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Ronnie Landfield
New Works On Paper
@ The Claudia Carr Gallery, NYC
   
A review by Mark Daniel Cohen
   

 After patient consideration, one will see most areas of long-standing dispute separate out into two poles of opinion, two categories of viewpoint. Despite the throng of details in the spectrum of positions that develop about any question of general concern, there will be in most instances two, and precisely two, families of attitude — for alternatives are set in pairs — and they will be exactly opposed, almost tailored opposites.

 Fields of disagreement that cannot be easily and readily resolved generally result from differences not of intellectual stance nor even of foundational beliefs, but of disposition. People come in types, in differing types of personalities, and persons of similar type will tend to congregate about like opinions. People simply see differently, and when they do and vie, their oppositions will withstand all argument. Preferences are beyond analysis, for they are rooted in personal nature.

 Art criticism comes in two types. In spite of the multitude of philosophies, principles of analysis, and logics of taste, there is in the end one basic choice and two alternatives to choose between. The two essential positions do not disagree over the significances of styles and traditions, for those are matters of unending conjecture, and originality of interpretation is felt to be an unalloyed good. These opinions don't group. Nor do they engage each other over the legitimacy of new forms of expression, for the necessity for the continual revitalization of art is generally accepted. The dispute is over expectation, over what one wants from art, over what art should do and what art is for. The arena of dispute is desire, and there is no arguing desire. The two alternatives in art criticism may be identified as the rationalist and the irrationalist. The rationalist positions, regardless of their variety of specific theories about the development of artistic conventions and the role art plays in society, all want one thing: clarity of statement. The purpose of art is construed to be the making of a statement on some issue or another of interest to more than just the artist. The conventions of art are taken to be conventions of human behavior which follow practices and norms that develop through the ages. Within those conventions, a clear statement is expected, a statement that can be interpreted and explained with precision.

 The irrationalist positions, throughout the array of their various species, expects from art not a statement but a revelation. The purpose of art is to be the disclosure, in a manner that is more incantory than explanatory, of something that is both true and beyond rational conception. Art exists because reason is insufficient. The art historian Herbert Read put with some clarity this matter that is inherently less than clear. He once observed that the function of art is "To create an icon, a plastic symbol of the artist's inner sense of numinosity or mystery, or perhaps merely of the unknown dimensions of feeling and sensation." Art is to reveal the unknown, the unknown depths of the psyche, or of something greater than the psyche. One of the difficulties with the rationalist posture is that it cannot account for art per se. By expecting and, in its expressed preferences, requiring art to make clear statements — in essence, to communicate (which is pointless if the communication cannot be understood) — it leaves art with nothing to do that cannot be done, and done better, by direct expression, by expository writing, by composing an essay. (Which is what critics do.) And the conventions of art must of needs go unexplained, for in terms of clarity of meaning, they are arbitrary. If the issue is precision of decipherable communication, what can be the purpose behind the development of such forms as the monument, the triumphal arch, the religious icon? They become givens, and the history of their changes of style receives the explanation, is granted decipherable causes. Nor can the rationalist disposition easily deal with abstraction. Without a cogent, unambiguous, and stable meaning — which pure abstraction obviously lacks, and to which any sizable degree of stylization is superfluous — the work of art must be seen as pointless. For abstraction to have a meaning, it must have a meaning such as Read desired, it must function according to what Read called "correspondences."

 "The artist is nearly always a man who is acutely aware of what Baudelaire called 'correspondences' — that is to say, real but irrational associations between disparate objects. To the poet, these correspondences may be of colour, sound or rhythm, but to the sculptor they are always of shape."

 Well, the artist is not "nearly always a man," but the point holds, and for the painter also, the correspondences are of color and rhythm. Or rather, the correspondence is between color and rhythm, on the one hand, and complex thoughts, on the other.

 For the rationalist disposition, visual art works by resemblances — the works signify what they look like. For the irrationalist, visual art works by correspondences, and optical resemblance is beside the point. One has to feel the significance. This difference between resemblance and correspondence amounts to the difference between the pictorial and the formal. The pictorial is what the visual experience looks like; the formal is what such attributes as shape and hue suggest in other ways. Pure form and color denote subtle and, ultimately, otherwise unspecifiable realizations that they in no sense resemble or rationally define. Form and color are a language of their own, a language different from the verbal, a language we are all implicitly capable of understanding. It is this language that permits abstraction to be significant.

 Such considerations are particularly pertinent in the case of Ronnie Landfield, whose work has, since the late 1960's, been a model of the abstract aesthetic ambition. Landfield was initially one of a number of artists known, in some versions of recent art history, as Lyrical Abstractionists. The list of these painters included such well-known figures as Brice Marden and Larry Poons, as well as, among others, Dan Christensen, Ronald Davis, Ralph Humphrey, William Pettet, and Peter Young. Inspired by Abstract Expressionism, they continued that aesthetic impulse. Yet, their influence and much of their work was eclipsed by the prominence of several competing movements, most obviously Pop Art. By the 1970's, a number of them were exhibiting primarily in Europe.

 But not all, and Landfield was among the lucky. He has been exhibiting in New York throughout the majority of his public career. And his luck has been ours. There is and has been no dearth of abstract painters, but Landfield's paintings are distinctive for displaying and instructing us in one of the authentic purposes of pure abstraction.

 I know Landfield reasonably well, have had the opportunity and privilege to visit his studio and see a large quantity of his works. His capabilities as a colorist are impressive. He has an intimate and intricate sense of harmonies and rhythms, and an extensive knowledge of how to establish and direct vibratory contrasts. In his hands, arrays of colors are not simply instances of spontaneous expression, though they may often be generated in that way — rather, they offer a significance more penetrating and more than personal, they instigate an awareness of an area of existence that is intangible but as immediate and perceptible as a landscape. His organizations of color become registers of purified disposition. They resonate with qualities of mood that are impersonal and essentially human, that are aspects of a shared interior landscape. Taken together, his works offer a catalogue of the atmospheres of our inner lives.

 The current exhibition at Claudia Carr presents 20 works done in acrylic on paper, all from this year and last. They are roughly evenly split between those that derive from observation and those that do not — at least, not from visual observation. They differ in a number of ways from Landfield's typical oil paintings. The oil paintings are, of course, far larger — Landfield works normally on a monumental scale. The largest of the works on paper is just over four feet high; most of them are far smaller. Landfield has generally practiced stain painting. As works on paper, naturally the paintings here are done in a different manner, with bold and blocky strokes of crystalline color set in apposition on the surface of the support. Although the inspiration for Landfield and his contemporaries was Abstract Expressionism, these works bear a stronger relationship to Tachism and Art Informel, and particularly to the art of Nicolas de Stael, to whom Landfield dedicates one of these paintings. Both art movements, to the degree they were distinct movements, aimed at applying color to denote the half-world of the unconscious life that escapes detection by rationality and direct observation, and Landfield is a direct inheritor.

 The paintings that derive from observation are stylizations of landscapes, but they employ the observation of nature merely as a point of departure. They are landscape motifs in little more than the sense in which any painting divided horizontally is a landscape motif. The suggestions of horizon, sky, and earth or sea are merely the scaffolding on which Landfield hangs his orchestration of colors, which distill and separate out the moods we all derive from atmosphere time of day, quality of light, weather. In essence, he strips away the outer facts from the inner, making the inner world all the more distinct. His Sun In My Eyes, 1998 is purely the sheer blinding dazzle of a dawning recognition that bleaches out every other thought and detail — it is the overwhelming tone of realization. In Rocks Against The Sea (For Nicolas De Stael), 1998, an overlapping brickwork of jewel-like colors replaces the white glistening of brilliant water on the stones of the shore, every spark of light a different inspiration rendered in its own distinct hue.

But it is the works of pure abstraction, with their colors positioned in patterns that come from no visual observation, that are the most impressive. Each is a record of perception purified of the facts being perceived, the inner life isolated from the outer world, a revealing of something we never perceive in isolation, unless an artist shows it to us. Each is like a verb without a noun, an action perceived for itself because we are no longer oriented on the actor, the response of perception itself perceived because we are not focusing on the object of the perception.

 Sonnet For Japan, 1998 is a formal arrangement of motion, colored with the tone of a flash of insight. A horizontal strip of white, edged in brown, streaks across a field of dark grey no "thing" is depicted, no object is being seen. There is no thought to the experience; it is the mood of insight we feel. Landfield's three-part suite — Violin, 1998; Viola, 1998; and Violette, 1998 — is color received as pure harmonics. The three paintings are similar compositions that differ only by palette, and their palettes differ tonally, much as do the instruments that give them their titles. If one were to propose that all perception, when divorced from what is being perceived, is a matter of vibratory patterns, these works would stand as evidence.

 To my eyes, and to the rest of me, the highlight of the exhibition is a small work that one might easily walk right past: Voice, 1998. The title is exactly correct. The painting is a disposition of dark green, blues, reds, and orange, and the colors come across like a base note with overtones. Something like a Tibetan chant, or like a speaking voice, the hues harmonize into a single, complex tone, yet remain distinct. One could almost hear this painting, and I would be willing to testify that its compass is baritone.

 It is the compass of perception and the moods that come of perception that constitutes Landfield's real subject matter. When he is at his best, as he is here, he possesses a practiced and piercing ability to render the inner life in distributions of simple color, and he requires that his works not be thought over and speculated about, but sensed intuitively. His talent is for disclosing the purified inward tone, the inflected atmosphere of consciousness, which evades all rational analysis, or rationalist interpretation. And he does it with an ease and a finesse of touch and judgment that make such hidden aspects of experience seem obvious and precise — as precise as a rock, as observable as the sun, as evident as a landscape.

 

— Mark Daniel Cohen
This review originally appeared in Review magazine, April 1, 1999

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