January 9 - February 15, 2020
By RAPHY SARKISSIAN, February 2020
Thus modernist painting preserves what it can of its history, not as an act of piety toward the past but as a source of value in the present and future.1 –Michael Fried
Albeit essentially nonrepresentational, viewing the large-scale painting titled Expo III of Dan Walsh from a distant standpoint may reflexively conjure up a partial silhouette of classic Art Deco-style architecture for instance, appearing as a phantom of the iconic Chrysler Building or that of the Empire State Building in Manhattan, two skyscrapers that have become paragons of modernity. With its lack of ornament, however, the image of Walsh brings itself closer to instances of the International Style, although Postmodernism also remains a plausible association. Yet approaching this methodically executed painting up close in order to examine its formal properties swiftly collapses its architectonic subtext. Walsh has dexterously formulated the high-modernist grid through a geometric sequence of saffron rounded squares against yellow grounds within the two side regions of the vertically symmetrical composition. The surface of the painting attests to Walsh’s unremitting method of applying acrylic paint to canvas through a striking dexterity conditioned by the corporal capacity of the hand, for masking tape is absent from his execution of contours.
The geometric ideality of form and tactile reality of matter have become keenly integrated here, as if Expo III were a testament to the possibility of the duality of the idealist theory of forms of Plato and the concrete reality of particulars of Aristotle. Contrarily, perhaps the painting attests the unattainability of the simultaneity of those ideological polarities. Ultimately, Expo III is an inventively orchestrated pictorial field through which the observer reflects upon the conceivable parameters of pure form, economy of coloration, visual perception, materiality of the medium, technique and dormant referentiality—parameters that are in arresting dialogues with the diverse historical trails of pure abstraction that has now become partly reattached to perspective projection. The composition here comprises an ascending central image that is itself a sum of sequential variants of quadrilateral modules. Yet Walsh has realized such an attentively integrated organization of forms through linearity on the verge of painterliness, malerisch, a term central to the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin’s characterization of the Baroque style that he differentiates from the linear style of the Renaissance. Although this painting of Walsh exhibits an essentially linear tactic in its systematic arrangement of forms, it slyly suggests the painterly as well, transgressing the depersonalization that would become associated with instances of Hard-Edge painting or Minimalism of the sixties and seventies.
A prime figure-ground dialectic governs Expo II, where forty-nine principal circular forms rigorously occupy a table of seven rows and seven columns. While Walsh has maintained an overall chromatic uniformity upon the circular forms here, a methodical coloration of their grounds produces a figment of shading when grasped from a far vantage point. Across the uniformity of the lattice of concentric discs ascends the mirage of a dome due to the arrangement of hues, giving rise to a reciprocation of modernist abstraction and classicism. The checkerboard design and the concentric circles of the image may recall the floor pattern and circular sectors structuring the coffers of the dome of the Pantheon in Rome. With a leap from Piet Mondrian, Joseph Albers, Eva Hesse and Bridget Riley to the Pantheon, the formalist methodology of Walsh triggers allusions to modernist currents now in dialogue with the far past. Expo II circuitously registers as an instance of flat, auto-referential abstraction that nonetheless carries vague suggestions of gradation and chiaroscuro when perceived from a remote perspective; or rather, the painting is on the threshold of conveying a sense of shading yet irrevocably suspends that possibility. An entryway to the classic models of Gestalt theory, Expo II playfully links the tactile reality of flatness to Gestalt psychophysics, cognitive neuroscience and the cerebral cortex.2
Patterns of seventies wallpaper, fifties tiles, Art Deco motifs or textile designs that recall the sixties for instance: such decorative elements are somewhat random associations the observer may project upon Expo I of Walsh, a painting that connects the aesthetics of popular culture to the rigorous postulates of Minimalism. Just as the borderlines of the five cells of each of the five columns progressively increase from one to five along the uppermost row to the lowermost one, so too does the form of the peculiar light-blue motif. Yet now the observer carries on an act of detection in order to determine the logical manner through which the blue motif seems to vary somewhat regularly yet also whimsically in scale, outline and design across the twenty-five blue figures embedded within grounds of grayish tan. Although Expo I decisively integrates the calculated progression, serialization and repetition of Sol LeWitt, an implicit sense of Pop art reinforces Walsh’s pluralist aesthetics that leans upon the historical in order to give way to a singular visual language.
As in the previous three paintings, Sequence maintains vertical symmetry within its composition, where an overall grid-like structure now houses orange, red, violet, red and orange columns as a chromatic palindrome. Horizontal and vertical gray bars, emblematic of meticulous brushwork, compartmentalize the vibrant columns, while these partly translucent bars also appear to be contained within the compartments they have simulated. The bravura of Walsh here consists of the chromatic concretization of figure-ground interchanges: in various instances red may come across as darker in value when adjacent to purple, in contrast to its value when adjacent to orange. The ongoing reciprocation of figure and ground, along with the translucence of the gray bars, at once constitute and dissolve the Gestalt, reminiscing the working note of Maurice Merleau-Ponty: “The Gestalt is not a spatio-temporal individual, it is ready to integrate itself into a constellation that spans space and time—but it is not free in regard to space and time, it is not aspatial, atemporal, it only escapes the time and space conceived as a series of events in themselves.”3
Has a lifebuoy metamorphosed into a Fauvist frame or was it originally a ship’s wheel now transfigured into a Pop-art window in order to imbed a smaller variant of that motif? The interchange between the linear and painterly reaches one of its unconcealed heights in a series of paintings titled Record I, Record II and Record III. However, while the red icons of brushstrokes contained within the blue circular sectors of Record II declare the primacy of painterliness, their stylized forms cunningly refute the legacy of gesturality. Yet the significantly increased expressionistic traces upon the grayish design, nested within the blue, yellow and red pictorial frame, reciprocate the linearity of the outer red guises of brushstrokes.
The pictures of Walsh may trigger possibilities of interpretation of a given painting as a visual portmanteau of De Stijl and Pop, De Stijl and Op, Pop and Op, or Minimalism and Pop. Yet they resolutely suspend the formalist and theoretical underpinnings of such currents, rendering his style as simultaneity of autonomy and referentiality. With a linear syntax on the edge of painterliness, the paintings of Walsh masterfully shift nonrepresentation to the verge of allusion, ready to connect purely optical, sensory impressions to the cerebral cortex, the cosa mentale to the corporeal reality of perception. WM
1. Michael Fried, “Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella” (1965), in Art and Objecthood (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 218.
2. For a recently published book that admirably addresses Gestalt theory through phenomenology and neuroscience, see Wanja Wiese, Experienced Wholeness: Integrating Insights from Gestalt Theory, Cognitive Neuroscience, and Predictive Processing (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2018).
3. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible (1964), trans. Alphonso Lingis (1968; reprint, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1995), p. 205.
Thumbnail credit: Dan Walsh, installation view, Paula Cooper Gallery on West 26 Street, New York, NY. © Dan Walsh. Photo by Steven Probert. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.
Raphy Sarkissian is an artist, writer, curator and art historian currently teaching theory and praxis at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He received his MA from New York University and an MFA from SVA. Sarkissian lives and works in New York and can be followed on Instagram @raphy_sarkisssian.view all articles from this author