“Albers and Morandi: Never Finished” is one of those sublime, museum-quality exhibitions where sight alone is allowed to inform and delight.1 “Museum-quality” might do a disservice, in fact, as the qualities of our museums are increasingly drawn to the verbal, even the hectoring and didactic, over the pictorial. Now on view at David Zwirner, this exhibition is near perfect in its selection, presentation, and insight. The result is stunning, even dumbfounding, in how it shows painting in its own language, on its own terms, and, at its best, speaking across styles in visual conversation.

Although near exact contemporaries—Josef Albers was born in 1888; Giorgio Morandi in 1890—these two artists seemingly painted worlds apart. Albers was theory. Morandi was practice. The hard edges of Albers looked forward. The soft contours of Morandi looked back. Or so we were told. “Never Finished” finds their shared affinities. They shared, for one, the same absorptive palette. Rather than radiate out, pale blues, airy grays, buttery yellows, and earthy browns pull us in. The two artists also approached composition in complementary ways, exploring their own recurring motifs. Simplex munditiis is the phrase that comes to mind from the recesses of high school Latin—the Horatian line that might translate as “simple in its refinements.” Both Morandi and Albers distilled their paintings to their own bare minimums of essential information, each paying respect, one might even say “homage,” to their chosen forms.

Seen together, Morandi brings out the softness of Albers’s line, while Albers reveals the sharpness of Morandi’s shapes. Up close, Albers is all edge, but back away and his squares, despite their flat brushwork, take on a mysterious glow. From afar, Morandi’s still lifes seem extra still, but get closer and those squares, rectangles, and triangles come alive in their own mysterious ways.

Each artist finds a balance in his compositional energies. Albers looked for the tension between figure and frame. In all of his signature “Homage,” just what, precisely, is the “Square,” and what is the frame around it? Beyond the square forms on masonite, here, in certain works, the frames themselves thicken to become part of the overall compositions.

Albers’s designs seem to tunnel inward, often from light outer forms to darker voids. His innermost squares are both absences and presences, forms floating on top that also sink beneath. Morandi finds a similar tension between subject and object. Just what is the “natura” of his “morta”? Is it the canvas itself, so sensuously brushed, or the vessels depicted therein? Here, rather than forward-facing, Morandi’s frames are allowed to recede, with his canvases now floating in the void. As curated by the gallery’s David Leiber, this exhibition makes the most of its space and light. Each room uses paired works and lines of sight to tunnel from one to the next, through evolving moods and tones, in a painterly conversation that is, indeed, “never finished.”

Installation view of “Victor Pesce: Still Life,” Elizabeth Harris, New York. Photo: Elizabeth Harris.

Just up the block from Zwirner, last month at Elizabeth Harris, that small, serious gallery holding out among the megas of Chelsea, “Victor Pesce: Still Life” revealed the life in the stillness.2 With unmistakable homage to Morandi, and perhaps not a little to Albers, Pesce painted basic forms with complex intensity. Created in the last twelve years of his life—Pesce died in 2010 at the age of seventy-one—the works on view depicted blocks and bags, boxes and vases. Over time, a simplicity of means betrays a strangeness of meaning, as these still lifes dissolve into abstractions of oil and ideations of shape. Just what is that haunting green block of Bridge (2007)? Pesce looked for the bones of form. “In the language of painting,” as John Goodrich writes in his catalogue essay, “he found the means of making them rhythmically, vitally alive—known, as a painter might know them.”

Emily Mason, Ancient Incense, 1981, Oil on canvas. Miles McEnery Gallery, New York.

Spread across the gallery’s two Chelsea venues, Miles McEnery last month enlightened the dark days of winter with a luminous husband–wife double-header. “Wolf Kahn: The Last Decade 2010–2020” looked to the artist’s late pastel-like landscapes. “Emily Mason: Chelsea Paintings” opened a window onto the sunny compositions the artist developed in her New York loft, in which she had worked since 1979.3 Taken together, the paired exhibitions honored two artists, married for sixty-two years and both recently deceased, who maintained a connection with Tenth Street and, in their enduring work, each other.

In her nearly square canvases, here dating from 1978 to 1988, Mason lit up her compositions with washes of color that appear like dapples of light. As though illuminated by the sunshine from a window, her oils operate more like photo emulsion, seemingly brightened by luminous rays passing over their surfaces. At their best, as in The Green In Go (1983), these passages open up her designs. Streaks of light pull us into her abstractions that might otherwise be too densely color-filled to unpack.

Wolf Kahn, Against a Red Slope (Large Version), 2018, Oil on canvas. Miles McEnery Gallery, New York.

Mason’s abstract dynamics revealed something about her husband’s landscapes a block away. Late in life, Kahn’s woodsy scenes became a thicket of blowing, branching brushstrokes. The feeling of vernal softness, of a verdure perfumed with yellows, oranges, and greens, went right to his surfaces. Yet Kahn left a hint of depth, a spot of color or light, to signal distance. In Redwoods (2019), a bit of sky viewed through the trees brings us into the scene. In Woodland Density (2019), a blue hill, as though cast in shadow, carves out deeper space. Such glimpses, whether of the horizon or a cabin or a woodland stream, offer just the right destination in the abstract wilderness.

Installation view of “Jill Nathanson: Light Phrase,” at Berry Campbell Gallery, New York. Photo: Berry Campbell Gallery.

Anyone who has ever mixed intensely chromatic paints will notice that the results are not brighter colors but duller murkiness. That’s Color Theory 101. In her alchemical experiments with pigments and polymers, Jill Nathanson looks for ways to prove color theory wrong. Through abstractions created of translucent layers of acrylic, polymers, and oil, which she pours onto panel, Nathanson tries to find the light of her colorful combinations. In “Light Phrase,” her latest exhibition at Chelsea’s Berry Campbell Gallery, on view last month, Nathanson looked to enlarge and refine these fluid forms.4

Unlike the opaque layering of oil on canvas, Nathanson’s translucent media are far less forgiving in their combinations and permutations. Occasionally the experiments go awry. In Sparkshift (2020), shimmering pools of purples, blues, oranges, and reds risk puddling at one point into a brown. In other compositions, such as Through Another’s (2020), color-rich curves make some abrupt turns that feel overly manipulated. The best forms were those that, despite their complex creation, seemed simple, even natural, in occurrence. Take the upward swirl of Tan Transpose (2020) or the sparkling beach glass of Only a Friend (2020). Here were crystal visions filtered through green-, blue-, yellow-, and rose-colored glasses.

Jane Freilicher, Parts of a World, 1987, Oil on linen, Kasmin Gallery, New York.

“Parts of a World” is an apt title for an exhibition of Jane Freilicher’s still lifes. The artist could take on a world of parts and incorporate them into a painted whole. Last month Kasmin Gallery presented fifteen of these still lifes, painted over five decades beginning in the early 1950s.5 In her quotidian visions of fish and flowers, Freilicher often painted the views from her beach-scrub window in Water Mill, Long Island, and her greenhouse-like studio overlooking the rooftops of New York’s East Village. Near and far, inside and out are taken in with equal measure. A single color then connects the disparate parts. What results is a mood, a world of sense and sensation that left me smelling the goldenrod and forsythia and hungry for the oranges and oysters.

Deborah Brown, Melancholia, 2020, Oil on canvas, Anna Zorina Gallery, New York.

It’s been a year for keeping things in house. For the painter Deborah Brown, the household gods of kachina dolls, glass figurines, and pet dogs all become subject matter in her latest, plague-year body of work, on view last month at Anna Zorina Gallery.6 A painter of loose lines and sun-drenched colors, Brown never lost the sense for the light of her Pasadena youth, even when walking her dog Zeus in the industrial business zone of East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Brown looks for the animism in everyday scenes. Twenty-five years ago, for a mosaic series in the Houston Street subway station, she reimagined the train platforms with sea life swimming among the straphangers. Now skewed perspectives of domestic scenes, starring the bric-à-brac we have all rediscovered, find the humor and warmth of a year of staying in.

Installation view of “Tworkov: Towards Nirvana / Works from the 70s,” at Van Doren Waxter, New York. Photo: Van Doren Waxter.

The minimalist 1970s challenged the expressionist 1950s. For Jack Tworkov, at one time a burning young painter of the New York School, the answer was to cool his molten compositions into glass and stone. Now at Van Doren Waxter, “Towards Nirvana / Works from the 70s” collects these prismatic, architectural constructions of black, white, and gray.7 A fine essayist and a chair of Yale’s art department in the 1960s, Tworkov always reflected on art and history and his role within it. This exhibition includes a catalogue essay by the curator Jason Andrew and a sample of Tworkov’s own writing that well represents his broad perspective. It should not have been unexpected that Tworkov, entering the 1970s, would seek a new path. “I am tired of the artist’s agonies,” he remarked in 1974. His answer was to look to systems—the movement of chess pieces or the rules of composition—to distill his abstractions. His wild mark-making became more like hatches, his surfaces like etched planes overlapping and folding in on themselves. The exhibition at Van Doren Waxter reveals the color and heart that still energized these cerebral constructions. A dot of red or dash of yellow electrifies these abstractions far more than some wild expressionist brush.

Installation view of “Sharon Butler: Morning in America,” at Theodore:Art, Brooklyn. Photo: Sharon Butler.

Sharon Butler may have identified the “new casualism” of the outer-borough aesthetic, that studied desultoriness of what we might call the Jefferson Street Touch, but her latest paintings evince a new formalist intent. I like all the buttoning up. In her latest exhibition at Theodore:Art, forms and patterns have matured in her compositions.8 The contingent line has developed into the assured mark. The white holes of Pink (Dec 19, 2018) (2020) play between figure and ground. The rectangles of May 29, 2018 (2020) balance like pickup sticks. Meanwhile her brush handling has replaced freshness with maturity. Surfaces have aged. These paintings have a history. It’s been a year for feeling the years.

1 “Albers and Morandi: Never Finished” opened at David Zwirner, New York, on January 7 and remains on view through April 3, 2021.

2 “Victor Pesce: Still Life” was on view at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York, from January 7 through February 27, 2021.

3 “Emily Mason: Chelsea Paintings” and “Wolf Kahn: The Last Decade 2010–2020” were on view at Miles McEnery Gallery, New York, from January 7 through February 13, 2021.

4 “Jill Nathanson: Light Phrase” was on view at Berry Campbell, New York, from January 7 through February 6, 2021.

5 “Jane Freilicher: Parts of a World” is on view at Kasmin Gallery, New York, from January 21 through March 13, 2021.

6 “Deborah Brown: Things As They Are” was on view at Anna Zorina Gallery, New York, from January 7 through February 13, 2021.

7 “Tworkov: Towards Nirvana / Works from the 70s” opened at Van Doren Waxter, New York, on January 14 and remains on view through March 20, 2021.

8 “Sharon Butler: Morning in America” opened at Theodore:Art, Brooklyn, on January 15 and remains on view through March 7, 2021.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 7, on page 49
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