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Gandy Brodie, "Stalagmite and Lichen" (n.d.), oil and mixed media on canvas, 30 1/2h x 26 1/2w inches (all images courtesy SHFAP)

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Gritty — in all its meanings — is the word that comes to mind when I think about the work of Gandy Brodie (1924–1975) and Peter Acheson (b. 1954), two artists of different generations about whom I have previously written. The other word that comes to mind is “outlier.” Working abstractly and figuratively, as well as in between, both Brodie, who was self-taught, and Acheson, who earned his BFA from Yale in 1976, do not fit into any of the received categories of postwar painting, especially if we use style or subject matter as guidelines. These are some of the reasons why their pairing, in the exhibition Peter Acheson & Gandy Brodie: No Nature at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, which ends today, makes sense. 

In Brodie’s “Spiral Galaxy” (1968), the merging of a celestial formation with an uneven, pebbled brown surface joins the stars with the earth’s geological strata, underscoring their innate material connection. We are not looking at shining lights in the sky, as seen in innumerable paintings, but at vast, unattainable spheres whose organic composition shares something with our planet, as well as a coiled skein of contrasting color. The painting’s rough, topographical terrain reminds us that everything we see is open to time’s devastations. 

Brodie’s sense of the different ways time passes is also found in “Stalagmite and Lichen” (n.d.). As in “Spiral Galaxy,” he finds a way to merge natural phenomena with paint’s paste-like materiality, manipulating it to evoke mud, decayed matter, and rocks. Rather than giving us a picturesque view of a cave interior and lichen growing on rocks and bark, he uses paint to establish a physical bond between the two. 

Peter Acheson, “Rock Study (for van Kirk)” (2021), oil on canvas panel, 16h x 20w inches

The perspective in Acheson’s “Rock Study (for van Kirk)” (2021) suggests that the viewer is looking down at the rock formation. The lines between the largely flat rocks underscore the myth that we are standing on solid ground. Working in the porous space between abstraction and representation, Acheson’s “Rock Study (for van Kirk)” can also be read as a commentary on painting, its cracked picture plane. After all, nothing is permanent in the face of time. 

In “Yellow Untitled” (2008), Acheson repeats a series of feathery bands made up of short horizontal strokes, which descend at a slight diagonal down the painting’s surface. While this work can be read as abstract, I feel that the repetition of the marks is about counting time, in a way that is more subtle than, for example, Roman Opalka’s rigid, systematic approach. Acheson is not counting toward infinity; he knows he will never arrive. Rather, he is shaping the way he passes through time, and making the pleasure of that time passing physically and visually palpable. 

In “Untitled (Calligraphy)” (2018–19), Acheson made a layered, asemic painting of five horizontal rows of cursive blue calligraphic marks over red cursive marks. The rhythmic lines and quick, curving marks constitute a language without meaning. Extending out of artists such as Henri Michaux and Cy Twombly, the painting embodies one of the many different paths that Acheson has explored in the years covered by this exhibition (2008–21). Consider that each of the three Acheson paintings I have discussed is done in a different way. Did he make any other paintings like “Untitled (Calligraphy),” one of the highlights of the exhibition? 

Peter Acheson, “Untitled (Calligraphy)” (2018-19), acrylic on panel, 16h x 12w inches

Refusing to develop a signature style or brand, Acheson has continually found another way to put paint on a surface, as well as initiate dialogues with other artists, both living and dead. Aware of his own mortality, and of how art can speak across time, he has made works memorializing a wide range of figures. 

Acheson’s “Miro” (2017–18) is composed of a photograph of Miró in a simple found picture frame, whose black paint has largely flaked off its wood. Using strokes of blue and blood-brown, he has isolated the figure of Miró in the photo’s upper left-hand corner. Greenish-yellow paint along the bottom of the photo spells out letters that are mostly obscured by a large feather that has been attached to the frame, cutting across it diagonally, from the lower left corner to the upper right edge. To the left of Miró, who is seated and looking down, Acheson has attached a pinecone to the frame. 

Was Acheson thinking about the pineal gland in the brain when he placed the pinecone beside Miró’s image? The pineal gland controls our perception of light, as well as our patterns of waking and sleeping. It has long been regarded as our biological “third eye” and “the epicenter of enlightenment.” What about the feather, which is surely meant to conjure flight? In a number of works from the 1940s, Miró equates women and birds with the moon and stars.

Peter Acheson, “Miro” (2017-18), acrylic on frame with photograph/feather 12, 1/2h x 10 1/2w inches

This points to another bond between Acheson and Brodie. For both, paint is not just paint, something to apply to a surface. Its materiality has a capacity to release meaning into the work, to underscore our vulnerable bodily presence in the world and time. 

In Brodie’s undated “Anemones,” the orange and black cylindrical container from which the five circular blossoms (in muted red, magenta, white, and dark and light blue) poke their heads is a testimony to persistence and sorrow. The gray, granular, built-up surface around the painting’s top and right edges and the smoothed, ashen gray area around the flowers bring to mind the dingy interiors of the tenements that Brodie grew up in, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The red anemone is just above the center, a vibrant breath of life.

In his poem, “A Step Away From Them,” which is about death, Frank O’Hara writes, after celebrating the sights he sees on his lunch hour from the Museum of Modern Art:

First /Bunny died, then John Latouche,/ then Jackson Pollock. But is the/ earth as full as life was full, of them?

O’Hara was the first to write a monograph about Pollock. Written in 1956, shortly after Pollock died, “A Step Away From Them” ends: 

My heart is in my/ pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy. 

Brodie and Acheson are not afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves. Being cool or ironic was of no interest to them. 

Gandy Brodie, “Spiral Galaxy” (1968), oil on wood panel, 10h x 9 1/2w inches

Peter Acheson & Gandy Brodie: No Nature continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Manhattan) through July 17.

John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian Sonnets (Rain...

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