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by Michael Brennan
A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is, therefore, a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world.
I walked into the building at 101 Spring Street thinking David Novros was some kind of spook. Not a spook like a ghost, although I was thinking of ghosts since this was Donald Judd's building, and I had seen Dan Flavin's sculpture blazing on the top floor in a memorial just a few months ago. I was thinking of Novros as a spook like some kind spy, like a KGB mole who marks mailboxes with chalk to let his comrades know that there is something cooking.
Once, some time ago, I had a lousy basement studio in the building next to Judd's, and my friend Matthew Ritchie had an equally miserable basement studio on the other side of Mercer Street. We both admired Judd as an artist, but there was also an inescapable envy from knowing that Judd, years before he became famous, had been able to purchase the entire building for a mere $65,000. He might have well as bought the building for a string of glass beads.
I was thinking Novros was like a spook because in some sense it seemed that he had disappeared. I knew he was around, and not really underground. I had heard that he was working on long-term projects -- large painted murals in his studio, and I knew that he was working on new things. But I didn't know what he was doing exactly and I didn't know him. I knew of him because Novros always kept great company, and his name kept reappearing in old art magazines, which I like to pour over.
In 1966, at age 25, Novros showed at Park Place and Dwan Gallery (which represented Ad Reinhardt at the time) and then had a string of solo exhibitions at Bykert Gallery and elsewhere throughout the 1960s and early '70s. Novros also participated in several important museum shows, like "Systemic Painting" at the Guggenheim (1966) and "Color as Structure" at the Whitney (1971), and was included in Documenta 5 in 1972 in Kassel. His work was written about by every important critic, and was widely collected both publicly and privately. So the question I was left with was where was he and what was he working on now?
I walked into Judd's building at 101 Spring because I knew Novros' first break-away work of art was permanently located there. It was a fresco that Judd had commissioned in 1969 for the building's second floor. Novros' embrace of fresco, a technique typically associated with the early Renaissance, was a radical move for a modern painter, but necessary to Novros' investigation of the entire history of painting, and to his intention to create a more permanent "painting-in-place." The turn to fresco led Novros to the fullest work of his career thus far, and was the first step in placing his work outside the confines of the conventional gallery system. Of that period in art Richard Serra once flatly noted, "The context was the issue, not the stretcher."
The fresco at 101 Spring is a blocky patchwork of warm, earthy color with well-considered volume, proportions and scale. Among its forms is a right-angled L shape, not unlike a carpenters' square, which is a recurring motif throughout much of Novros' work, usually bracketing a square or rectangle. The fresco looks spectacular in daylight, and softly absorbs all the harshness of direct sunlight, which somehow reinforces the permanence of its presence by lending it the look of something more particular to Padua, rather than New York City.
The fresco manages to convey a sense of humanity associated with Renaissance art, and yet it remains true to its time in its Minimal execution. I am convinced Novros has made a painting that will prove of great value to art for many years to come -- in spite of some unforeseen water damage. When you share Judd's considerable anxiety over the scarcity of permanently located works in New York by artists as important as Newman and Pollock, you realize the foresight involved in this project.
My next trip was to Newark, New Jersey. I took a Path train to Union Station in order to see another Novros painting, his Solar Triptych, which opens and closes according to the hour of the day, and has been permanently positioned high above the grand waiting room lobby of the station since 1984. This radial triptych [shown here fully unfolded] is fitted into an apse and has a triangular image like a metronome in its largest central panel. A line is casting out across the horizon from atop the pyramid's point, and is sweeping across the sky like Apollo rising from an overheated, reddening green earthy core right of center and moving towards a darkening, agitated star cluster just beginning to spiral away on the left.
The painting displays all the invisible elemental fury associated with the normal daily turning round of our planet. Solar Triptych is an opportunity for commuters to glimpse a bigger picture, something they'll soon be deprived of once inside an office somewhere, in a city of compacting vision and outdoor enclosed spaces. Novros' paintings provide us secondary vistas, views towards the real. But I have to say, when I looked around the lobby I didn't see too many people, seated or standing, tilting their heads the extra four degrees up just to have a look.
When I finally walked into Novros' studio on Broome Street I felt like I was walking into a cave. Now I'm not describing some dark and dingy place full of bats and wet rocks, but more like a special secret retreat, a place apart and away from the noise of the street and the chattering world. I suspect his studio is just over 2,000 square feet, a rectangle extending straight back. It is a classic loft.
More surprising are the floor-to-ceiling multi-panel paintings than line either long wall. They are large and atmospheric, but they incorporate Novros' L-shape and other geometric planes. The surfaces of the paintings betray their age, like the neck of an old woman, they are not overworked, however, they appear quite judicious in their accumulation. These are definitely the fullest paintings I have seen by a living artist in a long time. I believe some of these paintings have been underway for at least 10 years or longer, which lends them qualities rarely seen among art in either Soho or Chelsea, where work is constantly being churned out to answer the demands of the marketplace.
In addition to a residual glow achieved by multiple layers of thinly applied paint, these studio paintings also reveal some extreme paint-handling that has all the verve of late Pollock, where searching shorthand marks clump, clot and bind in a manner that mimics nature in her majestic method of operation. Novros' paintings are as satisfying as the Old Masters, yet they are clearly modern paintings of our time, though perhaps not of our moment. These paintings raise the question of what is durable in modern art. They ask, What images have the most meaning over the longest period of time?
Novros' painting has a nativistic American quality that seems very grand and authentic. I would liken it to the work of his contemporaries Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, especially in their collective preoccupation with the West, where Novros spends much of his time, and also in their appreciation of ancient American cultures. This mantle has been left untouched by most every American painter since Pollock and Still, and yet it would seem to offer unlimited potential to any artist.
The notion of a native inheritance may seem corny, and perhaps vulgar, and not at all urbane, but the spirit of the whole thing, that longer non-European history of America is available to everyone, and it lies just underneath the thin Pop Americana surface that dominates our look-alike systemscape. I think the spiritual content of Novros' painting resides in the most Western context of his work. He is extending this approach to architecture as well, as can be seen in the several clay models he has made for buildings on an as-yet-undiscovered site. One of Novros' more recently realized projects involved several painted glass windows for the Gross building in Winslow, Arizona.
Novros' newer series of copper paintings have all the planetary scale of the West, with their sun disc shapes and Indian reds. All of these projects deal in an American mystique that is sorely absent from most contemporary art. An abstract painter can be influenced by Sienese painting, or fashion, or art from the Four Corners region, but in the end the only thing that matters is what level of transformation is achieved by the artist, does that myth overcome the material?
Novros' completed projects range from a 1972 mural at MOMA and a famous 1975 show with Brice Marden and Mark Rothko at the de Menil-sponsored Rice Institute in Houston to more recent works in cities like Miami, Atlanta and Charleston. Scanning these enterprises, it becomes clear that Novros is an important artist, albeit underknown and undershown here in New York City. His work is still strong, and the historical context has already been established. Why does he remain an invisible man? Again, I think it's because as he made decisions that were determined by the needs of the art, beginning with that first fresco at 101 Spring, he and the commercial art market, which likes portable objects, soon parted ways. Ideally, museums ought to pick up the slack, but I suppose that's another conversation altogether. To his credit Novros has tried to create situations in which the work may be seen on its own.
My favorite hardware store is located on Broome Street and, as coincidences happen, it lies directly across the way from Novros' studio. I can't help but look towards his window as I frequent the store, and I'm always curious whether or not the studio lights are on or off. In either case, I know I'll catch a glimpse of an ever-changing center panel of the triptych that stands upright and unfolded, catching all the light that passes through the center window, and remains there, standing like a sentinel.
David Novros' painting is both beautiful and relevant, and it should be seen by everyone, somewhere, sooner than now. Now I'm left with a secret, something wonderful, but poisoned with contempt for an ignorant art scene that will longer make room for an artist whose career was cultivated in its marketplace, whose capital solution for older artists at large is some stupid Gottlieb grant designed to reward the luckless, or hapless, in perpetuating their rendering of the invisible, art for the studio rack.
Let me recover. I walked into Novros' studio searching for the invisible man of the art world, and recent painting history, and I left with my eyes wide open to an art, striking and ambitious -- of powerful beauty, unseen by any public audience. Remember I walked into the studio looking for a spook, and instead I found a restless man making paintings that are alive and inspired, intensely private, but ready for public sight in site. Until that time, I'll take what I've seen and keep it with mine.
MICHAEL BRENNAN is a New York painter who writes on art.