Robert Moskowitz, "Recent Work," Feb. 1-Mar. 15, 2003, at Lawrence Markey, 42 East 76th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.
The New York painter Robert Moskowitz has for many years searched for the iconic image, one that can be reduced to its essentials. His process of borrowing images from art historical sources, subjecting them to a severe graphic reduction and reinstalling them within a minimalist field continues to yield concise, enigmatic pictures.
Having explored the emblematic potential of Rodin's The Thinker, Giacometti's Standing Woman and Brancusi's Bird in Space, Moskowitz has now taken on images of antiquity. (Actually, he used an image that resembles a Greco-Roman discus thrower back in the 1980s).
Moskowitz spent the spring of 2002 at the American Academy in Rome as an artist in residence, and this proved to be catalytic in generating a new body of work, much as it did for Philip Guston during his stay in Rome some 30 years ago. This connection is perhaps significant, as Guston's work was considered an important influence on the group of painters brought together 25 years ago in Richard Marshall's 1978 exhibition at the Whitney Museum entitled "New Image Painting."
Robert Atkins, in his indispensable guidebook Artspeak, notes that the exhibition (which included works by Nicholas Africano, Jennifer Bartlett, Denise Green, Michael Hurson, Neil Jenny, Lois Lane, Susan Rothenberg, David True and Joe Zucker) "was derided as a grab-bag of disparate style." Nevertheless, the return to figurative painting after a decade of Minimalism and Conceptual Art helped pave the way to the Neo-Expressionist explosion of the '80s.
For his new work, Moskowitz took an image from Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, specifically the famous gesture in the center of the composition, in which the hand of God extends to give life to the relatively passive hand of Adam. This emblematic gesture serves as a simplified code for the famous artwork, though Moskowitz positions the silhouetted arms and hands at varying distances from each other, altering the implied electrical charge between them.
In some of the variations, Adam's gesture seems to be (dare I say it?) effeminate or affected, even self-consciously limp. In another drawing, the deity's hand seems to be pointing at something, as if to direct our attention, rather than to create life on earth. Moskowitz is toying with the notion of selective appropriation, splicing together potent fragments of art history as a contemporary reassessment of its (multiple) meaning.
Moskowitz has also isolated the plummeting figure from the Tomb of the Diver, a fresco that dates from the 5th century B.C., from Paestum in southern Italy. The fresco was painted originally for an ancient "sports and leisure complex" in Paestum, which 200 years later housed a piscine, or swimming pool. In the original, the lone figure appears to be diving into a small circle of water, but Moskowitz's diver has no such luxury -- he plunges into a void.
Moskowitz fixes on the dramatic moment when the diver, suspended in his leap of death, displays total concentration in the face of impending doom. Perhaps the artist considers this is a philosophical meditation as well as a graphic equivalent for the artist at work; a leap of faith. Displayed in his Rome studio, these drawings resemble film stills, from close-ups to distant shots, of the diver's interminable descent.
The paintings that resulted from these studies seem almost like collages in the way that solid shapes are placed against monochrome color grounds. Both paintings on view at the gallery include abstract geometric elements -- one has a Barnett Newman-like zip down the side -- that reassert the flatness of the picture plane, contradicted only by the suggestion of form.
In one painting, Adam's hand extends from the upper edge of the canvas, as if to reach for a black square on the opposite side of the painting, against a rust orange field, reminiscent of the earthen color of archaic South Italian pottery. On further inspection, one notices two small black dots positioned at the lower corners; maybe in the spots where the pushpins were in a previous study.
The effect, though, is to restate the abstract disposition of the picture; these forms coexist in apparent harmony, though coming from disparate worlds. Similarly in the other painting, a bright yellow field with a black diving figure positioned against one edge and a flat black bar against the other, the figure is suspended in time and space, perhaps once again a stand-in for the artist, the performer caught in the act of creation.