HUDSON, New York — It’s inspiring to see mature artists change things up after they’ve achieved wide recognition for a particular approach to their medium.
Having developed for decades a take on painterly abstraction rooted in organic forms, Gregory Amenoff has embarked on a foray into a rigorously structured realm where square formats, straight edges, and right angles predominate.
A selection of the results of this new direction constitutes Disposition, the inaugural exhibition at Pamela Salisbury Gallery in Hudson, New York. John Davis Gallery, the previous occupant of this Warren Street space, will be sorely missed, but the Amenoff show is enormously consoling and an auspicious beginning for the new venue.
To be sure, a craggy geometry appears in much of Amenoff’s earlier work, which is rife with complex polygons suggesting explosions, sunbursts, lightning bolts, and crystals. But we’ve seen nothing like “Transom” (2018-19; 36 x 36 inches; all works oil on linen on panel), in which a field of blue-black is enclosed on three sides by rectangles of dandelion yellow and yellowish white, a vertical bar of sap green, and, spanning the bottom of the composition, a purple-to-earth-green-to-purple-gray chiaroscuro cylinder. In the upper right corner, a mullion-like lick of pale orange divides the yellowish white rectangle in half; this might be the high window the title refers to. “Transom” is devoid of curved lines or edges.
Amenoff’s ‘touch’ as a painter has always been a bit heavy-handed and clunky — sometimes more than a bit — but he’s usually turned that absence (or avoidance) of finesse to his advantage; his paint handling often suggested headlong growth and transformation, unremitting geological processes, or irrepressible supernatural forces. His new work, despite its seeming discontinuity of formal vocabulary and its allusions to the built environment, retains that deliberate bluntness and is no less awkward for being distinctly architectural.
That palette though. Wow.
Amenoff is brilliant at putting together complex combinations of hues that reinforce each other in surprising ways. The extreme range of values in “Brilliant Corners” (2017-18; 36 x 36 inches) spans peach-tinted white and lemon yellow all the way to burgundy-black, but these hues also function as chroma. That’s hard to do. A bellowing red band surrounding this central area is its equal in visual force, and the enclosing serene blue mellows out the situation.
It’s not just that Amenoff’s favors saturated color — there’s plenty of that to go around, but he tempers the heat with contrasts in both hue and saturation. “Charybdis” (2017-18; 36 by 36 inches) divides roughly into thirds; red/oranges, violet/blues, and glaring white of the central section are ensconced between dampened, mid-value greens to the left and, on the right, a deep, smoldering alizarin crimson/emerald green combo.
Howard Hodgkin’s use of broken color as a foil for purer, louder hues comes to mind (minus the seductive atmospheric effects). And whereas Hodgkin’s paint is generally pretty soupy, Amenoff likes his to be thick enough to scrub over an underlying layer without obscuring it completely, so the colors blend optically — see “Morn” (2017-18, 36 by 36 inches).
On view are 10 of this series of three-foot-square paintings, and seven more measuring 12 by 12 inches (all 2018). The more convincing of these are amplified by being simplified. A curious rectangle-and-rod motif appearing in other works is made explicitly piston-like in “Untitled I,” while “Untitled XI” isolates a shard-like glyph within a brushy pink surround against a field that approaches chromatic black. As usual, surfaces veer from waxy to glossy to satiny to everything in between.
In the larger works (and a few of the small ones) the paint doesn’t quite extend to the edge of the canvas. The image is delimited by a brushy, wavering outer boundary that leaves a margin of about an inch of unpainted linen surrounding the composition.
This device is surely not about deconstructing the artifice of painting — Amenoff is a true believer in the medium — but it allows a reading of the painting in which the stark geometry of the canvas itself recedes in visual significance. That is to say, the horizontal and vertical subdivisions of the shapes are there for reasons other than to reiterate the support.
If the paintings’ geometries are not essentially formalistic, what, then, makes this newfound architectonics of the picture plane a suitable means for this artist? Why does he build these structures, pitch these tents, after rambling around in the underbrush for so long? In a brief statement in the exhibition catalogue, Amenoff remarks that “artists often look back to move forward” and relates the paintings on view to his earliest, infrequently seen work of the 1970s.
Evidently, the artist’s current direction isn’t actually new but a circling back to ideas about structure versus freedom that are deeply embedded, now ripe for revisiting and reworking.
Because I have difficulty bringing myself even to locate my really old work, much less to reconsider any of it seriously, I have to hope that looking back isn’t the only way an artist can move forward.
Yet move forward we must, by any means necessary, lest we succumb to repetition and self-parody — a fate that surely doesn’t await this adventurously self-reflective artist.
Gregory Amenoff: Disposition continues at Pamela Salisbury Gallery (362 1/2 Warren Street, Hudson, New York) through April 5.
Please note: due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the gallery is open by appointment only; please call 518-828-5907 for more information.