In 1965, in his manifesto-like essay, “Specific Objects,” Donald Judd wrote:
The main thing wrong with painting is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall. A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole shape; it determines and limits the arrangement of whatever is on or inside of it.
In 1966, Ron Gorchov, who had had three exhibitions at Tibor de Nagy between 1960 and 1966, began a series of works he collectively titled Arguments with Rectangles, Flatness, and Dimension. Once he changed his work, he did not show again in New York until 1975.
The other person that Gorchov appears to be responding to in his Arguments was Clement Greenberg, who believed that advanced art always was anxious about its medium. As he told fellow painter Ray Smith in an interview, he decided there were six issues to address. These included “freely painted edges,” the “desire to continue painting on stretched canvas,” “perception of canvas as both object and void,” and the “synthesis of painting, sculpture and architecture.” Once he established these questions and intuitively followed the logic of where they led, he began working in an idiosyncratic format, which he has stayed with for fifty years.
In responding to Judd and Greenberg, it is apparent that Gorchov wanted to find his own way past what he saw as the limits of their theorizing and make something that was recognizably his. As a committed abstract painter, the challenges he had to face included Abstract Expressionism (subjectivity) and Minimalism (objectivity), abstract gestures and tight geometry. At the same time, one of the great things about the art world is this: just when it looks like everything has been used up and there is nowhere else to go, someone comes along and proves otherwise.
Gorchov’s distinctive solution was a shield or saddle-stretcher to which canvas has been stapled. The surface was gently bowed from top to bottom or from side to side, while all the edges were slightly curved — either concave or convex. When aligned vertically, the shape evokes the Greek shields of the ancient world; and when aligned horizontally, they become saddle-like. In both cases, they extended beyond the flat rectangle hung parallel to the wall that so irked Judd. For the past fifty years, Gorchov has painted on curved planes, leaving the bottom edge “freely painted.”
The work can be divided into two groups, the first consisting of the shield or saddle-like surface extending from the wall. The other form looks like the top of Gorchov’s shield-like form, which the artist paints in one color or hue, and layers vertically, one sliding partially over the other. While he has made them so they can be freestanding, in current show, Ron Gorchov, at Cheim Read (February 16 – March 25, 2017), they are attached to the wall by stanchions and inhabit a space that intersects painting, sculpture, and architecture.
Painting on these idiosyncratic supports for fifty years could have easily devolved into a mannerism, but Gorchov continues to make work that is remarkably fresh. This is because he has become a masterful colorist as well as collapsed the optical with the visceral. In this exhibition, the artist’s titles evoke the classical world, but the colors feel contemporary. Gorchov tends to dilute the oil paint so that a row of drips is visible along the bottom edge. If he applies another color or changes the contour of a shape, traces of its earlier existence often peek through the paint. All of these visible decisions suggest that Gorchov works everything out in the process of applying the paint, and that he is not programmatic in his approach.
In “Salammbo” (2016) — which gets its title from Gustave Flaubert’s sensually decadent, historical novel set in Carthage — the surface of the shield-like shape is painted with a thin coat of aquamarine blue. Two identical red magenta shapes, which resemble socks, are painted over the aquamarine blue ground. The effect is jarring since the red magenta shapes seem to float in front of the ground. The red magenta is raucous and electric — the shapes seem to want to jump out at you. Gorchov’s voluptuous color combination feels appropriate to the painting’s title, while the painting remains resolutely abstract. Within this context, the shield-like shape also feels apt. This is what I find so captivating about Gorchov’s work – he is able to conjure associations with the ancient world as seen through a Frenchman’s radical novel, and do so indirectly. “Salammbo” is ostentatious and austere, a visual paradox.
In “Arcturus” and “Avior” (both 2016), Gorchov stacks six of his shaped canvases. Avior is a Hebrew work meaning, “My father is light,” while Arcturus is the name of the brightest star in the constellation of Boötes and means “Guardian of the Bear.” The allusion to a protector adds another layer of meaning into Gorchov’s work. At the same time, the colors he uses have different viscosities. Color becomes a texture or density, as we begin noticing whether the color reveals the linen surface or not. While the shapes can be associated with a martial sensibility, the application of the paint undermines that reading.
Gorchov’s use of color and paint is joyful and tender, which works in counterpoint to the shield and saddle-like shape, with their conjuring of armor right out of the Iliad. His evocation of the heroic never becomes redundant or overbearing. Now in his late 80s, Gorchov seems as youthful as ever in these recent works. It is as if he is just starting out, happy to have found a handful of forms that are all his own.
Ron Gorchov continues at Cheim Read (547 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 25.