Judaism began as a religion fully subservient to one God, which did not acknowledge the hope of an afterlife. Working out the contradictions of a hopeless hope in the Creator has been the conundrum of the rabbis of the Talmud, the Kabbalah, the mystics of 19th-century Eastern Europe and is now the subject of a dual show "Irving Petlin: A Retrospective," which has just opened at Jan Krugier and also opens at Richard L. Feigen and Co. on Feb. 9, 2010.
Even at an advanced age, Irving Petlin is handsome, ramrod straight, with a shock of white hair. Irving was a contemporary of Richard Diebenkorn and a friend of Leon Golub, and has been a mentor to many painters through his years of teaching at UCLA and elsewhere. Even though this show is justly titled "a retrospective," Petlin's strongest work is quite recent and the theme of both shows is profoundly provocative, because Irving depicts a pictorial interstice between the shtetl and the camps. One pastel, titled The White Smoke over the Village Turns to Feathers, sums up this duality, as the picture itself summarizes the comfort of some village houses in the foreground, foreshadowing the peopled smoke of the ovens on the horizon.
The method by which Petlin paints comforts the viewer, a splayed spray of gouaches sinking into paper. If a harmony of abstraction were all that Petlin were aiming for, his work would be quotidian, but it is the introduction of small, humble figures, a method employed by painters from Paul Klee to Ellen Gallagher, that infuses Petlin's paintings with power.
The Wells of My Brother for example, depicts a fraternal genuflection bursting out of the pale sunlight that dominates many of Petlin's best pictures. In other pictures, figures resembling oysters appear to be dead or sleeping, awaiting God. When Jacob wrestled with the angel, he asked the angel, "What is your name?" for to name someone is to know that being and have some control.
It is the mission of Irving Petlin the painter to bring his name to God's attention through his work, throwing the deadly ambiguity of suffering, in a formal, respectful manner, back in God's face without even asking "Why?" The evidence of two uptown shows is that Petlin has succeeded.
"Irving Petlin: A Retrospective," Feb. 2-Apr. 2, 2010, at Jan Krugier Gallery, 980 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021. Part two of the show opens on Feb. 9, 2010, at Richard L. Feigen & Co., 34 East 69th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021. "Irving Petlin: Major Paintings 1979-2009" is also currently on view at Kent Gallery, 541 West 2th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).