There is a generation of abstract artists born in the mid-1940s that the art world has yet to give their proper due. I suspect that one reason for this is because these artists first gained attention in the mid-1970s, during the decade when painting was dead and just before its so-called return with the hoopla generated by the Neo-Expressionists. It seems they did not get the telegram announcing painting’s death or, having gotten it, decided that the critics and historians were wrong.
Figuring out how to move forward in the wake of Minimalism and Color Field painting, and before the rise of Neo-Expressionism and Neo-Geo, the abstract artists that I am thinking about were never associated with a style or a movement; they were not branded and they seem to fit into none of the commonplace narratives. I think that is a good thing, but I seem to be in the minority.
Melissa Meyer is part of this generation. I first reviewed her work in 2009, shortly after she moved away from the sumptuous brushstrokes and swimming shapes, often in closely related hues, that were characteristic of her paintings of much of the 1990s. Meyer’s reinvention during this decade came from internal pressure rather than the external pressure of critical or market forces: she has always gone her own way.
Starting in the late 1990s, Meyer found ways to undo what she felt might have started to become habits. She began to work in watercolor. She challenged herself with a change of scale when she was commissioned to make two large, public murals, whose size far exceeded anything she had done before. And she began using Photoshop as an aid, mostly to help her with her commissions. The most obvious consequence of these changes and challenges is that she began thinning her oil paint.
In her current exhibition, Melissa Meyer: New Paintings, at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc (November 1–December 22, 2018), she has pushed further into a territory she began staking out around the beginning of this century.
The exhibition consists of 13 paintings — many of them diptychs. There are two pairs of paintings, the diptychs, “Trellis Too” and “Garden in Cassis” (both 2017) and the vertical rectangles, “Summer in the City I” and “Summer in the City II” (both 2018), that I want to call attention to.
In the diptychs, I count at least three layers of marks that the artist has compressed together. The first layer is a patchwork of colors (durian yellow, cantaloupe orange, and watery blue) that makes up the ground. There is no discernible pattern to the patches, and in some places she has left the gessoed ground white, unpainted.
The second layer consists of differently colored, glyph-like brushstrokes, each seemingly made in one shot. The brush can be dry, making scratchy lines, or it can be full. Again, I detect no pattern to her choices. The sizes of the glyphs vary. The color can be richly saturated or faded and watery. Here and there, part of one glyph might slide over another.
The final thing she does is draw a black, geometric web of angled lines of pretty much the same width, overlaying and holding together the first two layers. The process is incremental, echoing Jackson Pollock’s poured paintings, but with very different results.
One of the things that happened in the shift from Pollock to Helen Frankenthaler — an early inspiration for Meyer — was that much attention was paid to technique and process. Pollock was seen as blazing the trail for stain painting. Drawing in paint was denigrated and composition got pushed aside. Meyer has always been committed to both possibilities, which is why many critics link her to Abstract Expressionism and lyrical abstraction. And yet, I would argue that her link to Abstract Expressionism arises out of her reconsideration of various assumptions and commonplace views. She is no follower and to suggest that she is misconstrues the active and interesting dialogue that she is having with her predecessors.
More importantly, “Trellis Too” and “Garden in Cassis” give you a lot to look at. The visual dissonance is jarring. You feel that each layer is clamoring for attention. There are the colors peeking through the two layers of drawing. There are glyphs jostling each other. The black line stitches the two layers together, but does not suppress their visual energy. I like the way the painting encourages my attention to drift across the surface as well as among the layers. Despite all the distinct glyphs and discernible layers, there is no focal point. You rest your attention at your own risk. Despite the painting’s pleasant title, there is something jarring, even distressing, about “Garden in Cassis.”
This is what feels different about Meyer’s current work. In the two paintings titled “Summer in the City,” Meyer lays down a patchwork ground of pale yellow and green glyphs, along with irregular off-white areas, again leaving areas unpainted. This approach seems haphazard, rather than methodical, which challenges the idea that a painting should convey order.
Meyer overlays this uneven ground with rows of tightly packed, open glyphs made with brushes of different widths. She often draws one linear, glyph-like structure over another, again following no pattern. The glyphs tend to be rectangular, with some aligned horizontally and others vertically. She might make one that is much like the one adjacent to it, except in a different color and with a thicker or thinner line.
If Pollock is seen as leading to all-over painting, Meyer has turned that possibility on its head. The paintings in her current exhibition merge division and unity without favoring either. They slow down looking, as your attention moves across the surface and you begin discerning similarities, changes, and ruptures. Making each glyph in a different color adds to the visual dissonance. “Summer in the City I” might be read as a grid, but one in which each module pulls away from the others, even as it demands to be seen individually.
I think these are Meyer’s most urban paintings. The arabesque glyphs reminded me of graffiti and tagging without ever fully crossing into that territory. They come as across as airy, strong, and solid. And yet, I also detect Meyer’s alertness to the chaos waiting to break through – unexpected and imminent – in our daily life. That awareness of how fragile, solid, and resilient it all is fills these paintings with rivers of feeling.
Melissa Meyer: New Paintings continues at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc. (514 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 22.