In 2014, art critic Jerry Saltz published a Vulture.com article entitled “Zombies on the Walls: Why Does So Much New Abstraction Look the Same?” in which he laments a recent trend he noticed in the art world: painters producing and buyers purchasing a slew of derivative and uninspired abstract pieces. “Much of this product,” Saltz writes, “is just painters playing scales, doing finger exercises, without the wit or the rapport that makes music. Instead, it’s visual Muzak, blending in.”
Saltz worries that sales of this so-called “zombie abstraction” reward artists for their lack of originality. The trend may be there, but focusing on it paints a depressing picture of the modern art world, one of over-commercialization and a loss of creative vitality.
“If Color Could Kill: New Painting from New York City,” closing Thursday, Sept. 15, in the James W. Palmer Gallery, presents quite a different image. The exhibit, which showcases recent abstract work by six Manhattan-based artists, marks the curatorial debut of Vassar alumnus Jeff Frederick ’91, a painter, professor of art and art reviewer.
Frederick devised “If Color Could Kill” as essentially a show of work by artists he admired. “A lot of people whose work I liked were working with super-saturated color, not toned down, not even really contrasted with unsaturated color. Unlike colors you see every day in nature,” he described. He drew up a wish list of artists for the show and surprisingly, all of them agreed to submit work.
The exhibit was first shown in April at LIU Brooklyn’s Salena Gallery with eight artists’ work, and then Frederick had the idea to propose the show to Vassar’s Palmer Gallery. He was excited to bring his first exhibit to his alma mater. In his words, “I had always wanted to do something to give current students exposure to things I learned about that I didn’t know about when I was at Vassar. I hope it gives students a taste of what they could go out and find around New York.”
As the title of the show suggests, the art Frederick chose to display presents a clear visual counterargument to Saltz’s criticism of endless, bland canvases: “It’s all done in haggard shades of pale,” he observed. Color and its diverse uses play the starring role in this exhibit. It is clear that all of the featured artists—Paul Behnke, Patrick Berran, Robert Otto Epstein, Brooke Moyse, Gary Petersen and Craig Taylor—take their work seriously; there are no sellouts in the bunch, the kind Saltz was disparaging.
Patrick Berran works with printmaking techniques and Xerox toner transfers to create multi-layered works whose visual vocabulary viewers must uncover carefully. “I enjoy that my hand is evident in the final image but also removed,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “I’m mostly interested in how an artist paints, not necessarily what their paintings are about.”
Robert Otto Epstein’s painting investigates the possibilities within a given point of departure: a grid or pixelated pattern. His two pieces on display at Vassar feature swirling patterns, electrically vibrant colors and a visible texture. “The way I see it,” he explained, “grids are at once elementary and infinite in their potential for building new ways of seeing and conceiving … There are no rules on how to see what you see.”
Brooke Moyse, influenced by Piet Mondrian’s and filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s use of color, enjoys creating evocative and powerful visual statements through striking combinations of form and color. “I try to create works that have a feeling of playfulness and immediacy through a concise use of color and gesture … People have emotional connections to particular colors that could be either related to memory, or to something less definable and more biological.” Moyse’s more organic style brings abstraction down to a human level, leaving room for individual interpretation.
Gary Petersen favors the emotional level of art over a stricter narrative format and his works in the show utilize geometric constructions, overlapping and a juxtaposition of flatness and depth. Petersen’s paintings reveal themselves slowly to the viewer, unfolding layer by layer, piece by piece. As he described, “I like to think these forms, shifting and bumping, stacking and collapsing, reflect life. How we bounce around, make mistakes, contradict ourselves. Nothing fixed, nothing certain.”
Taken together, the work of all six artists in the Palmer show reveals the essential truth about this genre of art: Abstraction, by stripping away all recognizable forms, builds a setting that is at once intensely personal to the artist as well as universally understood.
“I think what really makes the difference for an abstract painting,” remarked Frederick, “is that you really feel like it is trying to communicate something and that it’s not just decorative or a pattern … The best painting has a motivation behind it, it’s about something… besides putting color on a canvas.”
No wonder abstraction has been used to delve into higher planes of reality, from ornamenting the ceilings of religious buildings to embody the vault of an unknowable heaven to giving rise to the phenomenon of museum-goers crying in front of works by Mark Rothko. Ultimately, the thoughtful exploration of this lively genre by “If Color Could Kill” comes down to, as Brooke Moyse stated, one thing: “That abstract painting is as varied as people themselves.”