By the time I reviewed Don Voisine’s work in 2013, he was a veteran painter of geometric abstractions who was working with a hard-edged vocabulary and compositional format that centered a black form (rectangles, triangles, parallelograms, and trapezoids). Looking back through his work, I learned that in 1992 he began surrounding the black form with a border. In 1999, he introduced the diagonal into his work, adding another layer of tension between containment and expansion. Since then, he has expanded upon these possibilities while remaining devoted to his use of a single or double overlaid black form, hemmed in by parallel rectangles pressing in from either the painting’s sides or the top and bottom.
Voisine’s paintings were precisely delineated compositions where everything was considered, from the use of matte and shiny paint to the direction of the brushstroke, the solidity or transparency of the overlaid planes, the interaction between the black forms and white spaces, and the relationship between the black and white interior and the colors and bands pressing in. Perhaps because of his attention to composition and the particular elements of his work, and despite all the constraints he imposes, what singles Voisine out from other geometric abstract artists is that he remains a restless painter, capable of surprising his most ardent fans. This is why I saw the exhibition Don Voisine at McKenzie Fine Art.
According to the art critic Walter Pater, “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” If there was an underlying musical principle running through Voisine’s work prior to this breakthrough exhibition, it would have to do with balance, harmony, and counterpoint. He had always exerted different types of pressure between adjacent and overlapping forms and shifts in the materiality of the paint — what I called “a tightly calibrated, frictional harmony” in my 2019 review. While Voisine has not cast off this way of composing with the 17 paintings in his current exhibition, he has torqued his work in unexpected ways, and done things he has never done before. An artist who has consistently made incremental changes to his work, the most recent paintings mark the beginning of a new and different trajectory for him.
In eight of the paintings, Voisine incorporated diamond shapes, in which he nested one or more small diamonds within larger ones. Because the larger ones are cropped by the painting’s sides, underscoring the two-dimensional surface, the smaller inset diamonds perceptually flip between pressing against the surface and tilting back in an indeterminate space. That shift between flatness and shape enables our eye to move into the painting, to sense a space that eventually hugs the surface, pushing us out. This optical tension speaks to one of painting’s issues: How can a painting be an autonomous object if a viewer is necessary to complete it? Another new element in the works is an irregular cruciform. The diamond and cruciform shapes achieve different things.
“Coffer” (2023) incorporates a saturated purple that I don’t think I have ever seen in Voisine’s work. His use of asymmetrical elements is new, and he crops the contained forms in fresh ways. I don’t know where all these changes will lead, but the work is clearly not transitional. Geometric abstractionists are not known for making radical changes in their art: Kenneth Noland had a few formats that he returned to throughout his career, while Stanley Whitney established a signature grid in four pre-established sizes, which he marks off with loosely painted rectangles of color. Both rely on safety nets. Voisine broke with the formalist proscription against composition at the outset of his career and he has never stopped pushing. His recurring use of black is powerful because it rejects the seductiveness of color. His use of directional brush marks and solid and transparent planes invites visual scrutiny. In our mind’s eye, we can assemble and disassemble the interlocking, layered, and pressing forms. Looking is an engaged activity, a continual shifting of focus.
The most surprising work in the exhibition is “Odalisque” (2023), a horizontal painting containing a double black diamond nested within a thick gray border. Are we meant to read the black diamond as a geometric evocation of an odalisque? A smaller gray diamond is set in the center. Blue paint has been rubbed onto its surface, leaving a faint trace, like blue eye shadow not completely wiped away. The eroticism is unexpected, as is the challenge of how to read this piece.
Voisine alludes to and echoes artists ranging from Kazimir Malevich and Myron Stout to little-known European geometric abstractionists. He has slowly and determinedly rejected the reductive tendency and forms as containers for color often associated with geometric abstraction. Instead he has gone in the other direction, with an unmistakable independence and thoughtfulness.
Don Voisine continues at McKenzie Fine Art (55 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 25. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.