baybel, 1996

zohnalfloh, 1996

purfikt, 1996 

suzanne mcclelland  
at paul kasmin 
by Robert Mahoney

Suzanne McClelland has made a special niche 
for herself in abstract painting by 
fashioning the architecture of her 
pictorial space with expressive words. In 
previous series, McClelland has 
concentrated on the ear-ringing impact of 
definitive utterances that people say in 
moments of crisis. A single word--like 
"no," "sure, sure, sure" or "any more"--
using the metaphor of its echoing effect, 
filled the canvas and controlled its space. 
That word then grew into an exuberant web 
of new life that sometimes seemed to 
predict a rebirth for the abstract program. 
Her new body of work has a different 
energy. The catalog essay accompanying the 
exhibition makes reference to the mythos of 
the Tower of Babel and its allegory of a 
verbal-architectural challenge to God, who, 
insulted, scattered a single voice into 
many languages. A series of works here is 
called "baybel," and would seem to hoist 
itself up on the notion of a challenge. But 
in truth McClelland's words are no longer 
challenging and controlling her space: in 
fact, these canvases are interesting, 
intriguing, dramatic but, for the artist, 
dangerous, because it feels like she is on 
the other side of the challenge lost, her 
once singular voice scattered by 
acknowledgment of a greater power. 
The power that scatters language here is 
nature: evoked by a heavy use of weathering 
effects on the canvases. Some of these 
artifacts of McClelland's new word-ark were 
left out in the rain, others inspired by a 
road trip which included the vistas of the 
waste of the Dakotas and whips of the winds 
of the plains. These meteorological sub-
voices are now calling the shots, pushing 
letters every which way, breaking down the 
presumption of architecture, control, power 
and emotional breakthrough. The expressive 
wind-rotations are further emphasized by 
the use of charcoal, which lends a sullen, 
blown-away quality to some canvases. The 
powers that be also twist letters into 
phonetic scrambles like "baybel" and 
"zohnalfloh" (the name of a wind) and in a 
series of drawings seem to force nature 
itself to get up, call out a letter, and 
walk with it. 
When McClelland was first shouting out her 
challenge to the world, many critics did 
not hear the voice and only saw the form. 
She was thus often easily assimilated as a 
latter-day Cy Twombly, soon to mount a 
challenge to "God" (exemplifying the 
ultimate logos). I always sensed more the 
SOS cry in her work: a cry that would rent 
open the old order and bring on something 
new. Yet I expected the SOS to break 
through and then establish a new order. Now 
that an SOS millennial time has come, and 
people are daily forsaking rational 
constructs for a return to intuitive, 
religious and even mystical/superstitious 
beliefs, McClelland has surprised both 
herself and her admirers by having 
acknowledged resistance from Logos (order), 
and a rebuff. Her way of painting has 
experienced a scattering into a many-
tongued babble. These paintings therefore 
represent the beginning of a wandering, of 
a finding of a new voice, of life after the 
incident at Babel. For the art world, for 
America, for the world, for the 20th 
century, they are intensely true to the 
Paul Kasmin, New York
Mar. 2 - Apr. 6, 1996
Robert Mahoney is a New York art critic who 
also works as public information officer at 
the Queens Museum.