Ron Gorchov, Noli Me Tangere, 2011, oil on linen, 44 1/2 x 36 x 10 inches (courtesy Cheim & Read) photo: Brett Baker

This is the third in a series of a quarterly letters, which will cover painting shows in greater New York.

Paintings shouldn’t simply be seen, they should change the viewer, suspend him or her in an altered moment. Although this is the hope each time a visitor enters a gallery, it is a rarity. A recent visit to exhibitions by Adolph Gottlieb, Ron Gorchov, and Douglas Florian proved one’s sense of time and place can, indeed, be altered by a colored surface. 1

Entering Adolph Gottlieb: Gravity, Suspension, Motion at Pace Gallery, one experiences a lifting sensation, a sense of weightlessness. This is striking because rarely does one’s experience of a painting so closely mirror that of the forms within.  Twelve large paintings are spread throughout two spacious galleries. They tower over the visitor; the tallest painting rises 11 feet high. Forms pulsate optically and physically weightless in their dissociation from the canvas edge.

In Gottlieb’s signature ‘Burst’ paintings, the space is divided in half. In the lower half, the viewer encounters a “burst” or “blast” of paint – an energetic, abstract gesture. The gesture is contained, as if frozen in time. In the upper half, a single round shape pulsates, its indistinct edges expanding and contracting. The burst forms, which imply action, are in fact action stopped, suspended rather than completed. Gottlieb’s forms hover and remain independent. They defy gravity.

Gottlieb varies these forms by shape, color, and size.  In the most dramatic example, Spray (1959), a bright, cadmium yellow burst sits atop a rich umber ground while a compact black orb shines darkly above. The quiet canvas Expanding (1962) holds the opposite wall. In it, a round, diffuse cloud of dusty blue and a rust colored burst co-exist in a pale green ground.  Another painting is shockingly spare. In Aftermath (1959), only the pulsing orb exists, high above the viewer in a silvery aqueous space. The painting is reminiscent of the most spare of Turner’s Folkestone watercolors, yet the scale is galactic. Turner’s radiant sun here becomes a glowing, distant planet.

Weightlessness remained with me as I crossed the street to Cheim & Read gallery where I encountered the paintings of Ron Gorchov. In these paintings (as in Gottlieb’s bursts) the forms hover in an aqueous space – they never touch. Gorchov’s thinly washed forms are an ethereal counterpoint to the sculptural solidity of his saddle-shaped supports.

In painting, the sense of dynamic tension is most often achieved via internal forms pushing and pulling against each other and the external edge. The push/pull in Gorchov’s work is between painting as image and painting as object. As in the works of Robert Ryman, materials, paint, canvas, stretcher, and staples, share centerstage.  Unlike Ryman, Gorchov also preserves the image. Two forms hover in each saddle painting, and while their slow contours echo the saddle-shaped support, their ameoba-like appearance conjures the primordial.

A second series of work by Gorchov is also represented by two multi-panel paintings.  In them Gorchov stacks six canvases vertically. Overlapping, with a curved, slightly flared top edge, the panels form a type of polychrome phalanx. In the company of these works, the saddle-shapes become shields, and their construction suddenly seems archaic – modernist push/pull is displaced by a sense of antiquity.

Douglas Florian’s abstract paintings also conjure the ancient and timeless. They have the feel of rare artifacts, not by virtue of their scale (they are modest but not small) but by their time-worn feel.  The paintings are on plywood, seemingly found rather than crafted. Slightly notched, with abraded edges, the supports feel ancient yet enduring. Florian integrates this worn physicality with vigorous, sensitively painted abstract forms.

Douglas Florian, Bewail and weep, 2010-2011, oil on wood, 24 x 20 inches (courtesy BravinLee Programs) photo: Brett Baker

In paintings like Bewail and Weep (2010-2011), richly layered surfaces and jewel-like color, feel like newly discovered fragments from Pompeii or large leaves from an illuminated text.  Standing in front of Florian’s work there is a sense of stopped time.  While his color, gesture, and surface recall Roman wall painting they also evoke Philip Guston or Milton Resnick, reminding us that painting is universal, a language shared across time and space.


— Brett Baker


1 “We should remember that a picture – before being a war horse, a nude woman, or telling some other story, is essentially a flat surface, covered with colors arranged in a particular pattern.” Maurice Denis, ‘Definition of Neo-Traditionism,’ Art In Theory: 1815-1900, Edited by Charles Harrison, Paul Wood, and Jason Gaiger. Blackwell Publishing, Ltd. 1998, p. 863

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