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Formalities and Mannerisms

"Transversal #4," by Richard Serra, one-color etching.

Richard Serra is one of the few living artists who can accurately be described as a modern master. He is best known for his monumental sculptures, which are installed in public places all over the world. But Serra has also long created works on paper. A group of these makes up the first part of Transversal, a strikingly elegant two-part exhibit of contemporary abstraction at Robischon Gallery.

Serra emerged on the art scene in the creative hothouse of New York City in the 1960s and '70s. He was part of a generation that pushed phenomenological understandings of art, which resulted in works that were severe, challenging and, above all, about art itself. The artists in this group included strict minimalists such as Donald Judd and Carl Andre, as well as classic formalists like Mark di Suvero and even conceptualists of the Robert Smithson stripe. They plumbed the depths of the art-ness of art and believed they were creating the ultimate -- by which I mean last -- artistic expressions possible. By their logic, artists of the future would simply continue to follow the paths they had pioneered.

They were both right and wrong about this: Although art has continued to develop along other theoretical lines, this generation of artists was at work during what turned out to be the final chapter of first-phase modernism, so for a while, it really did look like they were the last of their kind. By the 1980s, modernism was being supplanted by post-modernism, and the whole art scene was balkanizing into mannerism, with formalism, in particular, on the wane.

But that was then and this is now, and formalist approaches -- which have kept going all along, albeit on the sidelines -- are back in a big way. In the past decade, the blossoming of neo-modern and a renewed interest in old modern has bolstered formalism's position in contemporary art. It only makes sense that formalism would make a comeback: How can you beat a visual-art strategy that says art should be about itself?

Serra, whose signature style involves the use of unaltered materials, is a good example of this revitalized modernism. For his most characteristic work, he uses steel or lead plates that are casually canted against the ground or against other metal plates. The elements of the sculptures are typically not attached with hardware but held in place by the force of gravity. And although the act of leaning or tilting usually strikes something of a straight diagonal line, Serra often bends the diagonal into an arch.

The prints hanging at Robischon are direct corollaries to these classic sculptures -- and not just because they have similar shapes. The paper works are from three distinct groups -- the "Extension," "Trajectory" and "Transversal" series -- but despite their separate monikers, all three are very closely related and look essentially the same. In each, there is a deep, black, multi-dimensional color field that has a massive presence, just as Serra's sculptures do. Plus, the prints are basically about ink, the way the sculptures are essentially about metal. This last similarity gives the two a kinship in concept as well as appearance.

Serra has been making prints for more than thirty years, with Robischon presenting them through an arrangement with the artist's longtime printmaker, California's GEL Gemini. The pieces in this show are aquatints -- one-color etchings -- in black ink on white paper. Knowing this, I expected to see the etching plate's register marks as an indentation on the paper, but I didn't. André Heller, Robischon's senior associate, explained that the etching plates were larger than the paper, so there are no outlines of them.

The Serra section of Transversal is made up of only six works, but they are so large, and the images are so bold, that they completely command the pair of spaces to either side of the gallery's entrance. These prints are absolutely majestic, and the atmosphere they create in the dimly lit rooms (a precaution against fading) makes the front of Robischon seem like a chapel. This transcendent mood is enhanced by the gorgeous hanging: The simple pieces play off one another perfectly, with each in its own, discrete place.

The Serra prints succeed on two levels in this gallery: overall and up close. Standing in the middle of the space, viewers immediately perceive the unbelievable graphic power of the simple compositions. The heavy black bars set against the creamy white paper are eye-catching, to say the least. Examining the prints up close, however, elicits a very different effect, because the paper was impressed with a lively, three-dimensional surface that's positively topographical, if not downright baroque. The tension between the bare-bones compositions and the full-bodied fields works beautifully.

The second part of Transversal, installed in Robischon's middle spaces, also stands on its own. This section is a group show comprising contemporary abstractions by artists in the gallery's stable. Much of it is post-minimal in style, so it connects well with the Serras in front.

That's certainly the case with the post-minimal mood of the two small wall sculptures by Seattle's Peter Millett: "Beak," in carved and painted fir, and "Green Shift," in carved and painted cedar. They're installed just inside the middle space, but they're small and easy to miss, so be sure not to. Millett's sculptures look to be influenced formally by totem poles and other objects made by the Indians of the Northwest Coast. He uses the full shape of logs that he then cuts into segments and arranges into simple compositions. In "Beak," four sections are put together in a symmetrical arrangement that resembles an open bird's beak. In "Green Shift," the parts are assembled so that the left half of the sculpture is an inverted image of the right.

Adjacent to the Milletts are lyrical paintings in oil and alkyd on polyester over panel by Jamie Brunson of San Francisco. These are also post-minimal, in that they are monochrome color fields laid over with historic decorative patterns, such as the blossoms on twigs in the all-red "Garden" or the Spanish Baroque tile pattern in the green-on-green "Net." Although the paintings' finely blended surfaces are luxurious and their patterns traditional, the monochrome palette and the juxtaposition of simple to elaborate still link them to the Serras.

Similar in feeling to the Milletts is a trio of simple wall sculptures by Washington, D.C.-based artist Jae Ko that are hung over the information desk. The sculptures are made of rolls of paper that Ko soaks in sumi inks and manipulates into organic shapes while wet. The ink stains the paper in varying shades of the same color.

To the left of the Kos is a single painting by emerging artist Tony Coulter, who was discovered at Pirate a couple of years ago and is the only Denver artist in Transversal. The Coulter, in oil on linen, is titled "Chord," and it's an atmospheric color field with a subtle horizontal orientation suggested by stripes of paint. The colors gradually change from orange at the bottom to yellow at the top. It's a shame to see that only one of Coulter's pieces was included here, especially since "Chord" strikes me as being uncharacteristic for the artist. Is it an odd painting out, or does it represent a new direction? It's impossible to say from this show.

Off to one side, hanging on the long wall adjacent to the Coulter, are a couple of large and handsome Ricardo Mazal paintings in oil on linen. Some may recall that Mazal, a Mexican-born artist who maintains studios in New York and Santa Fe, had a long relationship with Denver's Rule Gallery, where he showed his work for years. So it's a surprise to see him showing up at Robischon. It turns out that the relationship between Rule and Mazal went bad last year because of a financial -- as opposed to creative -- dispute between the gallery and the artist.

Though Mazal dabbles in color-field abstraction, his paintings are not really coming out of minimalism, like so much else in this show. Rather, his style is derived from abstract expressionism, as he is primarily an automatist, and his surfaces are lively and painterly.

One of the Mazals, "Enero 7.05," is calligraphic and done in a subtle earth-toned palette, while the earlier "Enero 2.05" has an all-over composition in which nearly the entire surface is covered by broad, heavily painted red stripes. Mazal's approach is very similar to Coulter's. In fact, there's a Coulter in the back storage room that looks outrageously similar to Mazal's "Enero 2.05" -- so much so that it really appears as though the same artist did both. (Hey, come to think of it, I've never seen Mazal and Coulter in the same room!)

The last of the artists in Transversal is Gary Komarin, a first-generation neo-expressionist who lives in New York and was a protegé of the late Philip Guston. The association with Guston is not hard to see, especially in the tentative, scribbled and scratched-out approach to drawn elements. His work also reminds me of the late Jean-Michel Basquiat's paintings.

These Komarins are very beautiful. In "The Last Ride of General Sartoris," in mixed media on canvas, Komarin painted a mustard-colored field over another field, allowing the second field's dark lines to show through to the surface. Rounded square shapes in paint and oil stick are clustered at the top. Nearby is "Van Dyke's VanDyke," in lavenderish gray over pink, with charcoal, white and electric-green accents. The Komarins represent a kind of abstraction that comes down to us in an unreconstructed way -- exactly like those Serras up front.

Transversal is a beautiful show -- well, two beautiful shows. Taken separately or together, it's as good as a good museum show. And that's one of the things that impresses me most about the city's top commercial galleries: Despite the fact that they are simply small businesses trying to make a go of it, places like Robischon make substantial and ongoing contributions to our region's culture. So the least we can do is support their efforts.