Once upon a time the grid was ubiquitous; it was like an appliance you couldn’t do without. Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin, Andy Warhol, Eva Hesse, Brice Marden, and Gerhardt Richter each had one in their tool chest. And then the years went by. Artists seemed to lose interest. Like painting, which many artists began abandoning in the 1970s, the grid was considered exhausted or used up, as obsolete as VHS. This is not what happened, of course, but it makes for good copy. The fact is that whenever something (painting or the novel) is pronounced used up, someone is going to do something with it that proves otherwise.
Betsy Kaufman doesn’t love the grid, but she loves what she can do with it. In her exhibition Betsy Kaufman: Paintings and Works on Paper 2015 – 2016 at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects (December 10, 2016 – February 11, 2017), which is accompanied by a catalog, the artists shows four large paintings and 20 modestly-sized works on paper. Kaufman paints in acrylic, which she thickens or thins, going from solid lines to semi-transparent bands to brushy grounds.
Kaufman works out on paper what she is going to do in the painting — a series of distinct steps, each requiring complete control.
Usually, she brings together two vocabularies, beginning with a brushy, solid, or modulated ground made of a thin coat of paint. Everything seems to have been done in one shot — no revision and no going back. Onto the ground she will draw an exacting linear configuration. If she includes more than one configuration, each is executed in a different color and width. Alignment and slippage (or non-alignment) are constantly at play.
While the vocabulary Kaufman uses is inseparable from modernism and such artists as Piet Mondrian and Agnes Martin, her subversions of order are what viewers are apt to find captivating and even a bit maddening, though in a good way. In “Through Lavender” (2016), she compresses an atmospheric grid with a variety of linear ones in lavender, red, black, and white, with the result that everything arrives at a different speed and in a different visual register. First, there is the ground made of vertical brown strokes of thinned acrylic. Then we discern the overlapping colored grids and then, mbedded in the ground — or is it dissolving into it? — we see yet another grid made of a faint bands of white (or is it gray?).
When I was looking at “Through Lavender,” this ethereal grid caught my attention long after I began piecing the painting together, examining the interstices where various grids were overlaid or sidled up to each other. The linear lavender frame and the three grids (red, black, and white) in slightly varying sizes, each occupy the painting’s square differently. While each’s grid’s relationship to the painting’s square seems perfectly balanced, and perhaps even arrived at mathematically, the overlaying of five structural configurations wreaks havoc with the eye’s desire for order and symmetry.
By overlaying different closed systems – each perfect in itself — Kaufman evokes the inevitability of deterioration. I was reminded of something that Robert Smithson said in a 1973 interview with Alison Sky, where, citing Norbert Weiner, he talked about one piece of information canceling out another. That is not exactly what happens in “Through Lavender,” but it is certainly a condition of looking that is apt to make you want to walk away. The real challenge is to stay longer and look harder — to see the interactions and shifts, how each grid can temporarily take center stage as you change your focus. So much is competing for our attention all day, every day — it is one reason why we have trouble concentrating on what is real and important, on what our priorities should be. Kaufman’s paintings and works on paper ask us to slow down, to look and look again. Of course, that is what all good art does: it gets us to look and reflect upon this everyday act.
In Kaufman’s case, the looking becomes an act of meditation, of sensitivity to difference and placement. It turns us back on ourselves, while stirring up unexpected associations. I think it is likely that viewers will be reminded of computer screens and the floating ambience of the digital world — a feeling of being both rooted and uprooted. It is a realm where meaning is invested in the way a line’s smooth edges contrasts with the irregular thickness of another, as in the work on paper, “Untitled (#2)” (2015), which measures nine by seven inches. In these works, looking is about seeing differences and rejecting hierarchy — which, if you think about it, has both a political and aesthetic dimension.
In the painting “Undertow” (2016), Kaufman creates a field from wide, looping, brushy blue strokes tinged with white. Against this rhythm, the artist imposes four different linear structures of varying visual intensity, from thick black lines to thin white ones, with see-through green bands in between. The resulting grids seem to be literally and metaphorically floating on these undulating waves of paint, with the green grid on the brink of dissipation. Have we built our structures on solid ground or shifting currents? A second white linear configuration extends across the entire surface with lines that are all askew. Within Kaufman’s ordered world, this is rather shocking, like seeing the president with his fly unzipped.
It is Kaufman’s use of the unexpected, her ability to calibrate the most minute differences and then arrange them all with perfect aplomb, that makes these works special. She is clearly a master of tonality and graphic contrast, states of density and dissolution. In her work, bands of paint can become columns of light — reminding the viewer of searchlights scanning the night sky. While the artist is clearly preoccupied with the grid, what she did not swallow hook, line, and sinker was formalism’s emphasis on the unitary, on dissolving differences in the name of essentiality or style. By keeping everything in play and fussing over every inch of her work, she reminds us that no matter how familiar something becomes, we would be fools to take it for granted.
Betsy Kaufman: Paintings and Works on Paper 2015 – 2016 continues at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 11.