Checking out the Chelsea gallery scene last week, my results were surprisingly mixed — from overly offbeat summer shows to nonsensical group exhibitions, the galleries just didn’t seem to have it together. But one thread did emerge in my wanderings. I discovered that Chelsea was having a brief love affair with big abstraction, wall-size pieces that dominated their respective art spaces. Works by Sol Lewitt, Keith Haring, Li Songsong and Garth Weiser all packed a refreshing amount of visual punch, brightening a hazy summer day.
The most surprising exhibition that I caught was Gladstone Gallery’s Keith Haring showcase, and it wasn’t even because of the enormous works on paper decking out three walls with squirming humanoid figures, cartoon animals and abstract scribbles. What was really impressive about this slim (small in number, large in area) exhibition was that it managed to go beyond the dominant cliches of Haring’s work.
Two long, white display tables are ranged in the middle of the gallery space, acting as anchors to the larger works on the walls. Inside the display table cases are rows of sketchbook pages placed side by side. Each table holds one series, the first, small abstract drawings that seem to denote particular times and places in Haring’s life (“At the laundromat on Atwood Street”) while others are left unlabeled. The intricately patterned drawings presage Haring’s later visual vocabulary, but also give an intimate sense of personal interior life and a wandering mind. The other case holds dozens upon dozens of simple line drawings of penises. If you know the rest of Haring’s oeuvre, then it’s really no surprise. Again, the fun part here is the labels — “Actual size,” “Self-portrait,” and a series of sketches tagged “Drawing Penises in front of the Museum of Modern Art.” Saucy.
Paula Cooper Gallery’s Sol Lewitt installation was similarly austere, but gave viewers a lot to chew on. In the gallery’s main space is the cerebral “Wall Drawing #122” (1972), a work constructed from a penciled-in grid system covered by bright blue lines, alternately straight, curved, dotted and irregular. The work’s prompt reads: “All combinations of two lines crossing placed at random using arcs from corners and sides straight, not straight and broken lines,” a computer code that results in an eye and brain-dazzling composition that never quite resolves into order. Paula Cooper gallery’s front room features a more elegant, less combative work composed of primary-colored curved line segments. It’s nice to see that Lewitt’s work can still be conceptually and aesthetically tough.
Where Garth Weiser‘s Casey Kaplan exhibition takes non-objective abstraction as the ultimate goal, Pace Gallery’s Li Songsong show features work that abstracts from real images. Weiser’s paintings are covered in dense networks of thin lines, like the static of a broken TV or a bad satellite signal. They flicker and dance in front of the eye, but the images can’t seem to cohere into powerful statements; they seem to be content to waver, never quite pinned down. Weiser’s inscrutability is interesting, but not enough of a hook to balance out what are fairly staid abstractions. In one canvas, dark blue lines and bands circle and converge over a deep orange ground. The overall effect is entrancing in a way that the others fail to be — the painting ends up looking like a bolt of iridescent silk with a subtle moire.
Li Songsong, on the other hand, uses brute force and a massive volume of paint to make his point. The artist’s traditional M.O. is to take an image, often photographic, often politically charged, and break it up into geometric chunks that each get their own metal support. This grid gets built up with thick gloops of paint, likely the most oil paint viewers have ever seen in one place. These paintings are huge, too — the largest measure 17 feet wide. The scale makes it easy for Li to make iconic paintings, but there’s also a subtlety to the work in how the image moves in and out of abstraction; some can barely be deciphered from their avalanches of paint. “Couple” (2011) shows a man riding a bike, a female figure perched on the back, the bicycle disappearing in a thick ground of textured paint. Another work, a copy of what looks like a plane safety diagram, shows a crouching figure making his way down a row of seats, dodging a cloud of smoke. There’s a sense of humor in the painting’s garish colors and cartoony outlines, but it also has a threatening physical presence that’s heightened by Li’s weighty paint.
That abstraction is dominating the Chelsea walls definitely makes for fun summer gallery-going. Keith Haring’s drawings grab the walls and viewers’ attention, as does Li Songsong’s work, while Lewitt provokes by producing a visual and cerebral confusion, with viewers struggling to grasp a handhold. In comparison, facile abstraction like Weiser’s work sticks out like a sore thumb — paintings that are too timid to make a statement, to shout as loud as the other artists have.
Sol Lewitt at Paula Cooper Gallery (534 West 21st St) is open through July 1.
Li Songsong at Pace Gallery (534 West 25th St) is open through August 5.
Keith Haring at Gladstone Gallery (515 West 24th St) is open through July 1.
Garth Weiser at Casey Kaplan Gallery (525 West 21st St) closed June 25.