by David M. Roth
Harvey Quaytman (1937-2002) borrowed from practically every ism of the 20th century, yet he adhered to none. In his early investigations into line, color, form, materiality, atmosphere and texture he combined elements of Minimalism and Process Art, only to veer, in the last 12 years of his working life, into forms of geometric abstraction that evoked Constructivism and Suprematism. None of these transitions were simple or complete. Each new phase contained vestiges of what came before, and the ever-changing formats through which he expressed his ideas foreclosed the possibility of creating what we today call brand identity. Consequently, during his lifetime, Quaytman held the distinction of being an artist’s artist: revered by his peers, included in a many important museum exhibitions, but rarely, except in galleries, seen as the main attraction.
Against the Static, the artist’s first-ever career retrospective, serves as a long-overdue corrective. This sumptuous, chronologically presented exhibition, organized by Apsara DiQuinzio, BAMPFA’s curator of modern and contemporary art, brings to the fore Quaytman’s unique contributions. These include immense shaped canvases; multi-part canvases dredged in luminous colors; and geometric paintings into which he inserted roughed-up textures and illusionistic spatial perspectives that blow straight past the clichés of nonobjective painting. Together, they make for one of the most thrilling painting shows to hit the Bay Area this year.
Born in 1937 in Far Rockaway, Queens, Quaytman earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts from the Boston Museum School and Tufts University in 1959. He moved to New York in 1964 and quickly immersed himself in the downtown scene, which was then brimming with avant-garde activity. His studio neighbors included fellow artists Brice Marden, Ron Gorchov, Jake Berthot, David Diao and James Rosenquist. Philip Guston, he counted among his closest friends. These were, it’s worth remembering, the painting-is-dead years – decades, actually, beginning in the mid-1960s — when painting was being attacked from all sides: by Pop, which took consumer culture as its subject; by Minimalism which sought to drain art of content and human handiwork, and by Conceptualism which wanted to dispense with objects altogether. Abstract Expressionism, the dominant force during the prior two decades, had, by the early 1960s, become outré, due to the alleged excesses of its practitioners and the bullying tactics of its chief theorist, Clement Greenberg.
Quaytman, like many of his peers, seemed to operate above fray. It wasn’t hard. Rents were cheap, freelance work plentiful, and New York’s slide into near-bankruptcy was still somewhere off in the future. The art market, as we know it today, didn’t exist, which meant that experiments could be undertaken with little or no financial risk. Still, from the start, it was evident that Quaytman understood the problems facing painting. The biggest, as Donald Judd observed, is “that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall.” Quaytman devoted his career to probing Modernism for ways to bend that formulation without ever actually breaking it.
Against the Static opens with four canvases from the early 1960s that show Quaytman in thrall to de Kooning and Arshile Gorky. They’re competent tributes, but nothing more, though it’s tantalizing to see how some of the curved forms in these works reappear later on. They’re followed nearby by series of poured-paint-on-paper works carrying biomorphic forms that bespeak the influence of Morris Louis. That experiment was short-lived, but from it Quaytman took lessons that would, quite literally, shape his subsequent output. In 1969 he began soaking wood in water to make stretchers, which he bent into curvilinear forms, anchored at the ends by geometric shapes. He wrapped both in canvas and coated them with pigment poured into taped-off troughs, producing gigantic rectangles cleaved by rollercoaster-like arcs
with yawning gaps of open wall space at the center or the sides. The idea, it seemed, was to address Judd’s concern, that painting become more object-like, more overtly 3-dimensional. Six such objects fill an entire gallery, every one of them a jaw-dropper. At first I was at a loss to understand why. After all, shaped canvases dominated abstract painting during the 1960s, so the idea, even then, wasn’t new. Quaytman’s stand out both for what they contain and what they lack. Simply put, they conflate the ideological codes by which painting and sculpture were then conceived and made. They exhibit the volume and mass characteristic of Minimalism, but also the hands-on, earthy features of Process Art, visible in frayed edges where the canvases meet, in dripped, splotchy paint puddles, and in mildly dissonant colors, like the salmon pink that bumps up against indigo in Little Egypt (1969). What they notably lack is the muscular posturing and baroque excesses that would, in the mid-1970s, show up in works by Frank Stella and others of similar ilk. Some of Quaytman’s canvases from this period even contain humor. You see it in punning titles like Pearls Before Pencils and Second Cupola Capella (both 1969). Later in the exhibition, there’s a vitrine filled with notebooks. They mainly detail Quaytman’s experiments with color, but if you look closely you’ll find wordplay rivaling that of William T. Wiley. (“The frank incense of free enterprise sets decks awash and lazy susans spinning.”) Had the artist allowed that aspect of his personality into his canvases, who knows what might have transpired.
As is, there’s plenty to see and savor. The highlights of the exhibition come at its midpoint, in a gallery filled with "Rocker" paintings, so named for their rounded bottom edges. Perched on open-at-the-top bases similar to those in the preceding series, they look as if they could cantilever back and forth – if pushed. It was on these near-kinetic shapes that Quaytman conducted his most audacious color experiments. The Consolation of Logic (1973), a 15-foot-wide-wide expanse of radiant blues, has the surface texture of a lava field raked by a bear claw; its deep ridges, surrounded at the edges by blackened craquelure, give off the look of a geologic event. It glows as if backlit. Two other paintings from the series, Araras and Sine Nomine Singer (both 1973), resemble cinder-flecked moonscapes. Their shimmering colors
never quite coalesce into nameable hues. Quaytman created this perceptual ambiguity by coating his canvases with Rhoplex, an acrylic emulsion, to which he then added layers of powdered pigment, mixing them on the canvases with wallpaper brushes and sweeping them across the surfaces before they were fully dry. The result was deep ridges of pure pigment and visible fissures. As DiQuinzio, the curator, points out in a superbly informative catalog essay, these effects weren’t just byproducts of Quaytman’s unorthodox technique. Aided by close relationships with pigment dealers Leonard Bocour and Georg Kremer, the artist conducted extensive research and experimentation, locating and employing obscure pigments, some of which were rarely used in painting. To show what that entailed, the museum conveniently stations a pair of catalogs nearby, four pages of which contain, dead-on accurate PMS-like color swatches accompanied by explanations of their history and provenance. Plus, an annotated list of all the additives that the artist used to create his signature effects.
Some of the best show up in Quaytman’s geometric paintings. Twenty-four in all, they occupy a third of the show, and at a distance you might take them for re-heated Mondrian, Malevich or Albers. Differences, however, more than outweigh similarities. The main feature of these compositions is a cruciform shape, appearing either as a central element or as an anchor for other shapes. But unlike, say, Malevich or Ad Rheinhardt, who used the cross as a spiritual signifier, Quaytman employed it as a neutral, non-religious shape, flanking it with a recursive group of other forms (triangles, squares, clipped rectangles) painted in contrasting colors. These repeating bilateral variations make for an epic exercise in serialism. And yet, each painting delivers unique optical sensations, unique rhythms, and a seemingly endless number of navigational pathways that skirt illusionism without ever quite crossing into it. Some of the most effective works in this segment of the exhibition — Age of Iron (1987), Wanderer (1987) and Seek and Hide (1991) — are those in which the artist applied iron filings to the surfaces and splashed them with water, producing a light-capturing, semi-transparent patina. Austere, a word often used to describe hard edge geometric abstraction, never once springs to mind. Quaytman’s colors, lines and repeating forms galvanize the eye and keep it moving.
A string of near-monochrome works (e.g. Angels Hair and two Untitled works all from 1987) arrayed across two adjacent walls show Quaytman employing sandpaper-like surface textures created from acrylic pigment mixed with ground glass. Like the works of Mary Corse, they reflect and refract light, but unlike Corse’s they don’t require you to find the correct viewing angle; in these, kernels of embedded glass flicker like distant stars from almost any vantage point.
The balance of the exhibition features Quaytman’s most pared-down works. These, at first glance, really do read as crosses, key examples being Half and Half and The Illusionist (both 1997). But here, as with so much else in Quaytman’s art, there’s a lot of associative slippage. Subdivisions demarcated by contrasting colors break the cruciform shapes into long skinny
rectangles, tossing the eye back and forth between “positive” and “negative” space, while turning the open wall space beyond the forms – the actual negative space — into a something very close to an active pictorial element. These paintings challenge you to see the cross as something other than a religious emblem, and for the most part they succeed.
“One of my main concerns,” Quaytman said in a 1997 interview, “is that the cross not be static, and not read as a cross first and last. I mean, one can recognize it as a cross, but I like to do things to it visually, and make it appear either longer on one side or shorter on another. In other words, not square, not static. My whole enterprise is against static.” Against the Static affirms that desire and validates it — many times over.
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Harvey Quaytman: “Against the Static” @ Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through January 27, 2019.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.