Deep inside every great painting is the question of what it means to paint. Certain paintings reach so far down into the generative process that “the givens” of their tradition themselves can be changed. Reconfigurations made to the substructures of painting — often marking cultural tipping points — become new supports for other planes of thinking and acting. The iterative rearrangement of painting’s fundamentals in the search of ultimate completion is the most salient feature of Cheim & Read’s current exhibition of works by Serge Poliakoff (1900–69).
Curated by artist and critic Joe Fyfe, the gouache-on-paper and oil-on-canvas paintings by the Russian-born, French painter are the first stateside retrospective of his work in 30 years. He’d been neglected in France until the the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris surveyed his work three years ago. This is surprising, given that he was a leading figure of French abstraction, along with Hans Hartung and Pierre Soulages, so successful in his lifetime that he dressed like a dandy and drove a Rolls Royce. “I’ll be staking my money on Poliakoff in [the] future of painting,” Kandinsky said. This more famous Russian painter’s bet was prescient (if not financially rewarding). Poliakoff’s work was indeed the future of painting.
In the gallery’s entrance is a 15-by-8-inch vertical gouache painting made of stacked horizontal bands in rainbow colors. It’s the signature, and date of 1937, that let you know it’s not a painting Ellsworth Kelly might have made three decades later. Beyond it in the next room is “Composition Abstraite” (1957), an oil on panel over four feet tall. Like a sideways sunset, it could be mistaken as an experiment by Mark Grotjahn. The horizontal piece “Bleu Rouge” (1951) in the largest room, with two colors interlocked in stalemate, would be comfortable alongside any Andrew Masullo.
Fyfe grounds Poliakoff’s work in the present by quoting in his catalogue essay several artists’ reflections on the forgotten Russian. Shirley Jaffe: “I used to see him sitting at the Deux Magots. He had a real air of authority. … [His paintings] were not developed for the sake of beauty, and they were not gestural, which was much of what French painting was at the time.” Brice Marden: “I liked Poliakoff. I knew of him and his work when I was in Paris in the early 1960s. His paintings were beautifully handled, delicate.” Jonathan Lasker: “His work anticipates color field, but also artists such as Tom Nozkowski and myself.”
Why the artist fell of the map isn’t as clear as why he’s getting put back on it. Poliakoff’s ability to fracture and mend space, illuminate flat planes, and structure abstract forms into a figural unity is as instructive to contemporary painting as it is awakening to witness. The works sustain a restless equilibrium. “Composition Abstraite” (1958), for example, is split symmetrically along a vertical axis which is intersected at the seam of two differently-sized red shapes, above the halfway mark. A horizontal axis placed there would touch the top edge of a white trapezoidal shape on the right, demarcating an “above” and “below”; the canvas is divided into quadrants. And above the central intersection is a radial center out of which an explosion of brush marks bursts and cascades down the painting. The work is a transposition of the Christian cross.
Poliakoff was not the first pioneering abstractionist to employ the cruciform as a structuring device, as he does in most of the works in this show from after 1950. Piet Mondrian’s transitional pieces such as “The Grey Tree” (1911), “The Flowering Apple Tree” (1912), and “Composition No. 10 Pier and Ocean” (1915) employ a cross-based heuristic in their translations of nature, becoming preludes to the more purified verticals and horizontals of his mature style. Kazimir Malevich deployed the Russian Orthodox crucifix, sometimes with the angled footrest (or suppedaneum), as he does in “Mystic Suprematism (Black Cross on Red Oval)” (1920). Poliakoff saw Malevich’s work for the first time in 1952 — his “White on White” (1918) on loan from the Museum of Modern Art — and found more confirmation in the encounter than inspiration; he liked the “vibration of the materials” but not so much the hard geometries. Poliakoff preferred to struggle with the negotiation of boundaries, as if each place of contact between shapes was of its own importance.
Like shapes, works of art throughout history connect themselves to each other in their own ways. Literary critic George Steiner takes this up in his book Real Presences, which Fyfe uses in the catalogue as a theoretical frame. Steiner’s hypothetical scenario in Real Presences is of a city where art criticism does not exist. Art writing that is parasitic or secondary to primary acts of artistic creation is prohibited, which reveals that all worthwhile critical commentary of art is already within art itself as part of its lifeblood. “All serious art, music and literature is a critical act,” Steiner wrote.
Steiner’s core thesis in the book (which Fyfe leaves unexplored) is that within the continuity of art’s interior language, its critique and its transference of meaning, is “the assumption of God’s presence” and a “wager on transcendence.” Steiner’s view would be welcomed by Poliakoff, given that the artist was raised Russian Orthodox and said once of painting, “the picture should bespeak the love of God, even if you don’t believe in God … if you want to get the big music in.”
This statement by Poliakoff might account for his unique manner of achieving “iconicity.” His crosses are embodied, featuring a cranial area, a place where there is typically some form of pictorial event above the central intersection, which is absent in the cruciform works by other painters. In “Composition Abstraite” (1958), mentioned above, it’s the top red shape and outward flowering of brush strokes. In other paintings that space is more subtly articulated. Yet in a template sketch of Poliakoff’s (at left), the angled line, darkened above the center, marks the spot.
Steiner wrote in a later book, Grammars of Creation, that there “are correlations between the eclipse of the messianic and the ‘recession into empty phrasing’ of ‘God’ on the one hand and the evolution of non-representational and aleatory art forms on the other.” This fits Malevich’s “empty” icons. Ad Reinhardt’s darkened crosses and Mark Rothko’s liminal fields come to mind too.
It’s evident in this show that although Poliakoff was eclipsed for decades, he had nonetheless mapped out the next 60 years of abstract painting, at least large portions of it. He took the past — its meanings, symbols, and “the givens” — and renewed it for his time, and now ours. Cheim & Read, with 26 pieces of all scales in five separate rooms, got the big music in.