Is it possible for beauty to be both calm and intense at the same time? Maybe this is the goal in visual art, and maybe serious beauty in art must be this way. Walking into Ronnie Landfield’s radiant show of new paintings at Findlay Galleries in New York, one is enswathed by both a wave of color intensity and an uplifting sense of peace.1 Many of the paintings go so far as to be both soothing and apocalyptic.
The work immediately engages the viewer through what the best visual art has provided for many centuries: a layered experience on many conscious and unconscious levels. This is far more than is typically on offer these days in art-museum shows of contemporary art, which tend to be one-dimensional assaults of political instruction.
Landfield’s paintings have been imparting their rich vitality since the 1960s, when his career began on the fecund soil of the small and vibrant SoHo-centered artworld of the time. Here several stylistic directions for artists competed. He joined with the most ambitious art of the time, which essentialized the power of visual abstract form, following in the tradition brought to life in New York by Abstract Expressionism and its extension into Color Field styles. Other incipient but influential art movements of the time included political art and conceptual art, both of which sacrificed visual qualities for narrative messaging.
One way in which Landfield made his Color Field painting distinct is that he imbued his abstraction with feelings derived from natural forms of the sky, the mountains, and the sea. Many artists have painted landscapes that receive an aesthetic boost from abstract composition, and many have painted abstractions that overtly or covertly reference landscape. But in Ronnie Landfield’s paintings, abstraction and landscape exist simultaneously and separately in the same space, made by the same paint, in the same shapes, and on the same canvas. If he is not the only artist to achieve this, he is one of very few. His technique continues to show that modern painting, especially modern abstract painting, has great potential for rich evolution.
Such innovation is hard-won and can’t be accomplished by today’s narrow repetitions of pedantic themes. The tradition of Abstract Expressionism, after all, teaches us the importance of freedom united with discipline and artistic ambition guided by the entire history of great art.
Indeed, the word “freedom” is in the titles of three of the artist’s 2022 paintings. The word “across” features in the titles of three other paintings—both words bring attention to the movement of Landfield’s canvases as shown by his sweeping colors and abstract shapes.
In To the Core, layers containing unnameable colored shapes may remind one of mountains, but they need not, as they work as abstract composition very well. The same is true of the large top portion of the painting, which looks like the sky but functions independently and potently as a flowing shape of restless, bluish-colored paint.
The artist has laid in hard-edge strips (not stripes) of color along the bottom and parts of the two sides. This juxtaposition of a hard-edge area and a flowing, loose area stretches far back in his oeuvre and is one of his hallmarks. There are, however, several paintings in this show (e.g., Broad Daylight) that accomplish his particular magic without the use of these hard-edge shapes and just depend on thinly painted, flowing, staining, liquid shapes of color.
Across the Channel clearly references, in both its title and its forms, crossing the English Channel to England or France. This powerful though modest-sized painting seems both to rush at you, in its abstract formal qualities, and to lie somewhat in the distance in its reference to sea, land, and sky. There is a sense that you might be engulfed by a tsunami or swallowed by the stormy sky, or that you might peacefully land at the cliffs of Dover or Normandy—all at the same time.
The high achievement of the paintings in this show is even and throughout. Of special note are the small- scale paintings—not the usual for the artist, who is known for very large ones. This show features mostly medium-scale paintings, any one of which will transmute a normal-sized wall. But in addition there are arresting small ones (e.g., Morning of Time) every bit as good as the larger ones and redolent of a different era of art. Whether this different era is the past, the future, or some other aspect of the present, I don’t know.