Ruth Root, “Untitled” (2014-2015), fabric, plexiglas, enamel paint and spray, 106 1/4 x 63 1/4 inches (courtesy the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery)

Ever since the beginning of this century, when Ruth Root got rid of her references to Philip Guston, she has gotten better and better. In her current show, Ruth Root, at Andrew Kreps (June 25–August 14, 2015), she has kicked out the jams, and the results are unlike anything else being done right now. That is saying something. While the new work is connected to her earlier paintings, particularly in the eccentric shape of her supports, the change she has introduced suggests that Root has jettisoned her allegiance to canonical thinking, and to such highly revered artists and trailblazers as Paul Feeley, Richard Tuttle, Mary Heilmann, Ellsworth Kelly and Blinky Palermo. Most likely this is because she has so internalized them that they are part of her vocabulary.

Starting in 2001, and for more than a decade later, Root established a tension between blocks of color and an aluminum geometric support with rounded edges. Her palette ran to different intensities of black, red, teal, orange, pale green and violet. Blue – a color we associate with sky and transcendence – was noticeably absent. The abutting, interlocking planes of color simultaneously echoed and contradicted the eccentric aluminum supports. At times the supports seemed to have been inspired by the profiles of Airstream Travel Trailers and modernist architecture, while the palette seems to have been stimulated by Artus Van Briggle’s early 20th century art pottery and Russell Wright’s American Modern dinnerware, which was first introduced in 1939. This wide range of sources has always been one of Root’s strengths.

Ruth Root, “Untitled” (2014-2015), fabric, plexiglas, enamel paint, and spray paint, 106 1/4 x 63 1/4 inches (courtesy the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery)

In the seven untitled works in the current exhibition (all dated 2014-15), Root joins a fabric that she has designed and digitally printed to a shaped piece of Plexiglas, which she has painted with spray paint and enamel. The fabric, which the artist folds and loops through the Plexiglas, is punctuated by grommets. The solid geometric blocks of color that Root locates along the edges of the Plexiglas suggest that it too can be folded, like the fabric. There is an unexpected evocation of origami, of the surprises that might emerge from folding and unfolding.

There is a visual frisson in the juxtaposition of mechanically reproduced patterns on the fabric and the repeated stripes, dots and geometric shapes applied to surface of the Plexiglas sheet. Another tremor occurs in the perceptual shift that occurs when the stripes, which rise unimpeded from the Plexiglas’ bottom edge, are halted by patterned fabric. The field of differently sized, spray-painted dots, with their fuzzy edges, compliments the soft fabric. The constantly changing relationship between difference and similarity is one of the focal points of these new works.

Shortly after leaving the exhibition, I found myself mesmerized by a patterned fabric bag hooked onto the back of a wheelchair. It took me a minute to realize that the pattern echoed one of the ones that I saw in Root’s exhibition. This led me to recall an association that I had while walking around the gallery: the folded fabric functioned like makeshift handles used to hoist something into the air. The nails underscored the work’s gravity, while the rising stripes and diagonal shape seemed to defy it. By making the fabric functional, Root wisely and wittily expands painting’s possibilities.

Ruth Root, “Untitled” (2014-2015), fabric, plexiglas, enamel paint and spray, 94 1/4 x 99 inches (courtesy the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery)

Root has gained access to an area in which she can juxtapose one pattern and type of material against another. There are no overt allusions to the history of geometric painting, or to other artists. I was reminded of a story that Guston told. It seems that whenever he went to his studio, he brought with him a host of people – other artists, critics, friends and enemies – that he couldn’t get out of his head. On good days, these ghosts (or voices) left, one by one. On really good days, even he left. That seems to me the place that Root has gotten herself – it is magical and unpredictable and it will be interesting to see what she does next.

An exhibition that unexpectedly connected with Root’s was Chris Martin: Three Black Paintings (1992-1996) at Anton Kern (July 9 – August 7, 2015). Although their work seems to have little in common, both Root and Martin drew inspiration from Guston and Feeley. Neither was satisfied with copying, citing or parodying, all of which have become institutionally sanctioned moves. Perhaps the lesson to be learned from models like Guston and Feeley is to not do what is expected of you.

Chris Martin, “11” (1996), oil on canvas, 129 x 143 inches (courtesy Anton Kern Gallery)

For his “black” paintings, Martin channeled the empty frame of Guston’s painting, “Frame” (1976). Instead of trying to ape or parody Guston’s luscious painterly surfaces, Martin depicted the frames graphically in white lines against a black ground. In “11” (1996), they are stacked, as if on a shelf, overlaying each other, silently waiting to be filled. Instead of suppressing his anxiety about filling a canvas, Martin faced it head on.

The large, oversize empty frame at the center of “Untitled” (1995) becomes an empty shadow box or theater. We see the bottom of a circle echoed by two concentric lines extending down from the middle of the painting’s top edge. A scalloped line extends in either direction from the circle, demarcating the frame on the left side, like the edge of curtain. Is the whole painting a theater or is that circle the lower half of a black sun? In his suggestion of multiple readings, Martin has started gaining control over the vocabulary he derived from Guston, started making it his own.

Chris Martin, ” Untitled” (1995), oil on canvas, 129 x 143 inches (courtesy Anton Kern Gallery)

Martin’s “black” paintings are large, more than ten feet high and nearly twelve feet wide. They were done on canvas tarps, which were sewn together so that one sees the seams. Martin used the tarps because they were affordable, not because they were arty. The inspiration to work big was likely Julian Schnabel, whose behemoth-scale paintings were celebrated by many in the mid-1980s. However, Martin, to his credit, never became bombastic and didn’t devolve into a caricature. Instead of claiming, as Schnabel has, that he was a genius, he took images and forms from Guston, Feeley and other artists – essentially his heroes – and kept working and reworking them until they became his.

Both Root and Martin found a way to move on and become themselves. They never succumbed to cynicism or irony, never believed that painting’s time had past. They recognized that being a late arriver is not necessarily a terrible fate, and that others before them had understood that and found ways to celebrate painting’s possibilities.

Ruth Root continues at Andrew Kreps Gallery (537/535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 14.

Chris Martin: Three Black Paintings (1992-1996) continues at Anton Kern Gallery (532 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 7.

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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,...

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