I never know when I might see a painting that makes me want to look again, look longer, and think harder about what is in front of me. Recently, I gave a reading at M. David & Co., a Brooklyn gallery run by the artist Michael David. At the reading, each poet stood in front of a large painting made of two different-sized canvases abutted together that hung alone on a recessed wall. Even though someone always seemed to be standing in front of the painting, I was struck by what I saw. After the reading, as people were hanging out, drinking wine, and talking, David introduced me to the artist, Astrid Dick, whose work was included in the two-person exhibition with Erika Ranee Painting Paintings: A Leap of Fate at M. David & Co. (October 28–December 11, 2022). When I talked to Dick about the painting, I learned that a critic had told her that she could not paint stripes because Sean Scully and Frank Stella had already painted them. This struck me as one of those patently foolish statements — like “painting is dead” — that still circulates in the art world.
I decided to find out more about Dick, particularly since the other paintings I saw in this less-than-ideal situation suggested that she did not have a signature style or perhaps even a recurring subject. At the same time, it was immediately apparent that the same person had painted the different pieces that I could see (or, more accurately, glimpse). Two weeks later Dick and I met so that I could see her paintings again and we could talk about them. In the meantime, I learned from her website that she was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and was in her early 50s. In 2002, she received her PhD in economics from MIT. Six years later, after attaining economic security as a university professor, she decided to leave academia and devote her life to painting. She was in her mid-30s, which is seldom the moment we choose to leave the trappings of security behind. She also told me that she had studied art briefly in St. Petersburg, Russia, but that she was essentially self-taught.
What stood out to me about the first painting that I saw was the pairing of the two canvases: a smaller one composed of vertical, glitter-covered stripes in various colors, a bright pink band near the middle, and a larger panel with two loosely painted pink vertical bands running down the middle of the painting. For this canvas, Dick laid down different viscosities of paint in reds, violets, greens, mustard yellow, and blue on a white ground. The process was additive; nothing seemed to be scraped down or completely covered over.
In crossing horizontal bands, the brushstroke becomes drier as it traverses the surface from left to right. Vertical and horizontal strokes, which tend to curl downward on the right side, give the painting a loose underlying structure, and demarcate open areas in which the artist painted small blossoms of reds and quick flurries of yellow. A thin blue X is one of the last marks Dick made. Every mark seems to be made in response to what preceded it.
While I was sitting in the audience listening to the two other poets, one revery I had during a lull was that the glittering stripes reminded me of an arlecchino (carnival) cake, and that there was something festive about the painting. It was this association that made the stripes unlike anyone else’s. The pinks, yellows, greens, and reds in the canvas on the right, with its tensions between structure and gesture, control and freedom, maintained a lively dialogue with the glittering stripes. I learned only later that the painting was titled “My Kitty Loves Carnival Cake” (2022). This serendipitous alignment suggested that Dick’s paintings come from a place of intuition. It helped explained what held my attention.
This feeling was strengthened by the other pieces that I saw when we met one afternoon in the gallery to look at the paintings in the show as well as those in the back room. Although Dick is by some measure a young painter, she has found a way to make something that is her own from the inspirations she has absorbed. One such inspiration was Chris Martin, about whom I first wrote in 2005. Starting in the late 1970s, Martin began working his way through the motifs of various artists until they became his own. The artists included Paul Feeley, Alfred Jensen, Forrest Bess, Myron Stout, and the Brooklyn-based painter, James Harrison. That same engagement with influences can be sensed in the work of other artists who, like Martin, lived in Williamsburg back then: Peter Acheson, Rick Briggs, Katherine Bradford, and Charles Yuen. There is something raw, direct, and awkward about Dick’s work that connects her to this group.
What interests me about Dick’s paintings is their combination of insouciance and seriousness, and how the balance between the two can shift, adding to the nuances of contradictory feelings that are evoked. One of my favorite paintings is her homage “For Piet” (2021), whose small scale (8 by 11 inches) was foreign to Mondrian. The composition is simple: a band composed of yellow, blue, and red rectangles runs across the bottom third of the white canvas. It is as if she isolated part of a horizontal band in Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie” (1943). Dick’s placement of her band roughly corresponds to the one instance where the colors are arranged in the same order in “Broadway Boogie Woogie.”
The layers of Prussian blue in “Paris Bleu” (2021-22) invite viewers to look into the color, going from the overall dark to submerged areas of lighter blue. Along the top, a loosely painted cerulean band separates the expanse of Prussian blue below from the fiery orange, yellow, and red above. I was reminded of how dark the Seine can become, and of sunrises and sunsets in Paris. And yet, the painting also prompted this viewer at least to look inward, to remember the different environmental circumstances of looking at a river at night.
In the vertical “Persiana Americana” (2022), Dick seems to have started with a bright yellow ground, on which she laid down red, moss green, and blue without touching the edges, except in a few small areas. Between horizontal stripes in yellow, blue, white, as well as at least one dirty pink and one magenta line, we see vertical drips. At times the overlaid bands divide the previous layer into loosely painted bands, collapsing the distinction between figure and ground. Like “Paris Bleu,” it is a painting you look into. Structure, gesture, solidity, and dissipation exist together. The longer you look at Dick’s work, the more you will see that it is coming into its own.
Painting Paintings: A Leap of Fate continues at M. David & Co. (56 Bogart Street, Suite 114, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through December 11. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.