007 (the above-cited interview, for an Italian magazine, is excerpted in that exhibition’s catalogue). Within moments of entering the gallery, the sensuality of Forge’s color poured forth, and what had seemed stiff and systematic suddenly felt animated and free.
Visiting Forge’s current show at Cuningham has had the effect of peeling yet another onionskin from his subtle, discerning practice. He has rightly been regarded as a consummately perceptual painter — the interaction of the dots covering his canvases makes the most out of a very limited palette — but what struck me about his oil paintings in particular was how tactile they felt, with the illusion of space seeming to change, like the surface of a mosaic, as you move from side to front to side. Their dense physicality was what brought Ryman to mind.
The surfaces are hard, flint-like, with the array of colored dots creating a palpable sense of space — not the shallow Cubist space of Abstract Expressionism or the aerial space that defines Color Field painting — but a gravelly surface riddled with innumerable pits and ridges that’s at once dazzling and forbidding.
What’s most revelatory about seeing these paintings in person is the role played by the white gaps of untouched canvas, which edge many of Forge’s marks. At first glance, they seem like a sign of incompletion, as if the artist had aggregated his dots and “sticks” — narrow, rectangular strokes that make up the other significant tool in Forge’s kit (as codified in a catalogue essay by psychologist Michael Kubovy for a retrospective held at the Yale Center for British Art in 1996) — to a point of near-saturation, and then abruptly abandoned the canvas.
Given the ubiquity of these tiny breaks in the color patterns, I was surprised that Forge had not pigmented the prime coat before he started to apply paint, thus minimizing the harshness of the division between color and no-color. But prolonged looking brought the realization that these flecks of white served to assert the thingness of the canvas, their grainy blankness crackling against the dots and strokes of color, and reinforcing the tactility of the surface.
The white of the canvas was of extreme importance to Forge, who began his career as a figurative painter but, after years of frustration, traded realism for the real — a search for “a sense of truth,” as he termed it in the interview, that was inspired by his friendship with Alberto Giacometti and, later, by the “very vivid correspondence with my sense of the world, my sense of reality,” that he found in the work of Robert Rauschenberg.
In a revealing passage from the interview, he describes the moment just before he paints his first dot, an action ignited by his spontaneous reinterpretation of the primed canvas:
What happened was that I found myself in my studio, full of energy, full of the desire to work […] and, in a strange way, in a more vivid way that I’d never experienced before, I saw that the canvas corresponded to my state of mind. In other words, I had no ideas in my head, it was a white canvas — there was immediately an accord between me and the canvas. I’d never felt that before, because always before, when I looked to the canvas, it was like a potential painting, you know, like an empty plate, and you’ve got to put the food onto it. But this, the white canvas itself, looked back at me, and it was exactly corresponding with what was happening in my head.
From then on, the act of painting became a transfer of energy between the colored marks and the white of the canvas. In the current show, the aftermath of this interaction is most apparent in “April” (1991-92), a large amber, yellow, red and blue painting (50 x 80 inches), and especially in the smaller (53 x 46 inches) green, orange, ocher and black “MARCH” (1995-96), where the dots end just shy of the canvas edge, leaving an uneven, unpainted border.
This second instance of non finito, unlike the tiny patches of white between the colored marks, is less disorienting than disarming. You would expect that Forge’s intensely focused application of dots, which he compared “a sort of drumming noise,” would consume every square inch of the surface, but no. Despite their material density, these paintings are distinguished by a lightness of touch, in which interlacing colors dart and spiral in controlled bursts of retinal fireworks. In the mostly untitled watercolors, the loaded relationship between color and blankness is even more pronounced, with areas left untouched and the paint strokes bundled in the center, or with the white paper shimmering through translucent slips of paint.
Several works from the 2007 exhibition are reprised here, including “MARCH” and “April” and the imposing “HEAVY HEMLOCKS I” (1999) and “HEAVY HEMLOCKS II” (2000), Both are 40 x 60 inches, and are made up of dark, mossy umbers, blacks, greens and blues, with veils of yellow, orange and bright green invading from the right and left sides. Of all the works in the show, these two are the most beguiling in the way their surfaces change as you move from left to right, with the dots of black falling back and the brown seeming to press into the picture plane.
When he arrived in the United States in the early 1970s, Forge “saw a great deal of abstract expressionism,” and although he found much to appreciate in Pollock and de Kooning, he “was never very impressed by the megalomania, the massiveness, the vastness” of American painting.
In contrast, he carved out a quietly persistent practice and stayed with it for the long haul. The mindfulness and integrity at the core of these works, their formal discourse with the past and future of painting, are just as much a part of their aesthetic as the minimal, intuitive, mesmerizing swarms of pigment Forge uses to make them.
Andrew Forge continues at the Betty Cuningham Gallery (15 Rivington Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through August 14.