Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Paintings I Like, pt. 20

Ilya Bolotowsky, Large Architectural, 1951. Oil on canvas, 65" x 91."

New York Cool at NYU's Grey Art Gallery is pretty good, although not all that it could have been - it was limited by the fact that all of it's pictures and objects were drawn strictly from the NYU collection, which means that there are quite a few lesser works by major artists. Despite this, Ilya Bolotowsky's Large Architectural from 1951 makes the show well worth the trip.

At first glance, the painting looks like it was made by one of the many American followers of Mondrian, and to an extent this is true, but the canvas picks up the thread that Mondrian had only begun to exploit in the works made close to his death. In the Dutch painter's earlier modular paintings, the black grid simultaneously acts as a kind of mortar between the colored panels and as straps which lash them down, emphasizing the two-dimensionality of the picture plane - that pure two-dimensionality being a principle preoccupation of the painters associated with "De Stijl."

In Broadway Boogie Woogie from 1942-43, however, the black grid is omitted, swapped instead for predominantly yellow bands with colors of varying degrees of contrast superimposed over and in-between them. The result is a deeper spatiality, but more importantly, a constant shifting of foreground and background position among the colors as the eye moves along the bands. In spite of the dynamic color relations within the bands, though, the large white areas in-between them seldom lose their identification as ground.

In Bolotowsky's large canvas there is no such negative space per se, no space which can ever be wholly identified as ground. Mondrian's linear grid is omitted entirely, replaced by interlocking rectangles of white, grey, and the three primaries. The surface shimmers as the blocks rise and fall, constantly changing position front to back and back to front, always resisting stable spatial identification. The result is a kind of speed and dynamism which is quite surprising considering there are no diagonals in sight.

While the geometric figuration and primary palette readily refer to Mondrian, the all-over nature of the composition and lack of a fixed focal area make strong reference to Pollock's drip paintings (which were still news in 1951) and I think this is in reality the stronger influence. The show is up for another two weeks, and I recommend it if only for a trip to the basement where this seldom-seen gem is hidden away.