The new paintings of Andrew Masullo, now at Mary Boone Gallery in conjunction with Feature Inc., outwit, defy, and make gallery-going fun again. With numbers for titles, the works elicit numerous surprises, and these of several kinds. Even the dates startle. One work, ten inches by eight, took him ten years to make.
Very few contemporary abstract painters – and among them I count Thomas Nozkowski, whose work enjoys wide exposure, and Gary Stephan, a Mary Boone artist twenty years ago and now inexplicably underrepresented in New York – excite and bewilder as Masullo does. There are precedents, though, and the artist isn’t shy about his influences; he claims to have once kissed a Forrest Bess painting in a museum, but clarified “no tongue” was involved. In each of Masullo’s works is an idiosyncratic self-organization that pulsates with inner life. It’s in his economy of means, his concision of wit, and even his materials.
Masullo uses store-bought canvases instead of stretching his own and applies paint straight-from-the-tube, unmixed, as if ignorant of how “professional” paintings are made. Not entirely a joke, it’s a practical way to eliminate unnecessaries when compositional invention is the real goal. And he paints small, often with the canvas on his lap or propped against a cardboard box or something he quips “leanable.” Something very minor is lost in the Boone showing, however; all the pieces are uniformly flat against the wall, which is to say it’s a polished presentation. The first Masullo painting I witnessed was so oddly warped from its insubstantial wood stretcher I mistook it for the work of a high schooler — a genuinely thrilling affect. Still, the curation of works — a corner-hugging cluster here, a too-spaced-apart line there — clearly embrace Masullo’s oblique charm.
Keeping true to the philosophical principles of non-objective painting, Masullo does not title his pieces. He assigns them numbers – we’re now in the mid-five-thousands – which dissociates them from narrative and language-based thought. But this superficial matter-of-factness yields nothing austere. Just the opposite, emotionless digits are a counterpoint, the foil for forms that wiggle, shuffle, elude, and appear to have a good time.
White, the empty void of ordinary picture-making, is a leading character for Masullo, taunting in its indeterminate presence. It’s often built up physically through a time-extensive, spirit-filled, imposto, giving its role added complexity, especially when beneath its surface are extended strata from elsewhere visible shapes and remnants of the painting’s past. So it dominates and evades simultaneously.
Andrew Masullo continues at Mary Boone Gallery (541 W 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 27.