Friday, July 29, 2011

Zak Prekop Makes Good Paintings

by Stephen Cummings

Zak Prekop, 2011, Untitled

Zak Prekop makes good paintings — at least as far as I can tell, given the selection currently on view at the Carnegie Museum. As part of Pittsburgh's 2011 Biennial, the museum has assembled a group of works ranging from generously sized found objects to stacks of a newsprint comic book to sculpture that urges the use of 3D glasses. The sampling makes Prekop's flat canvases appear downright traditional, even as they thwart expectations. While much else in the show seems to be clambering (yes, clambering) for attention — albeit with a fairly uniform detachment — Prekop's works stand out from the others not because they stretch farther, but rather because they hang back, waiting for you to take notice. Do.

In total there are seven paintings, roughly human in size. I say 'paintings', though all but one of these pieces include collaged paper. They represent a breed of abstraction somewhat reminiscent of the irregular, amorphous color forms of Ellsworth Kelly, as well as the great collages of Henri Matisse, which he called "drawing with scissors." Two pieces in fact are straight collage in the Matisse tradition, but with their cut paper shapes adhered to the backs of their stretched, bare canvases — and minus the color. Much as these predecessors, Prekop is drawing with the edges of his shapes. This as opposed to forming the edges of those shapes through his drawing, just one of the apparent contradictions that makes the work so engaging.

If there is any expression in these forms at all, perhaps it is to be found in the edges, but taken with the work's other elements, a cool remove is constantly established. Where there is color, it tends to be muted. Where there is pattern, it is interrupted. Where texture is evident, it is ever used to emphasize these paintings' stubborn flatness. Even when offering up a deep, Yves Klein blue, or running blue and red racing stripes across a canvas, Prekop deliberately interrupts his compositions, substituting reticence for would-be boldness. Fields of paint are broken up to make their holds on the canvases merely tentative. Much of what is presented seems as though it has already been peeled away. There is nothing of Agnes Martin's search for the sublime in the patterning here. Something so grand is necessarily undermined. We're not allowed to grab hold of anything in considering this work, as though we're repeatedly being told No, it can't be.

This is precisely these paintings' allure. Because nothing is asserted without due contradiction, a skepticism is instilled that is either melancholy or refreshing, or probably both. Without being allowed to fall wholly into any one illusion, we must enter each deliberately, aware of the impossibility of the journey, but willing to indulge nonetheless, just for the moment. What Zak Prekop has offered is a space stripped of presumption, where everything must be taken as false before anything can be accepted as true. The result is a group of works that do not ask you to come in, but, once you have, are reluctant to let you out.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Another On Kawara

by Stephen Cummings

On Kawara, 1978, Apr. 27, 1978

My compliments to the Carnegie Museum of Art for hanging their collection chronologically. The practice is in no way unusual of course, but in this particular configuration it allowed me to experience an old artist in a new and supremely satisfying way. I've seen On Kawara's paintings before, those brazenly direct canvases putting forward nothing but a date. Oct.31,1978. Apr.24,1990. If you don't know about the Today Series, it might make you go, Huh, someone painted a date. If you do know, it sort of makes you go, Huh, he really does paint the dates. The experience definitely has a slant of novelty, but the paintings are more than that. There's a Minimal appeal to the work; clean, white letters on flat, dark grounds; and there's something vaguely profound about the act of constructing the date and offering it up for consideration, as though the day itself were being made, or would not have otherwise been. Most often you'll see these canvases alone, single examples amid the throb of post-modern (are we calling it that?) exuberance, or reticence, or reductive, deconstructive explication. At other times you might find two or three together, a little huddling group looking skeptically at the other artists' paintings. Why so showy, Ellsworth Kelly? Then there are those retrospectives, which I have not seen myself, but that pictures indicate are filled with nothing but date paintings, great, stark gatherings of day upon day, powerful in their uniformity.

At the Carnegie Museum my experience was different. Perusing the Scaife Galleries from present to past I first came upon Kawara's Feb. 29, 1988, a small, grey to black object in the classic Kawara style. My reaction was typical, something along the lines of, Ah, On Kawara. Little more thought was given. I've seen these, after all; my visit was not interrupted. Farther on however, in another gallery, I found myself considering Apr. 27, 1978. Wait, hadn't I just seen On Kawara? Confused, I backtracked to find the first painting. Indeed I had. So little notice had I given the first time that I still was unsure whether my mind was playing tricks on me when confronted with the second, red painting. Now I could compare them in my mind; I had forgotten some of these Today paintings came in color. The pleasure began to set in. Around another wall, 19 Jul. 68. This one was again grey-black (more grey and less black?), but with rounded lettering, more like the free-loving ‘60s. I laughed out loud.

Needless to say, I enjoyed the surprise. Setting aside the novelty, however, there is much to recommend this way of presenting and considering Kawara's work. It's tempting to group the Today paintings because their forms are so similar. Presenting them far apart from one another must be a far more conscious decision than with the work of someone like Philip Guston, for example, whose paintings underwent massive transformations during his career. By seeing them apart, we are reminded that each painting is in fact unique, something that's easy to forget when they are presented serially. We may also be reminded of their similarities though. It helps to see Kawara's paintings grouped with other paintings of the same period, to be reminded what Frank Stella and Paul Feeley were doing when Kawara painted 19 Jul. 68, and what Bruce Nauman was doing when Feb. 29, 1988 was made. The Today Series is remarkably consistent in the presence of such changing approaches, and all the more remarkable for having remained so over so many decades.

The greatest pleasure for me was to be reminded of the passage of time, to remember that each of these dates is distinct, and represents a real time in the past. Kawara's paintings — whether you see the accompanying newspaper-lined boxes or not — are like time capsules sent out into the world to remind us of our own existence. One day in 1968, On Kawara actually made the day, a day different from all the other days, distinct from the day before and the one after. And here it is for us too see in 2011, 19 Jul. 68, just as it was then, made by a man alive on that day, considered by you and me on this day. Without the progression, from one day in 1968 to another, separate and distinct, in 1978, to yet another, equally unique, just as far removed, in 1988, it’s too easy to see each painting as just another day, one in an endless series of sameness. Fortunately, at the Carnegie, these paintings are much more.