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Giles Lyon
at Feigen Contemporary

Barnett Newman's "Stations of the Cross" in the Guggenheim Museum,
1966, from Barnett Newman (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Brice Marden
Epitaph Painting 5
at Matthew Marks Gallery

Karin Davie paintings in the back room of Mary Boone Gallery

Jenny Hankwitz
at Cheryl Pelavin Fine Art

Peter Halley's Clue (2002) on his Explosion Wallpaper
The Abstract Imperative
by Charlie Finch

Hunter College's open studio exhibition last Friday night featured a giant Cibachrome of a penis covered in donut powder, and a performance by a naked man running full tilt into walls.

Wall Street Journal culture editor Jonathan Dahl tapped us on the shoulder, "You've got to see this, Charlie." Jonathan led us into a spare, bare white room, limned solely by 20-foot strands of recording tape, blowing in an air flow provided by a couple of fans. The artist's name was just "Zilvinas."

Jonathan smiled, "Isn't it great?"

We know the feeling. The night before we wandered into Giles Lyon's well-attended vernissage at Feigen Contemporary.

Here were Giles' muscular exertions in heavy Pop colors on thick dark canvas duck. We journeyed down the stairs and, on the landing, spotted a small red Lyon acrylic on paper, redolent of Sam Francis.

We had to have it, and since the price was quite reasonable, we did. Such is the abstract imperative.

Jackson Pollock put it best once, in the New Yorker, "Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you. A reviewer wrote that my pictures didn't have any beginning or any end. That was a fine compliment, although he didn't know it."

There is a primal sense that the soul's salvation, if any, is bound up in the hidden rationality of abstraction. Barnett Newman began his "Stations of the Cross" after his first heart attack in 1958, without knowing what his subject matter was going to be.

Looking back, Newman described his initial purpose as "coming to terms with the raw canvas as a color in itself."

When he completed the fourth painting in the series, something clicked on his heretofore vague journey.

"I realized," he told ARTnews, "that my whole purpose was 'Eli, Eli'," the last cry of Christ. Newman required 14 separate paintings to thus identify with Jesus as a mortal, suffering Jew.

The urgency of Newman to make the abstract comprehensible, however short we may fall, manifests itself once more in New York this month, through the work of artists celebrated and unknown.

On the one hand, Brice Marden commands both of Matthew Marks' Chelsea spaces, opening May 3.

On the other, six young unknown women abstractos, including Andrea Corson and Polly Giragosian, open "Funky Abstraction" at the Elsa Mott Ives Gallery on East 53rd Street, April 30.

The great Karin Davie shows a 12-year retrospective of her yearning, wavy, loopy drawings at Mary Boone uptown, looking back on Karin's glory years at the late, lamented Fawbush gallery, opening May 2.

And the almost as talented, but more obscure Jenny Hankwitz debuts glistening waves of color at Tribeca's Cheryl Pelavin space, also opening May 2.

Master printer Alex Heinrici has been churning out right-angled wallpaper for Peter Halley's first major New York gallery show in a decade, opening at Mary Boone Chelsea May 4 and positioned for maximum auction-week impact.

And the topper is Ellsworth Kelly's "Tablet," the complete '50s, '60s and '70s sketchbooks, opening at the Drawing Center on May 2.

No one could transform the streets of Paris or the wharves of Wall Street back into their abstract essence more skillfully than the Kelly of those years.

Photography may reign, video may play and sex may frissonate through art's multiple New York worlds, but the soul wants answers, and they are, and always will be, abstract.

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).