PRESENT TENSE at Spanierman Modern

Emery Blagdon, Untitled, 1970, 13 1/2" x 17 1/2", enamel & copper wire on wood

Polly Apfelbaum, One Out of a Big Family, 2000, 29" x 20", synthetic fabric & dye on cotton pillowcase

Taro Suzuki, Untitled, 2002-3, 24" x 18", acrylic on canvas

This summer has been alive with numerous group shows that focus on abstract painting – quite an enjoyable development. Still on view until August 2 is “Present Tense”, a wonderful show in midtown at Spanierman Modern. Curated by Don Christensen and Mary Heilmann, it brings together the work of 14 artists, “selected on the basis of their ability to produce instant and visceral responses in the viewer, without the necessity of contextualization". In a previous post, I discussed the work of Don Christensen, and his connection to the outsider artist Emery Blagdon, who spent his life constructing “Healing Machines” – paintings and sculptures that were intended to transmit electromagnetic healing power. This notion of an exchange of energy between the work and the viewer, the primeval shamanic function of the charged object, is a subtext in this show. But rather than being literally stated or illustrated in the work, it is translated into a more contemporary and viable engagement with the inherent ontological properties of processes and materials – artmaking and the artwork as a focused channeling of those archetypal, formal, aesthetic attributes. Not to say that everyone in the show would buy into the same assertions, but the common threads here are a strong emphasis on the visual over the theoretical, prominent attention to materials and process, interest in non-Western and/or folk traditions filtered through Modernist structures, and the promotion of an open interaction between the object and the viewer. There is also an obvious but subtle element of Pop humor in some of the work, which gives the show a nice buoyancy.

In addition to Christensen’s paintings, ornate surfaces constructed of small bits of wood organized into complex geometric compositions, I was particularly struck by the work of Polly Apfelbaum and Taro Suzuki. Apfelbaum showed a group of small pieces that incorporate what appear to be painted cotton balls, flattened and attached to pastel patterned pillow cases. From a distance the colored spots float and undulate in a blue-grayish atmosphere, and up close, the piece transforms into a powerfully obsessive product of some private domestic ritual. Taro Suzuki’s paintings are made by raking layers of cyan, yellow & magenta pigment across the surface, one at a time with a notched implement. While the process sounds rather programmatic (if again obsessive), the results are unpredictable organic, sensuous, smooth surfaces that are in constant optical motion with dancing color.

There is plenty more to see here in a show that is ultimately about the diverse and vital possibilities and the immediate potency of contemporary abstraction.