Painter Stanley Boxer used the term “manufacture” to describe his process. His late-period paintings currently on view at Berry Campbell Gallery demonstrate this notion of assemblage remarkably well. His abstractions integrate raw materials into a polished whole, all the while retaining evidence of painting as pure, manual labor.
Boxer’s body of work gives renewed meaning to what used to be called “all-over painting.” Employing multiple brushwork techniques within any single painting, Boxer crams his surfaces with impastos, drips, dabs, washes, and three dimensional objects, foregrounding both the serene and frictional properties of painting. Embedded materials such as sawdust, stones, glitter, twine, and netting produce mysterious depths within the thick, textured, melted and bleeding color.
Given the immersive qualities of Boxer’s art, it might be tempting to call it “atmospheric.” But these thirty paintings — in addition to four sculptures — are far too tactile and substantial for such an ethereal descriptor. If there is a single identifiable subject to his resolutely abstract works, it is coalescence — the gradual coming together of disparate colors, textures and granules.
As a result, the paintings frequently suggest organic processes other than artmaking. Some seem like bird’s-eye views on to the rocky, color-rich striations of a riverbed. Others resemble magnified still images of plasma and blood cells. Still others could be close-ups of rough-hewn, jewel-like coral reefs.
Boxer persevered across five decades, working in his studio seven days a week at what he modestly termed his “practice.” His understated public profile as an artist was a direct contrast to his prodigious output.
Born in New York City and raised in pre-hipster Williamsburg, Boxer — like many painters of his generation born in the 1920s — became serious about painting after leaving military service at the end of World War II. He took classes at the Art Students League and immediately began working in the prevailing abstract mode.
In a very crowded downtown New York scene, Boxer had a modestly successful beginning. His semiabstract paintings from the 1950s and early 1960s drew on a palette of earth tones configured into tranquil, collage-like formations. His work soon won him solo exhibitions at Perdalma Gallery, and, later at Tibor de Nagy. By the late 1960s, he was enhancing his style with bolder coloration, more stridently abstract arrangements, and increasingly varied consistencies of paint.
Fortunately for us, Boxer’s art has been a constant, if understated, presence in recent years, with virtually nonstop solo and group shows.
But this Berry Campbell show is a critical milestone because it spotlights the final climactic chapters of a career wherein the painter, who died in 2000, retooled the vocabulary of Color Field painting by studding the canvas with relief effects, which he coordinates with an iridescent palette and apparently endless variations on impasto.
Compositional elements that at first glance seem incongruous or haphazard reveal unanticipated harmonies. One of the chief pleasures of these late paintings is the way Boxer alternately simplifies and complicates his signature style. But he never repeats himself. The works vary in size and shape, from wall-sized to small-scale. Each painting invites prolonged and rewarding engagement.
“Cimmaronsstarrywash” (1990) exemplifies Boxer’s oblique expressionistic strategy. The painting is a diamond-shaped study in blue-and-green crosshatching complemented by patches of partially divergent brushwork. On the left wing of the diamond, small white stones seem to dissolve into an intense splash of white paint that is itself seeping dramatically into the blue-and-green pattern.
Paralleling the incursion of white, the painting’s right section features green globules and stains that guide the viewer’s eye back into the dense crosshatching, an example of the competing painterly energies that Boxer continually explores and exploits. His complicated, nearly three-dimensional surfaces often contend rather awkwardly with the sumptuous bands and spectra of color. Somehow, in Boxer’s hands, the two major elements of the artwork – its irregular, composite ground and its electrifying range of colors – manage to fuse together rather than splinter apart.
“Mantlesuponthescorc” (1988) is one of the more challenging pictures in this regard. Painted mainly in yellows, it percolates with horizontal, vertical, zigzag and circular brushstrokes, supplemented by dabs and swirls overlaid with drips and drizzles of red, sea-blue, bright green, and pink, an eruptive and bubbling surface that coheres with the patient viewer’s unfolding fluency in the brushwork’s measured and predictable patterns.
“Anoonsblush” (1988) may be one of the most subdued paintings in the show, but even it draws the viewer into a fantastical space of manifold textures, mottled and shimmering fields of paint, and, within them, pebbles and splinters that magically bind together their respective areas of blue and brown.
Other paintings aim for a more spare but comparably lyrical configuration. “Ahartlandmurmer” (1993) is a cloud-like study of whites and grays punctured by a horizontal strip of compactly painted squibs in green and pink. Similarly contemplative, “Insularsaunteringsnowsatbay” (1979) is a tall, rectangular painting in which pale tonalities of green, blue, and violet modulate so subtly that it seems impossible to register them all.
Yet Boxer’s feverish impasto maps a lengthwise network of visual pathways through the paintings’ color fields, in the form of hatches, creases, ridges, and crinkles, including a long, unifying central seam that encapsulates all of the painting’s coloration and brushstrokes.
“Tenderstheseveredpassion” (1989) — the largest painting in the show — is an epic summation of Boxer’s art. Dominated by pinks and grays, it pushes the technique of scrumbling to its busiest extremes, unleashing a multilayered sea of blues, yellows, silvers, and black. Many of the lines and shapes resemble amoebic and aquatic organisms, cellular structures that overlap, radiate, float, and swim within the painting’s depths.
If these paintings argue for Boxer’s importance, the case they make is that authentically creative acts involve interrelated goals. The artist challenges himself by mastering a circumscribed set of materials to achieve a maximum expressive range. But perhaps more significantly, Boxer’s individual paintings prove the value of imagination by transporting the viewer to otherworldly terrains that, through close, focused looking, soon feel as familiar as home. Boxer’s art, at its best, revives the postwar ideal of an artist-god creating a new visual universe — one distinctive galaxy at a time.
Stanley Boxer continues at Berry Campbell (530 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through today.