A new Robischon exhibit explores the edges of abstraction

For most of the past hundred years, the terms "abstraction" and "contemporary" were more or less synonymous when it came to fine art. In the last twenty years, however, conceptual realism and other non-abstract approaches have come to dominate the field.

But despite the constant challenges abstraction has faced, it has somehow held on, and though it's no longer the main event, it is still a form to be reckoned with.

"Black Watch, I," by Gene Davis, silkscreen on paper.
"Black Watch, I," by Gene Davis, silkscreen on paper.
"Year of the Dog #10," by Judy Pfaff, block print, digital print and hand work on paper.
"Year of the Dog #10," by Judy Pfaff, block print, digital print and hand work on paper.

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Through January 24, Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788, www.robischongallery.com.For a slide show of this exhibit, go to westword.com/slideshow.

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There are obvious reasons for this longevity. After all, nothing says sophistication as readily as abstracts do, and splashes of color — or fields of it — can be orchestrated by skilled artists into beautiful things. Abstracts can also have an instantaneous visual punch, unlike more intellectualized approaches where viewers have to take the time to think in order to understand and thus appreciate a work of art. Plus, abstracts are, for the most part, inherently sincere. They are by definition non-ironic, unlike their rival styles in the postmodern realm, including the aforementioned conceptual realism. For this reason, abstracts do not tend to date as quickly as idea-based expressions do.

This last point is clearly made by Counterpoints at Robischon Gallery, a group show featuring the work of Gene Davis and Judy Pfaff, among several others.

Davis, who's been dead for twenty years, began doing pieces of this sort a half-century ago, while Pfaff has been honing her craft for more than three decades. Yet in each case, their creations look fresh and new. (Surely, part of the reason for this is that both were widely influential, and the artists who have come along since continue to be inspired by their examples.) While Davis and Pfaff are only two of the artists in Counterpoints, they exemplify the show's range as expressed in its title, because despite sharing an interest in abstraction, they are as different as night and day.

Davis was born in 1920 and worked early on as a journalist in Washington, D.C. It was there that he created his first painting, in 1949. At first Davis was inspired by abstract expressionism, but in 1958 he began doing paintings that were made up entirely of hard-edged vertical stripes. This breakthrough was coincidental with similar moves by other artists in the area who began working in reductive styles; they have come to be known as the Washington Color School. Oddly, color-field painters marked both an extension of what abstract expressionists were doing and a rejection of it.

The Davis pieces at Robischon, all of which date to the 1970s, are classic examples of the artist's style. During his lifetime, Davis explained that he would begin with a single color and lay in stripes of it across the picture. He'd then add another color, and another, until the composition was complete. In this way, he established a pleasing tonal rhythm. This approach is easy to see in the pieces from his "Black Watch" series, in which stripes of varying widths and in different colors — including the abundant use of black — are arranged to create a striking visual effect.

Pfaff's work couldn't be more different. While Davis made compositions that were stripped (striped?) to their basic expressions, Pfaff crams her pictures with organically derived shapes, including plants and animals, that are essentially placed on top of one another.

Pfaff was born in London in 1946 and came to this country in the late 1960s. After studying at Washington University and Yale, she established herself as a pioneer in the installation movement of the 1970s. Pfaff would fill a room with a variety of forms that referred to both architecture and nature. In recent years, she has also produced prints, many of which (like those on view at Robischon) are monumental in scope and size.

Some years ago, when I was in New York, I was lucky enough to have seen one of Pfaff's great installations. Based on this (and having seen pictures of others), I can say that her prints are clearly an outgrowth of them, and not just because they are enormous. As in her installations, the prints include what appear to be layers of images piled one on top of another. The four huge prints at Robischon, all from her "Year of the Dog" series, combine skeins of lines used as grounds, on top of which are images of flowers, some of them in silhouette. Two are predominantly red and black, while the other two are done in grayish-blue with black and other shades. Pfaff's compositions are unbelievably complicated, and so is the process by which she makes them — with woodblock techniques combined with digital printing and hand work.

The juxtaposition of Davis's and Pfaff's work is striking, and it could be argued that all of abstraction lies between the two poles they've established; that is doubtless what Jim Robischon and Jennifer Doran had in mind when they organized this show. The rest of the included artists reiterate this dialectic. Some, like Don Voisine, do straight-edged oil paintings that fall in line with Davis. Others, such as Pat Steir, whose works are little more than pours of ink in free-fall down the front of the pictures, are fellow travelers with Pfaff. The rest of the artists in Counterpoints, including Robert Mangold (New York's, not ours), Dan Walsh and Reed Danziger, fall somewhere in between. Most of the artists are internationally renowned, and the show therefore feels like a museum outing more than a gallery offering. Then again, that's Robischon's signature.

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