The Ice House (JDJ)
By appointment only
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, March 2021
Susan Weil’s show takes place at The Ice House, an actual former ice house renovated for art exhibitions in Garrison, a town an hour and a half north of New York by train. The space, not particularly large but with tall ceilings, is home to a very interesting show by Susan Weil, now 90 years old (decades ago, she was the wife of Robert Rauschenberg). Her work is both figurative and abstract, flat and three-dimensional. Weil’s achievement is genuine, and interestingly reflects a mixture of late modernism and the beginnings of contemporary art. To a younger audience, the work might seem inevitably historical, but the energy in the art belies such an interpretation. Instead, we experience the freedom and exuberance of the 1970s, when the earliest works on show were made. These first pieces are simplified abstractions, made in a time of upheaval and experimentation, whose lyricism remains compelling a half century after the works were made.
The experimental aura of the Sixties and Seventies, in both a social and visual sense, cannot be separated from the free-form improvisation available in Weil’s art. An untitled work from 1971, made with spray paint on paper, consists of three organic shapes leaning against each other with an upper background of muted yellow. The shapes’ rounded edges suggest body parts (legs or knee caps), or rocks polished by water; the two on the left are vertical, while the one on the lower right might suggest a knee or a boulder. Another work from 1971, untitled, consists of a gray mass, set at an angle, that fills the center of the composition. On either side of the mass are two narrow red verticals, whose uneven edges face inward, colored a deep red. A small amorphous form of the same color is found in the middle of the work’s bottom edge; on either side of the form is a rounded breast-like shape. One hesitates to assign erotic feeling to so abstract a pattern as this, but the image does come from the very early Seventies, when sexual expressiveness was still strong, proceeding from the Sixties.
Folded paintings, from the very early 1990s, are also on view. They occupy a gray area between painting and sculpture, hanging freely, without support. Weil’s light-handed formalism is not so popular now, but it has the advantage of seriously invoking formal issues without succumbing to their dictates alone. Ever since Johns and Rauschenberg, experience (and, most recently, politics) has been as important as the image itself. In Weil’s case, her cheerful accommodation of form starts to look like a large freedom, given the often narrow spectrum of art now deemed acceptable, determined primarily by social practice. In Flower Folds (1991), an acrylic-on-canvas painting, two large, petal-like forms, hanging upside down, are draped on the wall. The upper petal is the color of pale green grass with a light interior, while the lower blossom is orange, with a purple interior. The work’s lyricism is abundantly evident. An earlier work, Ampersand (1985), looks like a figure, or a scarf, or, with imaginative freedom, like the approximate of an ampersand. The colors are varied: yellow, orange, dark green, brown, and black. It is both a painting and an object, nicely occupying a middle ground between the two.
The most recent works on show are from 2000: paintings on paper that address the human body. The compositions are made up of smaller squares of paper, with part of the body--heads, hands, feet, torsos--painted a light color and rearranged in separate parts. In Black Configuration, the six bodies, three in the upper half and three in the lower half, are rendered in a light hue, with some color (blue mostly, with bits of yellow and red) highlighting the body parts, contrasting with the black background behind them. The elements of the figures are mixed up, as if they belonged to a pocket puzzle with parts to be rearranged into a whole. The bodies are eloquent despite their dislocated state. In Color Configurations 2 (Red), the components of the body are similarly broken up into parts, organized into six horizontal rows. The background is red, and the only intervening images in the composition, besides the separate elements of the figure, are black triangles of pubic hair.
The varying imagery in these groups of work argues in favor of Weil’s ability to transcend genres and visual tropes. It should be said that she is also an excellent book artist--someone who has beautifully illustrated writers such as Rumi and Joyce. The allure of this fine show has a lot to do with its variants in regard to form. Weil’s art belongs to a different era, but that does not make it antiquated. She is someone who approaches her endeavor with an open eye and an open mind; her work conveys enjoyment with memorable effectiveness. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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