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A few months ago, I saw a painting by Peter Reginato for the first time. It was on the streets of Manhattan. A middle-aged man was making his way down the sidewalk, and what caught my attention, before I looked at the painting, was his beatific smile. Clearly the proud owner, he seemed overjoyed to be able to carry a painting that I estimated to be 5 x 6 feet to its new home. When I asked the man who the artist was, he answered cheerfully, “It is by Peter Reginato. I have wanted something of his for years.”
By this time I was looking at the painting and thinking that it did not look familiar, which made me even more curious. Once I learned that it was by Reginato, I became more inquisitive. I certainly knew Reginato’s painted steel sculptures, which I first saw in the late 1970s, and which I have always felt deserved more attention, but I did not know that he was also a painter. As luck would have it, I did not have to wait long to see more, because there is an exhibition of paintings and sculptures, Peter Reginato | Fiction, currently at Adelson Galleries (June 4–August 21, 2015).
I am not the only person who has been struck by what David Cohen calls “Reginato’s wildness” and wondered how an artist known for his “gutsy, boisterous assemblages, [which] mate the mediums of sculpture and painting” (Cohen’s words) would come across in the more constrained realm of two-dimensional surfaces. I was not disappointed. There is an infectious exuberance to the paintings — a feeling that they are trying to break out of their rectangles, as well as jump out of their skin — which doesn’t feel forced.
In four of the five identically-sized, vertical paintings on one wall, Reginato uses differently colored diagonal lines to define a plane jutting toward the painting’s top edge, suggesting an aerial view of a corner of the artist’s studio, where a lot of fervent activity is taking place. The space is ambiguous, as a layer of splashes seem to be hovering above the plane, not having landed on the surface below. This feeling of movement animates the paintings, lifting them out of the literal into a fictive space.
In “Blue for Now” (2014), the plane, with its various blues, can be read as both the floor on which the canvas is laid down and the painting the artist is working on. The angle of the plane adds a vertiginous note to the composition, even as it conveys its discomfort with being contained. In a number of paintings, Reginato pushes this tension between containment and expansion by placing ellipses and other defined forms along the painting’s right and left edges.
The splashes recall Jackson Pollock’s studio floor in Springs, while the ellipses bring to mind Larry Poons’ paintings of the 1960s. For all the materiality of their surfaces — Reginato works in enamel — the paintings are, as the exhibition’s title underscores, fictions. By defining the painting as a made-up space in which an open-ended narrative (or dream) can unfold without reaching a resolution, Reginato gains an immense amount of freedom for himself. This is what connects his paintings and sculptures.
Like Robert Motherwell, Reginato does feel not compelled to overthrow his predecessors, which includes early modernists such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Joan Miró, as well as the Abstract Expressionists and Color Field artists. He has absorbed possibilities from a wide field of art history and made of those artists he loves something all his own. He employs a variety of means, from drawing in paint to laying down a field of variously sized splashed dots. The palette is largely primary and secondary colors, with an occasional black or gray. Curling lines, like giant scribbles, convey an unexpected joyfulness, while the shapes and splashes of paint seem to float in ambiguous space that underscores underscore a world which has not hardened into a fixed image or literal surface.
In “Night Shift” (2014), Reginato does something very different. Overlapping clusters of dark blue and black biomorphic shapes, which recall Reginato’s sculptures, are laid over a ground of yellows and reds. It is as if we are standing in a dark room looking out. In both composition and mood, this painting provides a vivid contrast to the five vertical ones on the opposite wall. Between them, in the center of the gallery, are three brushed stainless steel sculptures, the light gleaming off their surfaces.
Known for his polychrome sculptures, these works are further proof of Reginato’s expansiveness. Assembled out of twisted wire, an accordion-like plane, and pieces of metal the artist has cut, the undated “Thin Woman” resides in that space between abstraction and figuration without tilting into either. This ambiguity is also true of a number of the paintings, which can be read as rooms as well as loosely painted, geometric abstractions. Reginato is one of the few artists that I know of who is successful at employing what I think of as the kitchen sink approach, where anything goes. And yet, instead of becoming ponderous, as some of Frank Stella’s behemoth constructions can be, Reginato’s unruly work conjures multiple readings with a graceful intelligence.
Peter Reginato | Fiction continues at Adelson Galleries (730 Fifth Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through August 21.