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.

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.

Beginning in the middle space but mostly consigned to the back Viewing Room is another show, Colorado Abstract, that's been paired with Counterpoints. Careful readers may note that the show's title is the same as that of a book I co-authored with Mary Chandler, but the exhibit is not officially associated with that writing project, which is why I think I can speak about the Robischon feature without there being a conflict of interest. However, I won't be writing about the shows at the Kirkland Museum or the Center for Visual Art, which are based on the book, either now or in the future.

Robischon is not a Colorado art specialist, nor is it particularly associated with abstraction, but as this small endeavor proves, the gallery represents a number of Colorado's most significant abstract artists. Among this august group are painters Terry Maker and Trine Bumiller, and sculptors Carl Reed and Scott Chamberlin. Maker, whose triumphant show at MCA Denver just closed this past weekend, is represented by some of her signature sliced paintings, in which she embeds material in resin blocks and then slices and polishes them to create flat panels. Bumiller has one of her multi-part abstracts, in which she places images based on nature on separate panels and then assembles them into constructivist arrangements. Reed is an old-line modernist who shows metal and stone assemblages that are something like three-dimensional line drawings. Chamberlin, who works in clay, does blobby, wall-hung anthropomorphic forms.

The show also includes work by Tony Coulter, Halim Al-Karim and Ana Maria Hernando, who are lesser known than the other four but equally talented. Coulter has a smeary picture that is a cross between pattern painting and abstract expressionism, an unlikely combination of influences. Al-Karim and Hernando are conceptual artists, with the former doing a painting on canvas that has been pierced so that much of the picture plane is made up of voids, while Hernando is represented by a pile of clear plastic disks, each with a cloth flower in it, the whole thing arranged in a circle.

Times being what they are, I've been off for a few weeks and have thus gotten somewhat behind schedule with my reviews. What that means for you is that I've only just gotten around to reviewing these shows at Robischon, and they are both about to close. If you haven't seen them yet, do so before Saturday.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia

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