Like Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, the painter Pat Passlof has been historically remembered as the artist-wife of a more famous artist-husband: Milton Resnick, whom she married in 1961. But the current retrospective of Passlof’s career, on now at the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation, makes a compelling case that, considered alone and on her own merits, Passlof stands tall indeed. Curated by The New Criterion’s own Karen Wilkin (who has also contributed an insightful essay to the exhibition’s catalogue), “Pat Passlof: The Brush is the Finger of the Brain” (on view through April 11) makes full use of the Foundation’s three floors of gallery space. (The building, a converted synagogue in Manhattan’s Chinatown, originally served as Resnick’s home and studio.) Here Passlof is revealed to be an endlessly varied artist, one whose sensitive touch and searching, investigative sensibility never prevented her from making paintings that were powerful and athletic. These paintings reward prolonged and attentive looking.
Born in Georgia in 1928, Passlof was raised in New York City, where she came under the spell of Willem de Kooning’s early abstract work as an undergraduate. Having caught the avant-garde bug, Passlof quit her studies at Queens College and enrolled at the experimental Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina. On Black Mountain’s secluded Appalachian campus Passlof received instruction from de Kooning and Josef Albers, the celebrated painter and Bauhaus-style art educator. (This short-lived but influential institution was a veritable breeding ground for the avant-garde: other students and teachers included Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Ruth Asawa, Dorothea Rockburne, Robert Motherwell, Buckminster Fuller, and Franz Kline.)
Passlof’s early paintings, many of which are assembled on the exhibition’s top floor, bear the influence of reigning figures such as de Kooning and Arshile Gorky. Here we find examples like March Bird, a small but muscular canvas from 1956, with large blocks of distinct color painted with what Clement Greenberg would later call the “Tenth Street Touch,” describing the loaded-brush mannerism so in vogue in New York at that time. But by the late fifties, Passlof breaks open onto her own path—guided, it seems, by an abiding interest in the expressive potential of color and calligraphic density. In Red Eye (1959), for instance, we find less of the linear momentum and drama produced by cutting diagonals and strong contrasts of value and tone, replaced instead by subtle color gradations and slowly built veils of marks. This predominantly green canvas flecked by nearly buried moments of hot red and orange, like still-warm embers peeking through a hearth of cooling ash, prefigures future works in which what lies just beneath our immediate attention is often of central importance.
On the exhibition’s second floor, we get a number of huge, panoramic canvases from the early sixties to the late nineties. The room is a delight to behold—filled with light and color. Sky Pasture, a long, maximalist work from 1961, is populated with turbulent shrouds of variously colored calligraphies that are—despite the title—dense and earthy in different moments. In its undulating directional momentums, Keeping Still Mountain (1971–72), a very dark work with a more contained, predominantly hunter-green palette, evokes Turner’s late, stormy mists, yet at the same time retains an antipodal tranquility. This underlying dual sense of movement and stillness, agitation and calm, recapitulates itself throughout the exhibition. Untitled (1995–96), a frieze-like arrangement of blocked-in horse and centaur shapes within a mostly pinkish-brown field of paint, shows us Passlof leaning her abstract language against unmistakably figurative elements. (A few more figurative examples can be found in this exhibition, and a number of others can be found in a concurrent exhibition of Passlof’s works on paper, on now through Sunday at the New York Studio School.)
Untitled also shows us Passlof engaging directly with repetition and pattern, structuring devices that become progressively more prominent in the painter’s later years. On the exhibition’s first floor we find Hawthorne (1999), a beautiful, web-like arrangement of variously straight, arcing, and wriggling lines; Bear (1997–98), which combines twenty-some unconnected short white diagonals and fifteen or so small, black, button-like forms on a rusty orange surface; and Hells Zapoppin (1999), a blue painting of various overlaying black and magenta and white columns, among a number of other works. While this inclination towards repetition gives the paintings a sort of cool stability less prevalent in earlier examples, never do these underlying structures inhibit or fully control Passlof’s hand or eye.
Indeed, Passlof’s distinct aversion to any sort of painterly system seems most evident in the way she subtly but unmistakably upsets the patterns and orders that these pictures initially promise. For Passlof, resisting any sort of a priori system was essential to her project as a painter, which instead plumbed the more experiential and unpredictable wellsprings of touch and sight. Passlof was a greatly admired teacher of painting, and this resistance to overtly conceptual systems seems to have informed her pedagogy as it did her own practice. A frequently wielded adage, from which the title of this exhibition has been pulled, has Passlof telling her students, “If you can think it, don’t bother doing it. Think with a brush—the finger of your brain.” Viewing this retrospective, we sense that Passlof has succeeded in walking the talk, not only in the great stylistic variety that runs like a vein through this entire retrospective, but also in the uniquely sensitive and felt integrity of each brushstroke.